You might think that NYC chef and restaurateur Rocco DiSpirito would consider the menu the most important ingredient in a successful dinner party. But you’d be wrong. For the award-winning chef, there is no unpasteurized triple-cream cheese in all of France that can compare to the powerful effect that genuine hospitality has on the human heart and mind.
The author of Now Eat This!100 Quick Calorie Cuts at Home/On-the-Go and host of the reality competition series Rocco’s Dinner Party shares his thoughts on how to create magic among friends and family.
1. It starts with the invitation
Dinner with the Queen may require a formal summons, but you needn’t make such a big deal about your shindig. “If you send a formal invitation that requires an RSVP you send a message that this is going to really boring,” says DiSpirito, adding “the paper is thick, as thick as the atmosphere is going to be.” Keep it casual and invite people via email—“evites are fantastic,” says DiSpirito. Alternatively, send a friendly text.
2. Forget about the china – a great party is about people
Reidel stemware does not a great party make so don’t get caught up in the surface concerns of entertaining, says DiSpirito who doesn’t even have a set of complete dishes or matching silverware and that’s just fine by him. Plates and stemware—they’re all “inanimate objects and meaningless in and of themselves”. “What brings life to those things is people,” says DiSpirito. In short, focus on how your guests are feeling and your chipped dinner service will take care of itself.
3. Make the guest list simple: invite your friends
Too many hosts get caught up in worrying about who’s going to like whom and why. Don’t underestimate the broad appeal of your pals, says DiSpirito and don’t try to play social director. Let the investment banker sit next to the drummer of that indie band—the party (possibly even the culture at large) will be all the better for it.
4. Keep it casual
Place cards, seating plans, and menu cards are a waste—lose the pretension and let people relax in your home. “There’s something about our culture and what we aspire to be, and this constant process of upgrading socially and financially that makes us add artifice to every interaction.” “Sometimes the more casual you are the more fun it is,” says DiSpirito.
5. Hostess, lead by example
You set the tone, so if you want your party to be fun, memorable and casual then embody all of those things as hostess. Kick the party off right by greeting guests at the door with a grin, a glass of something bubbly and warm words of welcome. “[Your guests] will mirror your energy. Whatever you’re going to do, they’re going to do.” If you’ve invited people over, says DiSpirito, you’ve made an implicit promise that you’re going to show them a good time. Now do it, lady. And do it with a smile.
6. Liquor—lots of it and quickly
Serve the alcohol quickly and generously from the get-go. “I find that dinner parties where you serve something bubbly, something with a level of frivolity, if you serve a lot of it and quickly you can break the ice,” says DiSpirito. “You can get people to feel ‘Oh, that’s going to be fun’”. You don’t need to bust out the Cristal either: “a bottle of Prosecco is $9”.
7. Feed people what they want to eat
Instead of combing Food & Wine for swish menu ideas go straight to the source: ask your guests what they like and build your menu around their preferences. “When I’m going to have a dinner party the first thing I do is find out what my guests like and what they don’t like and I do everything in my power to make sure that each guest has something they will like.”
8. Don’t overdo it; underdo it
“It’s better to underdo things,” says DiSpirito, who thinks people try too hard and in so doing make a party atmosphere tense. “They either want to experiment or show off what they’ve learned or they want everyone to know that they know where to buy the best food and wine”. FYI: your guests are probably more excited about digging into roast chicken than white truffle risotto anyway.
9. If your kids add to the evening let them make an appearance; if not, off to bed!
The presence of children at a dinner party is only justifiable when they add to the evening rather than detract from its adult pleasures. DiSpirito mentions a friend whose child acts as an amiable server, handing out hors d’oeuvres before being bundled off to bed. If your child can’t be counted on to be helpful or appealing, then vamoose. “They probably shouldn’t be there because they’ll be taking away from your ability to be there for your guests.”
10. Don’t aim to impress, aim to make memories
When people get together to eat, drink and be merry you’ve set the stage for something truly great to happen. Concludes DiSpiroto: “There’s nothing better than a human connection to make you feel safe and less hopeless, to make you feel that the world is a great place and you’re so happy to be there. Deep human connection is the most powerful emotion and food and wine have a unique ability to help create that environment but they don’t do that on their own.”