Instead of lively dinner and office parties at our favorite restaurants, many of us will be ringing in the holidays at home this year. But that doesn’t mean we can’t impart the same festive glow and extra touch of class to our private events. We turned to the pros at Lumière, the French-inspired American brasserie at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, for tips on how to elevate an at-home holiday meal and transform it into an unforgettable celebration. As General Manager Paul Quinn and Beverage Manager CJ Catalono reveal, it’s all about planning, paying attention to the details, and adding special touches to make yours the most memorable party of the season.
1. Plan your menu. Chef Franey says a celebratory holiday dinner menu should go all out and should include small nibbles and bites for cocktail hour, appetizers and salads, a showcase meat or fish entrée, vegetable side dishes, sauces and accompaniments and, of course, a holiday-themed dessert.
2. Go shopping. Get all of your shopping done at least two days in advance, saving only things like herbs and lettuces to purchase the day before. If you’re worried about having enough space in the refrigerator, a large cooler with ice will keep perishable foods cold for a few days.
3. Prep your space. Clean your kitchen and clear countertops before you start cooking so you have a clear space and clear mind. Sharpen knives and set up your cutting board. Have your pots, utensils, oils, salts and peppermill set up and ready at your cooking station so you don’t have to start and stop while you are cooking.
4. Outsource. If you’re pressed for time, outsource as many tasks as you can. Have wine and groceries delivered. Have a flower arrangement made and delivered. Hire a cleaning service for before and after dinner.
5. Run a BLAM checklist. Paul Quinn says home hosts should run through a BLAM list. It stands for bathroom, lights, atmosphere, and music. Clear out personal items from the bathroom and have plenty of guest towels at the ready. Test lighting at the same time of day as your event to make sure it’s flatteringly dim, cozy and inviting. For atmosphere, create natural “congregation areas” where people can stand and sit outside the flow of traffic. Prepare several playlists so the music fits the mood as the evening progresses.
6. Start prepping and cooking. Prep all your ingredients for the following day by cutting vegetables and thawing meat. Prepare anything you can the day before, as long as you can do so without affecting the integrity of the dishes. For example, you can make most desserts ahead, as well as sauces that can be reheated.
7. Uncover your protein. Leave your main course protein uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. For large poultry, such as turkey or goose, this allows the skin to shed moisture, making it easier to attain a beautiful, crispy skin. Large roasts can also benefit from drying the exterior. This keeps them from sitting in their juices and helps form that glorious crust during the cooking process.
8. Pre-mix cocktails. Beverage Manager Catalono suggests offering one or two cocktails, plus a non-alcoholic option. Stirred cocktails are preferred because they can be made in advance. Batch spirits and sweeteners the day before, and if you estimate that your party will consume all the cocktails, go ahead and add citrus, if applicable, and any dilution, such as club soda or tonic water. One caveat to the pre-mixing rule? “Never batch bitters!” says Catalono. Those should be stirred in as the drinks are poured over ice, just before serving.
9. Harvest the ice. Whichever cocktail you serve, plan for ice. Estimate how much ice you’ll need and then double it. If you’re making ice, get a head start in the days leading up to your party by “harvesting” ice and storing it in an extra freezer. Otherwise, buy it and store it in advance. There’s no way to make ice quickly if you run out before the second round of cocktails!
10. Set the table. Take out your best serving pieces and dust or polish them the day before. Iron the tablecloth and cloth napkins. When deciding how to decorate the table, don’t forget about sight lines. Quinn advises keeping pieces no taller than eight inches. Also remember to allow space for platters and other serving pieces, as well as bottles of wine and glassware. For beauty and efficiency, use service pieces as décor. That antique tart stand will look lovely full of fresh figs, for example.
11. Fire up the oven and stove. Start by cooking all your oven-roasted vegetables to reheat and serve later, leaving your oven free for the main entrée. (Note that some vegetables, such as mashed potatoes, are better when served freshly made, closer to guest arrival.) Start your roast or poultry at least four hours before mealtime. While the main course is cooking, you can start making sides, vegetables and sauces on the stove. After the entrée is done, take it out and let it rest. Reheat cold sides. Turn your oven down to a warm setting and keep all dishes, including the main entrée, hot before serving.
12. Meet and greet. As guests arrive, take coats, bags and any host/hostess gifts they may have brought. If a guest brings wine, unless it’s gift-wrapped, serve it that evening. Usher everyone into the pre-dinner cocktail and nibbles area and set them up with a colorful drink.
13. Keep an eye on the time. Subtly keep your eye on the clock and plan to move everyone from the cocktail and hors d’oeuvres space to the dining table at an appointed hour. This not only keeps your evening moving as planned, but it also keeps guests from drinking too much at cocktail hour or filling up on snacks.
14. Reset the table for dessert. Once everyone has finished with dinner, usher them back to the cocktail area or another gathering space for a digestif. Italian amaros are in vogue right now. This gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs and use the restroom, and it gives you a chance to quickly clear off the dining table and reset it for dessert. Call guests back in for dessert and coffee and then relax. The hard part is over!
15. Have a plan for downtime. If no one seems in a hurry to leave, have some entertainment planned, such as party or board games. But be sure to read the room. If everyone is content around the dinner table and enjoying another glass of wine and lively conversation, making them participate in a game they’re not interested in is a quick way to kill a party!
Elizabeth Heath is a US-born writer and editor now based in Umbria, from where she writes about la bella vita in Italy, Europe and beyond. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure, HuffPost and many other outlets.