According to tradition, I hosted my company for an early Thanksgiving last week. Although I enjoy hosting and cooking for friends regularly, this event is by far the most ambitious as I cook a full meal for about 20 people. Each year has been an opportunity for me to learn more about hosting, and I have a few more lessons to share from this year.
In the past, I have done various ethnic and regional cuisines, but I have run short on ideas. Of course, there are plenty more unexplored cuisines in this world, but I have only picked cuisines that I think I have an edge on and wouldn’t be offending co-workers who know that culture better than I do. This year, I ended up doing a Canadian Thanksgiving, which was some combination of stereotypical Canadian food (butter tarts) and using maple syrup in everything. Continue reading Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2016 Edition
Long time readers of almost exactly 1 year may remember that I cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my company a week or 2 before actual Thanksgiving. It is probably the biggest event that I host each year, and I hopefully am learning more each time about how to do it better.
Continuing my tradition of doing different ethnic cuisines, I did a Cajun Thanksgiving this year with a Creole spice mix over the turkey and a variety of spicy and rich dishes. Fortunately, I am the only person on the team from the south, so there weren’t many critical opinions in the crowd.
Overall, I think the food was fine. The turkey was overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were very salty (even after cutting down the salt from the recipe). Because Cajun is a real American cuisine, it already has Thanksgiving fare that is not so dissimilar from a traditional Thanksgiving.
The biggest factor, however, was the attendance. Last year, we had somewhere just shy of 10 people attend. This year, our 2 bedroom place hosted a total of 20 hungry people. This year, more significant others attended, and we also invited recent interns back. The team has also been growing, and all of this ballooned the headcount, expectations, and required preparation.
Overall, I think we managed to do well. Despite running out of most dishes, the guests seemed to be well-fed and enjoyed the food. Everyone seemed to enjoy the company, and the mix of SOs and former Zanbato employees made it a more special event than another meal with the people we spend 40+ hours with a week.
Here were a few of the things I learned and/or felt worked well with the party this year:
1. Create a clear, smooth welcome experience.
First impressions between people are important, and first impressions about a party also set the tone for the social experience the rest of the night. In the past, I have been bouncing back and forth between the door and the kitchen hollering out instructions while trying to dash back to my gravy. This year, I wrote up a series of signs directing guests to come right in at the front door, where to put their bags and jackets, and where to find drinks and appetizers.
2. In a small space, configure and reconfigure to make all of the space multi-functional.
With 20 people in a few hundred square feet (including my kitchen), we fit the normal dining table, an additional folding table, and a few couches around a coffee table for eating. I knew I wanted to have everyone standing and mingling during the appetizer hour, so we pushed all of the tables back against the walls and blocked out the chairs so that people couldn’t really settle in. This created a more open, standing space for people to float around and get settled.
When we were ready to serve, everyone was happy to help and rearrange furniture for dining. We cleaned just enough counter space in the kitchen to serve and moved the appetizers and beverages back off of the tables. Then, everyone found a seat to enjoy their meal.
We did find 2 things to improve. First, Julie pointed out that the appetizers were hard to get to because people were standing in front of them. They ended up being placed somewhat int he corner, so next time, I would place them more centrally. Second, I would have encouraged everyone to switch seats between dinner and dessert for more mingling.
3. To feed more people, multiply recipes instead of making more dishes.
Overall, the cooking process went very smoothly. This year, I went digital with my chart to plan out cooking, and we stuck with it. I conscripted my coworker Conrad to help cook through the last push, and we stayed on the schedule very well.
Even so, cooking did take quite awhile between the previous evening and the day of. Seeing how we ran out of most everything, I think people would have been just as happy with having 2-3 fewer dishes and just doubling the recipes. That would have saved me a ton of work as well.
4. Don’t worry too much about the food.
Maybe people are just being polite, but I have gotten a lot of appreciation for the food despite my own opinion about the quality of the cooking. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t critical: I just think there is generally enough goodwill and merriment in the atmosphere that the food itself just doesn’t matter so much.
So whether the food is good or bad or too much or too little, I think the party depends more on the other details of the environment and the company present than the food itself. The time spent on the food will always be disproportionately high to its importance, and it is much harder to improvise than, say, a guest list.
Anyways, we’re headed into the holiday season now, so best of luck to all hosts. Don’t worry too much about the food, and enjoy the company!
You might be wondering how I can post about having hosted Thanksgiving in the middle of November. Although it is true that I am Canadian, that isn’t the reason this time. Actually, Zanbato has an annual tradition of holding a team Thanksgiving a week or two before actual Thanksgiving, where we can share (hopefully) delicious food and get an early start on the holiday season feeling.
Last year, I did an ethnic twist and made it a Chinese Thanksgiving, with the turkey cooked in the style of Peking duck and with various Asian-themed sides. This year, I did a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving, and I dare say it went quite well. Here are pictures of how the food turned out (recipes available on foodmarks):
Overall, I think most of the dishes came out quite well. The pecan pie had some baking issues but ended up tasting fine. As gratifying as that is, however, I think the best part of the experience for me was how smoothly it went. In years past, I have been frantically cooking up to the last minute with pots and pans and kitchen tools scattered around my kitchen. This year, I cooked at a leisurely pace and was able to pop in and out of the kitchen when guests arrived. I ended up only needing Julie’s help for the last 15 minutes or so, and everything came out on-time. Here is what I think the difference was:
1. I picked recipes that that don’t need to be done right before serving.
A lot of dishes must be served fresh, or they lose their texture or temperature or flavor. When I picked the dishes, I deliberately picked dishes that could be done ahead of time so I didn’t need to do 5 things right before serving dinner. I think it was also important to do desserts that didn’t need prep, either. Both the pecan pie and flan basically needed to be paired with a serving utensil, and they were ready.
2. I threw in a couple gimme recipes as well.
At some point, I realized that it wasn’t worth putting a lot of work into baking things for most people. Most people don’t really care if you spent hours putting together a layer cake or swirling a batter in a certain way: they’re usually just happy that you did something homemade. This probably extends to cooking in general, so I put queso on the list as a great but very easy appetizer dip and salad. These buff out the menu without significant work.
3. I planned out my oven and stove usage.
It’s a bad surprise to find out that you need your veggies at 400 F and dessert at 350 F at the same time in the oven, or that you have to use the big saute pan for two things. I charted out my oven usage by the half-hour to make sure that I could get everything done, with some wiggle room as well
4. I setup my place during downtime.
Were I better prepared, the furniture, cleanup, and flatware would have been done ahead of time. I wasn’t that prepared, but I did manage to knock out a lot of that while the turkey was cooking. Although most of my attention is on the food, a good dinner party should have a good environment as well.
5. I took notes from last year.
I pulled up my recipes from last year to see approximately how much food I made for how many people, and I went over the mistakes from last time. There was a lot to learn.
Overall, I would say that the big takeaway here is: don’t leave anything to the last minute. Having a plan is good. Having experience to know what needs to be planned is better. With that in mind, I was able to put together a good experience for my guests without getting frazzled myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this advice doesn’t really extend much past myself or perhaps is too obvious, but hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a Thanksgiving host in the coming years!