We’re celebrating France Week here at Food52, and there’s no way to talk about the country’s storied cuisine without the accompanying art of entertaining, a ritual deeply respected and woven into the fabric of French culture. We tapped David Lebovitz, our favorite American expat pastry chef and author, for the best tips he’s gleaned over the years for entertaining like a true Parisian. You may be surprised by his effortless, easy-to-replicate findings.
I hate to break the news to all the DIY-folks, but Parisians don't make their own charcuterie, baguettes, wine, or macarons. They trust their local bakers and butchers to do it for them because that's their job and they do it well. Hence, there's no shame in buying things in France.
So take a tip from Parisians and hit the farmers' market or specialty shops in your town to stock up for your party. Most people in America don't think they have good quality places nearby, but I was recently in a remote hamlet in New England (population: 3492) and within a 15-minute drive from where we were staying, there was a cheese maker, a petit greenmarket, a "help yourself" nursery that sold fresh salad greens and herbs (every kind imaginable), and another that featured homegrown tomatoes, potatoes, rhubarb, and green garlic. There was even a winery in the area, too! So track down sources in your hometown, and do your shopping there. (If you really want to be French, become a regular. You'll find local vendors are also the best source of local gossip.)
Shortly after I moved to Paris, a well-bred French hostess said to me, "When you have a party, you should only serve three things." When pressed as to whether that included wine or not, she said, "Bien sûr!" ("Of course!") After nearly a decade-and-a-half in France, I still haven't been able to pare my parties down to offering up just three items—so it remains something that I aspire to—but I think about her every time I start preparing to cook for a fête at home, especially larger gatherings when I want to buy every kind of cheese and sausage at the market, an assortment of tapenades, and a half dozen varieties of olives, before hitting the bakery and trying to decide how many of the lovely loaves of bread I should buy from the selection behind the counter.
In her honor (and to give my arms a break), I usually forgo getting five kinds of bread and just get baguettes. I realize that I don't need four kinds of olives, just one type of very good ones, such as Lucques or Picholine. And in the summer, I go with rosé for all, and skip giving people the option of red or white, making the burden of entertaining less, so I can spend more time with my guests.
The French can be famously finicky (or, rather… discerning about certain things) but aren't picky when they dine in someone's home; they're appreciative when someone makes an effort to cook for them.
The French have a lot of lovely qualities; they make beautiful cheeses, buttery croissants are available at every corner bakery, wine is cheap and plentiful, and oh-la-la!… the chocolates!
But one quality that took me a while to adjust to, is they're perpetually late. Sometimes one can't avoid it, but at dinnertime, it's intentional. It's considered impolite to show up for dinner at the appointed hour; if you show up on time, you're likely to catch your hosts off-guard (or still getting dressed!) So it's correct to show up 20 minutes late.
However, I've had guests that have shown up at my door an hour late, which is a little irksome, and one once sauntered in 2 1/2 hours late, which got him banned from future meals because I like the food to be cooked just right when it's served, and for the guests to be in place when it is. Thankfully the French have l'heure d'apéro, or aperitif hour, when drinks are poured and little snacks are available for nibbling. It helps bide the time to give everyone to arrive, and relax a little before dinner.
I sometimes serve homemade vin d'orange, or else a crisp white Sancerre or Muscadet wine that will perk up palates for dinner. But if you want to be French, keep in mind that the French love whiskey, and they are the number one consumer per capita of whiskey in the world. Other popular apéritifs in France are white port, which I haven't quite taken to as a before-dinner sipper, and orange-scented Lillet, which I have.
When planning your menu and gathering ingredients, buy the best quality that you can find, which doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive. Then, don't fuss with them too much. You're making supper, not a statement.
Like the baker and sausage-maker, French people don't try to compete with professional chefs. Even though Master Chef has arrived in France, and there is a definite upswing in smears of sauce and food presented on slabs of slate, home cooks generally stay away from those things. Most don't overreach to impress; the French predilection for "moderation" keeps things fairly well-grounded.
Americans have a tendency to panic if something goes wrong, which I know from personal experience. If the sides of their lemon tart have fallen a bit, we apologize when we bring it to the table. If we only have white wine glasses for red wine, we apologize. If the pasta doesn't look like the picture in the magazine, we tell everyone we're sorry it doesn't look so great when setting it down on the table.
French people don't expect homemade food to look like something off Pinterest. They're more interested in having a good time and basking in the good company. (Fueled by lots of wine, of course.) Unless you have a live-in food stylist, keep presentations simple, and stick to things that will make sure your guests have a good time. Remember—if you're not enjoying yourself, they're not going to enjoy themselves either.
French like to linger over meals, especially dinner, and it's not unusual for a dinner party to last well after midnight… even on a school night. (On weekends, expect to stay until at least 1 a.m., although since they extended métro hours, I drink enough coffee beforehand to keep me fueled so I can stay awake until 2 a.m.)
One way to extend the time you spend with guests is to offer up a cheese course. I love cheese and personally, is one of the reasons I live in France. Cheese is offered up as something to nibble on, to bridge the time between the main course and the dessert, although it sometimes takes the place of dessert. One good wedge of Brie de Meaux, a slab of aged Comté, or a round of tangy, fresh chèvre lets you focus on one particular cheese, but a selection lets guests help themselves to the kind of cheeses they prefer. Rarely in someone's home will you get offered a groaning board of a dozen or so cheeses. (Remember: "Moderation.") The right amount is tasteful, but excess is vulgaire. So take that as a cue to focus on a few select cheeses, rather than overdoing it with too many, proof that you can have too much good taste. But just enough is just right.
I frequently offer chocolate at the end of a meal. A box of chocolate from a favorite chocolate shop is the perfect coda to a great evening, and always appreciated by guests. No matter what happened before, any goofs or gaffes, all is forgiven if you open up a box of nice bonbons. If I don't have time to run to a fancy chocolatier, I've been known to bring out a bar of good French dark chocolate, put it on a cutting board (not a slate plate, please) with a knife, and let everyone have a go at it. A nice digestive, such as Armagnac or Cognac is always warranted, and appreciated.
David Lebovitz is a bestselling author, blogger, and American pastry chef living the enviable expat life in Paris. His next book, L'Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, will be out this fall.
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.