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As a guest at large-scale events like weddings and cocktail parties, it's tempting to stick to the sidelines: drifting between the bar, the mini crab cake table, and the restroom, maybe nobody will notice that you're really just snooping around for entertaining tips. How do those buffet flames stay blue? How have they not yet run out of booze? Is that another tray of steak?
Your host, on the other hand, wants nothing more for you to relax and have fun—and the secrets to throwing a party so successful it feels effortless are well-guarded by the best. Enter Andrew Cavitolo and Bobby Stern, the CEO and President of Special Events for Riviera Caterers, a company that pulls off celebrity dinners and enormous cocktail hours (for clients like Nike, Bentley, and Google to name a few) with ease. In fact, they're the oldest catering business in New York City.
They know how to throw a big party, and let us in on some of their best tips. So whether you're planning a wedding or just readying to feed an army this holiday season, take these tips from the professionals to heart:
1) Buck the buffet.
"A buffet leads to waiting in line!" Andrew says, explaining that for home entertaining family style is much more intimate and efficient, even on a slightly larger scale. "If you're doing more of an open-seating cocktail party you have to go towards buffet, but not if it's a seated dinner." A buffet makes it harder to regulate food temeratures, among other sources of angst.
2) Choose recipes that don't all need to be served hot.
Especially if you're trying to cook food in advance of the event, Andrew says "the hardest thing is keeping everything hot"—and you don't want to be stuck worrying if it's sat out too long, or is drying out in a warming drawer. To prevent stress, he recommends serving a dinner with only one (or just a few) dishes that need to be served hot, and let everything else come out at room temperature.
A grilled skirt steak can be the start of a taco bar, as can roasted vegetables and chicken—all of which are just as good if they aren't piping hot. Stay away from seafood, he warns: "Fish is always the most delicate!"
3) Err on the side of having extras.
"I mean, you really don't want to run out," Bobby laughs, "I always believe more is more—then you won't have to run out to get extra, and you'll have amazing lunch for the next 4 to 5 days." Extra meats can be frozen, leftovers sent home with guests (or skillet-fried for breakfast with eggs).
4) If you're serving meat, stretch a buck by slicing it thin.
Bobby explains that guests will take the same number of slices (about 3) no matter how thick or thin the steak is cut—so always slice it a little thinner to maximize the dollars you've put into that piece of meat.
"The biggest thing, the most expensive will be the protein," Andrew says, "but you can do vegetables and salads a hundred different ways." And if you are going to serve meat, "It doesn't have to be a filet or a tenderloin! You can get a strip loin and marinate it for just as much (if not more) flavor."
5) Prep ahead, even more than you think you should.
Andrew is adamant: "Do as much behind the scenes as you possibly can—that's the key to the success of a big event." Even if you need to finish a dish before guests arrive, chop your mis-en-place the night before, batch cocktails in wine carafes and store them in the fridge, and toss dishes that can marinate overnight.
6) Buy and cook in disposable aluminum trays—then toss them when you're done.
No, they're not the prettiest, but if you're serving a crowd the same large aluminum baking dishes that caterers use can be a lifesaver. "We try to use as many as we can," Andrew says. "There are also really high end disposable plates that can all go in the compost afterwards. Try to make it as easy as possible!"
7) Hire a small staff.
"Whether it's for 10 or 1,000, we always like to staff the parties," Andrew explains. It might seem like an indulgence, but a single bartender and a server will allow you to actually enjoy the party you're throwing—and by making sure your guests are taken care of, "you'll be guaranteed an intimate experience."
8) Make, advertise, and distribute a signature drink.
Not only does having a specialty cocktail prevent you from worrying about stocking a full open bar, but it also makes things easier, more efficient, and more guest-friendly for the wait staff: "It allows for another fun service element, if your servers can double as drink butlers."
9) Get creative with supermarket staples.
"My favorite thing is making little sliders," Andrew says. "It's the talk of the party and everyone likes a little burger—and we’ll make our buns from scratch." It might feel ridiculous to make your own buns when hosting burger night, but Andrew encourages a little creative thinking: "Go out and get a roll of biscuits, cut them out with a mini cookie cutter, then brush a little egg yolk on the top and bake for the cutest little buns you made yourself."
Other supermarket goods, like puff pastry, can be scooped at the supermarket to make fancier-looking (and no less delicious) tarts.
10) No matter how trivial it seems, do consider presentation.
As Bobby puts it, "people don’t see what you’ve done before; they only see what you end up with." Whether it's a centerpiece or a fresh scatter of herbs across a finished dish, the tiniest bit of thoughtfulness towards presentation will go a long way.
What have you learned from throwing big parties? What do you want advice on? Share in the comments!