Working in Food Made Me Worse at Entertaining
How I learned to be a relaxed hostess...sort of.
Two years ago, I had recently moved into my first apartment and wanted to host a couple of friends for an intimate Friendsgiving. We hadn’t seen each other often since graduating college and in that time, I had a stint as a line cook in a French restaurant and was now working for Martha Stewart. All of my family and friends saw me as the professional chef in their lives, and therefore believed I knew everything there was to know about cooking. (“Are these chicken thighs still good?” to “How do I clean my cutting board?” to “What should I order for dinner tonight?). For the record, I knew some things but certainly not everything. But I took a lot of pride in the knowledge that I learned first-hand in the kitchen and took even greater pride in delivering a restaurant-quality meal to my parents and partner night after night.
Since I started working in a restaurant, a regular Tuesday night couldn’t consist of takeout or penne with jarred red sauce. I had to make homemade potato gnocchi broiled in individual porcelain gratins sourced from Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel with homemade marinara sauce, from-scratch ricotta, and the best quality fresh mozzarella I could score. I once cried over homemade lobster ravioli after it fell apart in the pot of boiling water. (My family and friends insisted it was delicious and that the only thing ruining the meal was my tears.)
So when Friendsgiving came around, I spent 48 rapid hours preparing a feast for four consisting of homemade fig and almond crackers, citrus-roasted turkey (which barely fit in my New York City oven), cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, corn casserole, brown sugar and bacon-glazed Brussels sprouts, roasted carrots with oat dukkah, buttermilk biscuits, and two desserts including apple pandowdy and a chocolate-espresso mousse pie. I designed menus from an Etsy template, arranged flowers, lit taper and votive candles, ordered new placemats and linen napkins, stocked the bar, and curated a playlist consisting of jazz music from the stylings of Vince Guaraldi and Nat King Cole.
My friends were scheduled to arrive at 6pm on Saturday so when the doorbell rang at 2:30pm, my eyes widened as I scrambled to scrub the countertops and floor clean, get the turkey in the oven, and tried to make everything look easy, breezy, and beautiful. I greeted them graciously, apologized for the mess, and tried to hide my rising anxiety as I aggressively mashed the macerating cranberries, cubed cornbread for the stuffing, and riced russet potatoes.
For the next several hours, I couldn’t possibly enjoy their company or conversation because I was too concerned about the pile of dishes overflowing in my sink, the cornbread dressing that simply wouldn’t cook fast enough, and the turkey that was overcooked in the breast but way undercooked in the thigh. I partially blamed my too-small oven and crowded narrow countertops, but I also blamed myself for attempting to prepare such an over-the-top feast that the friends part of Friendsgiving got lost somewhere in between the buttermilk biscuits that I forgot to bake and the room temperature corn casserole. I was so stressed that I couldn’t execute the menu I had meticulously planned and re-planned for weeks.
They told me, “Kelly, you don’t really have to do all of this,” “Kelly, can we please help,” and the worst, “I actually prefer canned cranberry sauce.”
The thing is, I felt like I did have to do all of this. Because I work in food, and when you work in food, people have certain expectations. I wanted to show off the skills I spent so many late nights developing and I wanted to impress them. When people constantly tell you that you’re the best cook they know, the (self-inflicted) pressure is on. I do genuinely enjoy entertaining and overstuffing loved ones with lasagna and risotto. I can’t wait for the day when I can host my entire extended family for a true Thanksgiving feast at an expansive dinner table with little ones crafting turkeys out of their traced handprints and the soft sound of Autumn Leaves playing in the background. It’s a fantasy life, but one that I'll go to extreme measures to make happen. Like overnighting the aforementioned rattan placemats. And polishing $3 gold napkin rings at 11pm. And spending $300 on groceries for four people.
I realized that my stint as a line cook and pursuit as a food writer had made me worse at entertaining. When the sous chef would yell at me night after night, urging me to work faster, harder, telling me the fries that just went out were too salty, the steak for the tartare was not chopped finely enough, the chicken salad didn’t have enough tarragon, the crème brûlée was undertorched or overtorched, and so on, and so on...well, I started to believe that anything less than perfect was unacceptable. I knew what perfect should look like and taste like, and worked tirelessly every day to meet those expectations.
Did my friends really care if the cornbread for the cornbread dressing was baked by yours truly in advance? Did they care that I tripled strained the pan gravy through a fine mesh sieve? Did they even know what a fine mesh sieve was? Of course not.
This is what I realized: When you get too focused on making everything just so, it makes it less fun for you, and for your guests. There’s a reason why people pay to eat at restaurants, versus graciously accepting an invitation to your home. They don’t expect—or even really want—perfection from their friends or family. They just want good company and a decent meal. They don’t want me hand harvesting cranberries from a Massachusetts bog. So this year I’m trying to take that to heart. Everyone can agree that Thanksgiving is far more enjoyable with a relaxed hostess...and store-bought canned sauce, too.
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