How To Host A Small But Perfectly Formed Christmas Dinner
Any other year, we would be nursing a champagne hangover while writing this. Office dos, cocktail parties and festive dinners tend to define December, especially in the lead-up to the big day. Not this year. We’ve had no invitations in the post and very few opportunities to get sloshed with friends. We are to spend Christmas mostly at home, probably with our immediate family, maybe even on our own. For some people, this might be a blessing in disguise (fewer screaming children, less intense hangovers). For others, it seems like an unbelievably cruel ending to a challenging year.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to eat, drink, be merry, host hordes of friends and family members, develop signature cocktails and complicated and impressive menus, there’s no reason why this year can’t be just as Festive Fabulous (TM) as years past. Just look at it like a challenge. How can you make entertaining for six, four, two or even just one as big a blowout as a party for 200?
We spoke to three experts in the art of entertaining to help us figure out how to do just that: Mr Bronson van Wyck, legendary event planner in New York City; Mr James Lowe, chef and co-founder of Lyle’s and Flor in London; and Mr Jackson Boxer, founder and chef of Orasay and Brunswick House, also in London.
Start with a tipple
Why not greet your guests at the door with a drink to get the evening off to a good start? It’s an easy way to ramp things up a notch. Take it from the party guy. “Every guest who enters my home, whether it is 2020 or not, is offered a sincere smile and a strong drink, usually a shot of tequila,” says Mr van Wyck. “A party without tequila is tea.”
Invest in excellence
If you’re shopping for a smaller group, this is an opportunity to go all-out on your building blocks. “Think of it as saving a load of money because you’re cooking for fewer people,” says Mr Lowe. “Splash out on some fabulous wine, support small independent stores. Maybe get some white truffles. They could be used as an amazing addition to some simple food.” He suggests adding some truffle to buttery mashed potatoes and then to an omelette the next morning. Luxurious!
While you’re at it, upgrade your table settings. If you’re treating yourself to special food, why not raise the decor to match? “I love including unique pieces that are conversation starters,” says Mr van Wyck. “A sterling-silver ice bucket with handsome stag’s head handles, malachite obelisks to break up the table elevation but not create barriers, seasonal materials, such as horn vases to fill with citrus and flowers, and blankets over the backs of chairs or covering bench seating.” Sticking with your everyday settings is just not in the Christmas spirit, especially this year. Give yourself a little treat.
Make it manageable
Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean you have to have the same meal that your mother would have cooked. If this is your first time cooking at home, set yourself up for success. “Instead of a huge turkey, buy the very best chicken you can – a mature herb-fed bird or a capon,” says Mr Boxer. “Not only are these easier for an inexperienced cook to get right, due to their smaller size, but they take significantly less time to cook and are less likely to produce an unmanageable quantity of leftovers.”
Dispense with tradition
It’s an untraditional year, so why would you stick to the menu of your forefathers? “I’m a big believer in breakfast for dinner and nothing’s better than a perfectly cooked omelette topped with unlimited amounts of caviar, toast and lots of super, double, triple, extra crispy bacon,” says Mr van Wyck.
Mr Lowe suggests dispensing with poultry altogether in favour of fish, especially if your group is more like a couple. “Sharing something such as a whole Dover sole for two people is pretty special, as is indulging in a plate of langoustines or a couple of lobsters,” he says.
If you just have to have certain items on the table, otherwise it’s not Christmas, then be judicious. “Rather than making every side dish in the canon, pick two or three vegetables and take time to cook them really attentively,” says Mr Boxer. “One dish of perfectly cooked carrots beats an array of wan, undercooked parsnips and soggy overcooked sprouts any day.”
Treat a small dinner party like an event
Even if it’s just you at the table, or you and your partner and kids, why not put a little extra effort into making things feel incredibly luxe? Mr Boxer swears by properly setting the table, candlesticks and all, for a solo meal that doesn’t feel run of the mill.
Mr van Wyck has similar thoughts. “For intimate gatherings, I have started using each guest’s personal monogram on their napkin,” he says. “People love to look at their own name almost as much as they love to look at their own faces.” Indeed. The cardinal rule of entertaining is to, well, entertain. We can all use a bit of a pick-me-up this year, so take the opportunity of a smaller gathering to go big on the details. Writing out placecards for six is easier than for 60.
Treat yourself and your guests
Think back to some of the best parties and events you’ve attended over the past few years. Chances are, whoever planned them put a great deal of thought into your enjoyment and comfort. Do the same for yourself this year. Both Mr van Wyck and Mr Boxer recommend getting a nap in before the big meal, so you are relaxed and in the right frame of mind for a celebration. Mr Lowe suggests dispensing with hard and fast meal times and taking the pressure off yourself to provide a “perfect” experience.
“Whether you are entertaining 5,000, 500 or five, the amount of time and effort you put into planning an evening for your guests is always evident,” says Mr van Wyck. “Add personal touches to make each guest feel welcome and special. Handwrite place cards using childhood nicknames, add a song on the playlist that recalls a shared memory, print photos of you and each guest together and incorporate them into the menu-card design at each place setting.”
Move it outside
Want to play it safe and have the best Christmas ever? Bring your celebrations outside. If you’re in a cold climate, a space heater is baseline. Messrs Lowe and Boxer suggest eschewing turkey when you’re outdoors because it’s too hard to cook on a grill. Again, we’re hearing about seafood (perhaps this is something we should do every Christmas) as the key to taking it up a notch. “A grilled fish with boiled, buttery potatoes and ember-roasted carrots and skewers of large prawns feels like an outdoor feast I could really get excited about,” says Mr Boxer.
“There are so many more interesting things you can cook that will also help smaller farmers at this time of year,” says Mr Lowe. “You can get fabulous, properly aged beef, mutton or pork from Philip Warren Butchers in Cornwall [nationwide delivery available]. Also grilled langoustines or clams from a good fishmonger are easy and hugely enjoyable. If you struggle to get those, mussels are generally easily available and are amazing on the grill.”
There you have it – seven ways to make your Christmas special, even if it feels like an impossibility this year. Don’t let a crappy year influence how you feel about Christmas dinner. If anything, 2020’s lows make a strong case for creating a holiday-season high. So eat, drink and be merry!
Illustrations by Mr Iker Ayestaran