We’re all so busy throughout the year that the holidays always seem like a great time to throw open the doors and invite friends and family to gather together over food, drinks and plenty of good cheer. This year we asked renowned Atlanta caterer, Dennis Dean, of Dennis Dean Catering, for tips on how to throw a stress-free, buffet-style affair that’s as sophisticated as it is easy. Because, after all, you want to be able to enjoy your own party.
Step1. Create a Guest List
Start with a guest list so you can get a good idea of how many people to expect—and how much help you’ll need. A guest count over 20 and you really need help, Dean suggests. Hiring a kitchen, serving or bartending assistant can free you up during the party and help clean up go faster at the end of the night.
“Ask your friends, neighbors or waiters at a favorite restaurant for recommendations on help,” says Dean.
Step 2: Set a Vision for Your Party
Before you dive into the details, establish what Dean refers to as “the feel of the evening.” He’s careful to stay away from the word “theme,” which he says can often be overdone. Your vision of the event will help guide your selections in menu, décor and music, whether it’s a summer garden party or a winter night buffet.
Step 3: Plan the Menu
A buffet-style party is a more casual affair than a sit-down dinner. You want your guests to merrily munch and mingle their way through the party. People will be gathering, talking and drinking, so make the menu reflect the occasion with easy finger food and fork-friendly bites, recommends Dean.
Dean’s no-fail buffet combination: two meats, two vegetables, two starches, a cheese platter and dessert. Garnish with fruit and add unexpected pops of flavor to the table, such as his sweet and savory toffee popcorn. Serve a mix of breads in a single bowl for additional texture and color. Dean brought beautifully prepared bread sticks, ciabatta and whole wheat raisin to the photo shoot.
For dessert, Dean suggests setting out a variety of bite-size morsels or cookies to make it fun for guests to sample the sweets without feeling like they’re overdoing it.
The biggest factors to planning a menu are time, budget and seasonality. Before you plan your menu, pop into your local market and see what’s in season and what looks good. “Don’t just go for the most expensive,” Dean warns.
“If you have time to prepare days in advance, then try some more labor intensive recipes,” he adds. “Otherwise, choose a few easy recipes you can make the day of.”
Dean is adamant about having everything out of the oven and on the table an hour before the party starts. This gives meats just out of the oven time to rest before cutting. Plus, you give yourself plenty of time to shower, get dressed and relax before guests arrive.
Step 4: Stock the Bar
You can’t go wrong serving a variety of budget-friendly beer and wine. Dean points out that wine is so popular these days that it’s okay if you don’t serve liquor. But if you do, keep it easy. Prepare a specialty cocktail ahead of time and serve in a pitcher. Or, set out the ingredients, such as pomegranate, tonic and vodka, with simple instructions on how to assemble your own cocktail.
How much alcohol should you have on hand? Dean’s rule of thumb is to plan on two drinks per person the first hour and one drink per person every hour for the remainder of the party. A case of wine (12 bottles) serves 60 glasses of wine.
If you don’t have enough glasses on hand, it’s better to buy a dozen or two at a discount store than to use plastic. It’s the kind of detail that makes a difference, plus you get to grow your collection with every party. Trust us, it’s worth the investment!
“Oh, and don’t forget to set out a few munchies at the bar, such as a bowl of nuts or cheese and crackers,” Dean adds.
Step 5: Set Up the Buffet
One of the best-kept secrets to planning a beautiful buffet is to set the table ahead of time. Arrange your platters and bowls how you want them, and label each dish with a sticky note to remind you where the food goes once you’re ready to plate it.
Just as Dean likes to create interesting layers of taste, texture and aroma in his menu, he uses a similar logic when decorating the table. Vary height, texture and color for the best presentation. You can introduce texture and color with items such as a table runner, napkins, china, candlesticks, flowers and, of course, the food. Use different size dishes and set them at different levels so the table feels less crowded and is visually appealing. Look around your house and use your imagination. At the photo shoot, Dean found a big roll of twine and set a bowl of toffee popcorn on top, instantly adding loads of natural texture and height.
Don’t be afraid to scavenge the house and use what you already own, says Dean. Mix and match dishes and décor for an eclectic feel—everything doesn’t have to be too matchy-matchy. Flowers out of your budget or you ran out of time to pick some up? Seasonal fruit and herbs from your refrigerator are just as pretty when arranged in vases and bowls.
“Make your table interesting and visually appealing through food and presentation,” Dean stresses. “You know the saying – people eat with their eyes. It’s true!”
There’s always one detail Dean never misses at a dinner party: he displays a menu or labels the dishes on the table. Guests with food sensitivities or allergies will feel more comfortable asking about certain ingredients. Depending on the feel of your event, you can go easy and low budget, such as hand writing items on a paper bag or displaying a menu in a picture frame.
One last tip for the table: set up silverware on the opposite end from the plates, so guests don’t have to handle both when serving themselves.
Step 6: Add a Little Ambiance
It’s up to you to set the mood for your guests. Start at the entrance with luminaries lining the drive or path to your front door. Inside, dim the lights. If you don’t have a dimmer switch, turn off the overhead lights and use lamps. Set out clusters of votives near the buffet and bar, and don’t forget the bathroom. If you have a fireplace, use it. “There’s nothing more homey than a lit fireplace,” says Dean.
It’s not a party without music, and it’s not something you should wait until the last minute to think about. Dean recommends creating a playlist a day or two before the party. You want to enjoy mingling with guests and not spending your time playing DJ. Let your vision of your party guide you in selecting the right music. However, you can rarely go wrong with a mix of standard jazz tunes.
Most importantly, create an atmosphere that’s easy and relaxed. Stuffy parties are no fun, right? Chances are, if you’re having a great time, your guests will, too.