Heart palpitations. Sink overflowing with dishes while a pot simmers and sputters on every available burner. Oven ablaze. Covered in flour. No make up, perspiring, hair in my eyes, and begging my boyfriend to run last minute errands: Ice! Dammit, fresh thyme! We’re out of dish soap!
This is, roughly, what the day of my early dinner party efforts looked like. I was an ambitious college girl, and my early fêtes were—let's face it—exercises in mayhem. But a decade later, I’ve learned.
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What I do the day of a dinner party is now a product of what I’ve done in the days and weeks before, which is basically everything. Unlike in the early years, the day of is now breezy à la Mrs. Dalloway (I get the flowers myself).
In the month, weeks, and days leading up a party I’ve done everything: invited guests, planned a loose menu (I like to finalize it when I see the produce at the farmer’s market the week of), made a shopping list, compiled a playlist for the night’s vibe, shopped, written out a cooking schedule and done all cooking and food prep that can possibly be done (the menu is largely written to be make-ahead friendly), designed my tablescape, and assigned serveware to each dish on the menu.
A few days before, I give the house a good cleaning and put everything in its place. If I didn’t have deviant cats, I’d even set the table, save for the greenery or flowers, the night before. Alas, unless I want cat paws on my guests' plate, I have to refrain, because who knows what they do under the cover of night.
The day of is about calmness, cleanliness, and any cooking that couldn’t be done ahead without the food suffering. I wake up, shower, dress in my work clothes and apron, check my lists, and mentally walk through the schedule and dinner party. I imagine it in my mind; this quells any butterflies. And I usually remember something I've inevitably forgotten like ice or fresh herbs to garnish. I run last minute errands like picking up greenery or flowers on my way home; I don’t get them the day before because I don’t want them to have the slightest opportunity to wilt on me. Flowers can be temperamental—especially hydrangeas. I arrange them and set them up high where the aforementioned felines can’t make an afternoon snack of them.
All day long I make sure to keep an organized mise en place for everything and clean as I go, washing dishes and unloading the dishwasher as needed. I don't want guests to arrive with chaos in my kitchen! (While that’s happened to me plenty of times, it’s worth avoiding.)
A couple of hours before the party, I corral the cats in the bedroom, set the table completely, get dressed, and do my make-up (by which I mean put on mascara). The hour before, I finish any last minute cooking, set out appetizers, and make sure any bar setup is ready to go. I also make sure to open wine so it can breathe and set out any cheese I might be serving with enough time for it to come to room temp (cheese’s flavor is at its best if it isn’t cold). At that point it’s time to light candles, tidy one last time, take off the apron, and transition from kitchen wench to host. (I’m more at home as a kitchen wench, but I always make sure I’ve created a menu that won’t have me running back and forth, that will allow me to sit with my friends and enjoy our time together, since that’s the point of a dinner party, after all.)
Finally, when the last lingering guest has left, I tackle clean up. The morning after, you’ll be glad you already did it. At the very, very least give everything a rinse before you pass out. I won’t pretend I leave the kitchen immaculate—ever.
Beth Kirby is the creator, writer, and photographer at the blog Local Milk.