Kitchen Anthropology: 9 Essentials of Being a Great Dinner Guest — Part One of Two

(In the Eyes of a Private Chef)

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” ~ Cesar Chavez

Dinner parties are the BEST. I love throwing them, I love attending them, and I love working them as a private chef. There is something magical when a group of people all connected by a common host sits together at a table and share a meal. Ideas are born, beliefs are challenged or expanded, jokes are learned, and sometimes, the seeds of new friendships are planted. There is a special kind of communion that accompanies eating together.

The success of a dinner party is not only in the hands of the host, however; it is equally in the hands of the guests to take the warm feeling of welcome and reflect it back to the benefactor of their feast! Below are some helpful pointers and anecdotes to help you achieve the title of BEST GUEST EVER!

1. Let your host know beforehand if you have any food allergies, intolerances, or severe dislikes

This, without a doubt, is the most important menu-planning question that I ask when preparing for an event with a client. I type it in boldface to emphasize the importance, because the biggest downer at a dinner party — whether a pizza party or 15-course foraged ingredient-tasting menu — IS SOMEONE GOING INTO ANAPHYLACTIC SHOCK. It is also distressing to invite people into your home to treat them to a meal and discover that they are unable to eat anything.

Much as one should if they are eating at a restaurant, it is critically important to let your host know as far as possible in advance if there are any major food intolerances.

Even when a chef or caterer has been booked to feed you, it is devastating to be taken aside ten minutes before a thoughtfully planned, beautiful traditional Moroccan tagine and couscous (honestly, a meat-lover’s delight) is to be brought to the table to be told, “I’m vegetarian. But don’t worry, I can just eat bread!”

Especially when there is no bread.

The adrenaline of the thoughtful host — and/or chef — surges though the smile may remain on their face. Inviting you as a guest means they want you there and they want you to be both comfortable and satisfied. As a chef, I can and will usually scan the ingredients of a client’s cupboard and refrigerator and whip up SOMETHING to accommodate the guest in question, but by not telling the host beforehand, your dietary restriction may actually be interfering with a) the excellence of everybody else’s experience (especially your gracious host’s!), and b) the intended timeline for the event.

Don’t be that person. Any host or chef with advance notice will surely subtly tailor the menu to accommodate all of her intentionally chosen guests.

2. Arrive a little bit late, but not too late, and NEVER SHOW UP EARLY

If you have ever thrown a party of your own, then you know that even though your invitation says 6:30pm, no matter how organized you are or how many people you enlist to help (Hello, TaskRabbit!), nothing is EVER 100% ready at 6:30pm. It takes HOURS to prepare for guests amidst cleaning, setting the table, getting oneself ready, and preparing the food itself. I myself have attended a number of my own dinner parties still wearing the apron I was cooking in, and I have been doing this for a living for fourteen years.

Give your hosts a little wiggle room, unless you’ve been best friends for umpteen years and are ready to dive in and take over the welcoming while you shoo them off to the bathroom to finish putting on their mascara.

As far as showing up early — DON’T DO IT. Hosting (and chef) anxiety is at its peak in the 30 minutes before intended guest arrival. Early arrival, again, throws off a carefully planned timeline and is literally physically distressing. You don’t want to be responsible for any internal panic attacks, invisible gut-punches, or chest-area vise-grips, do you?

3. Respect the kitchen as a workspace

“No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best!”~Anon

Oh, kitchens! They’re warm, they smell good, and they are usually a hive of activity. And danger. There are sharp things, hot things, spills, clean-ups, and often messes. In an open plan kitchen, the sights, sounds, and smells of preparation serve not only the function of whetting the appetite of the guests, but also as a form of entertainment.

That being said, it is still work for the food preparers — hosts and chefs alike — who are trying to get the best possible product to your plate, at the exact right temperature, at exactly the right time. Again, it is a WORKSPACE. Unless it is a huge space with an island where you can stand on one side and enjoy your wine while chatting and watching, or you know your host well enough to roll up your sleeves and participate in the preparation without asking too many questions (sometimes, thinking of ways to get others to help is just more distracting, if not stress-inducing), try and keep a little distance from the action area.

THE KITCHEN IS A KEY PLAYER IN MEAL PREPARATION. Respect that — give it space*. If you bring a dish to share, make sure it’s already complete and plated.

(*Exception: if you want to do dishes, DO DISHES. I love people who do dishes! And when I am a guest at someone’s house, I usually compulsively do dishes because kitchen cleanup is honestly the most tedious and time-consuming part of a dinner party.)

4. Celebrate your host

He or she has invited you over presumably because they enjoy you and your company, or maybe just want to get to know you better. They have put a LOT of thought and effort into making sure the details are just right. Do not eat without them, whatever they say. Make sure they always have refreshment, as they are making sure that you do. Raise a glass and say “Thank you!” Compliment their home, their effort, their amazingness, and their ability to bring wonderful people together. They may have thrown the party for YOU, but verbally expressing your gratitude will make them like you more.

5. Bring a token gift

It doesn’t have to be large or costly. It can be a floral arrangement (in a vase, so they don’t have to find one while welcoming you and other guests!), a small box of chocolates, a bottle of wine, and a jar of something edible from the farmer’s market, or a nibble or dessert that you made. The better you know your host, the more personal you can make it, and it does not have to be food-related if you know your host loves that lavender-studded-soap-made-in-Provence.

It is just another way of saying “Thank you — I know how much effort you put into this brunch/lunch/dinner and I want you to know I appreciate it and you.”

One word of warning — do not expect something ingestible to be shared immediately, or even that night. Give with no expectation except making the host or hostess feel appreciated.

These five sum up the absolute basics, but to elevate your guest-pitality to the next level, look for the next four tips in my next post, and let me know what tips YOU have in the comments!

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