What Chefs Know... About Crowds
How to feed large groups
Winter is coming, and with it cometh the holidays and the season of great expectations. The holidays are always a little over the top (mocha eggnog, anyone?), and more often than not, completely crazy. Halloween sounds the opening bell with Thanksgiving right on its heels, followed by a month of hoopla, commercialism, and open houses. We race around the mall and the grocery store intent on creating fabulous, one-of-a-kind fiestas for everyone and caught up in a whirlwind of shopping, cleaning, baking, drinking, and (one can only hope) moments of gaiety. By the time “Auld Lang Syne” starts on heavy FM rotation, more than a few of us feel like we’re limping into the New Year.
Any larger-than-you’re-used-to gathering has its stressful moments, but the celebrations around the holidays seem to bring with them a particular kind of mania. Managing multiple invitations and relationships is hard (one reason they invented cocktails) and the family traditions we share and hand down make for a tense juxtaposition of past, present, and future—of longing, guilt, and generosity. No other season reminds us more of the passage of time. There’s a reason Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol about, well, Christmas and its attending dualities. But the true humbug of this bittersweet season is our “to-do” list, dominated by gifts and groceries, social events and family drama, and not on deeper beliefs and meaningful relationships with friends and family. Yes, the holidays are complicated, but entertaining through them doesn’t have to be. Every day professional chefs prep and prepare meals for large gatherings that outsize even the most inclusive family holiday dinner, and wake up the next day to do it again. We checked in with several of them for advice you can use this season to help you stay focused, festive, and calm so that you and your guests may party on.
“At Cava, we operate on the principle that simpler is better, and that goes for the holidays. We all want the holidays to be special and to serve meals that people will remember, but it doesn’t mean the food has to be complicated. Keep things simple and let the quality of your seasonal ingredients shine through. One of the most popular dishes we serve at this time of year is our Spiced Butternut Squash soup. It’s a beautiful, bright soup that is simple to make and has a huge Wow factor—which is what you want in a holiday dish. We use delicious, fresh butternut squash and garnish the soup with chocolate marshmallow and cocoa nibs—really unexpected flavor combination. It blows people’s minds. We serve it at parties as an appetizer in demitasse cups, but it’s good as a main course, too. It’s also a stress-reliever in that the soup can be made in advance if you want—and you can purchase the marshmallows (we make them ourselves). Just warm and serve when it’s time to celebrate.”
—Gregg Sessler, Cava Tapas and Wine Bar,
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
“If you are having fun, your guests will have fun. People know when you aren’t enjoying yourself. The best way to make sure everyone has a great time at your party is to plan ahead. We serve 25,000 meals a week and cater 2,400 events a year and we plan ahead for all of them, and prep in advance. So, figure out your menu well ahead of time, think about your guest list—their likes and dislikes and dietary preferences—and stick with things you know. The holidays are not the best time to practice a new technique or cook on a whim. We all have our happy food and family favorites. I’d far prefer to eat a perfectly prepared hamburger then a fancy meal that the chef has never cooked before. It’s fun to shake things up, especially when you are trying to make things special, but don’t go overboard. For instance, you could make a caramelized red onion and blue cheese relish that will really dress up that hamburger for the holidays—and it’s delicious.”
—Kenneth Cardone, Associate Director and Executive Chef,
Bowdoin College Dining Services
“I’m a list-maker. When I have to feed a bunch of people I make lists of every possible thing: menus for every meal; what I need to buy; how I need to prep it/store it. Then, I start checking things off. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. When I finally start cooking, I begin with dessert and work backwards. My go-to favorite for a party is to make cheesecake. My grandmother taught me how when I was little and it’s my no-fail fallback. There are so many ways to dress it up and make it festive and people love it.”
—Jennifer Himes, Camp Restaurant at Sunday River,
“The one thing I avoid at all costs around the holidays is turkey. Think about it: How many times have you cooked a turkey or gone to someone else’s house and it’s turned out dry or underdone. I prefer to go ‘low and slow’ in the winter, especially if I’m entertaining. I do a brisket or a Korean BBQ-inspired bo-saam, which is a pork shoulder roasted slowly in the oven for 12 hours at 200°. The meat just falls off the bone. It’s incredible. But don’t experiment with guests. Go with what you know when you are entertaining. And if something doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, use my favorite trick: re-name it. Pretend you meant to make it that way. A ruined mushroom omelet transforms into ‘scrambled farm-fresh eggs with wild mushrooms.’ Nobody will be the wiser. For wine, forget the red/white craziness and go with sparkling. Great sparklers are out there for $10–$15 dollars a bottle and they go with everything.”
—Neil Reiter, co-owner, Lolita,
“How do you keep stress down over the holidays? That’s easy: Don’t celebrate. Ha! Seriously, just keep it uncomplicated. Don’t do things that stress you out. If you don’t usually give a party for 50, don’t start during the holidays. When I’m at home, we make up a big batch of burritos or spaghetti. Easy. I’m cooking at the restaurant every day, and it’s incredibly stressful, so I don’t make a big deal over what’s on the stove—even if it’s the holidays. My mother put three meals on the table every day for 12 people for decades. That’s pressure. She was practical and creative, but she kept it simple. We ate meatloaf, spaghetti with meat sauce made from grinding up the leftover protein from previous meals, flank steak—and it was all really good. She was the person who first taught me how to cook, so now, during the holidays, we go over to her house, and I cook her dinner.”
—James Lindquist, Red Sky Restaurant,
Southwest Harbor, Maine
“Plan, plan, and plan. Planning ahead is as important as the dinner itself. Make your menu delicious and doable. A cheese platter (two soft cheeses, one hard cheese, sliced apple and assortment of crackers) is quick and delicious—no need for other hors d’oeuvres. Make a list of what needs to be done and when you are going to do it. Shop in the morning when the shops first open. Get as much done as you can before the day of your event, I start prepping a week before an event. Ask for help. A chef cannot run a restaurant by herself. Have people bring a dish—with serving utensils—to share, and tell them what you need them to bring. Relax and enjoy; this is the reason everyone is together.”
—Stephanie Danahy, Local Market,
“At the restaurant, we par-cook many ingredients so that we are able to ‘finish’ any dish in just minutes. Proper cooking temperatures and cooling techniques are important to make sure you stop short of fully cooking ingredients and retain the right textures and flavors, but it’s a huge time-saver. For meats, there are some delicious cuts that can save you a lot of money and will taste even better than the most expensive rib-eye or filet when treated properly. Look for less popular, inexpensive cuts that are thicker and well marbled (don't be afraid of bone-in cuts as this adds flavor and creates an impressive presentation). Processes such as brining, sous vide, braising, and slow cooking or smoking can be done days ahead and will cut hours off of your time in front of the stove. Last thing: enjoy; and get back to the party.”
—William Henry Holmes, Standard Gastropub,
“The biggest stress-reducer is to know your limits. I have a certain amount of ingredients and time set aside for the holidays and when they run out, there’s no more. I don’t take any more orders. Home baking is a nice tradition during the holidays, but you can also save time and hassle by pre-ordering and buying your favorite desserts and pastries at a good bakery, which leaves room for other things. You can also re-purpose. At home, I always make a traditional steamed pudding with any leftover gingerbread or dried fruits from the bakery. Some desserts make for a good, easy breakfast if you have a houseful of people, like panettone for delicious French toast the following day. Think ahead and have your favorites on hand, or if you are baking yourself, have the ingredients in the cupboard well before you need them.”
—Atsuko Fujimoto, co-owner, Ten Ten Pié Bakery,
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.