How to Throw Your Perfect Dinner Party
In South Africa – for a whole generation of baby boomers – Emsie Schoeman was the most definitive voice on the subject of good manners and etiquette. In fact, she published numerous volumes on the subject, including Goeie Maniere & Etiket (1987), the revised Nuwe Goeie Maniere & Etiket (1995), and Moderne Maniere (1999). Here are her tips for putting on an extra-special dinner party.
The smell of freshly cut citrus still clings to your fingertips, the drinks tray poised, the table set with flowers and candles abundant. “A dinner party is a celebration of life,” says Emsie. “From the moment your guests enter the front door, everything from the smell of your home to the lighting to a show-stopping table, should enchant and delight them!” She suggests making the most of your available resources, and as with all great theatre, “If you only achieve one thing, it is to send your guests home feeling like they’ve had the time of their lives.”
Hosting a dinner party breathes new life into your home. It gives you an opportunity to throw out old newspapers, put an exotic pot plant in the bathroom and add a flamboyant flourish to an old familiar dish. But ensuring a perfect evening requires a bit of legwork. Whom do you invite? What is the ideal table setting? What will make the meal unforgettable? What will everyone talk about? And what memories will they take home with them? To really wow your guests, you also have to find out what they like and work it into everything from the décor to the food you serve.
“Alfred Hitchcock said that eight guests were the ideal number,” says Emsie, drawing from the cinema’s master of suspense, whose dinner parties were said to be legendary. “He said there should be one VIP – someone of high standing – so that your guests have something to boast about the next day. There should be a gripping storyteller, like Oscar Wilde, to delight your guests, but who doesn’t advertise himself too much. Balance a good talker with a good listener, someone who gives your guests ample opportunity to talk about themselves. Then, he said, there should always be a very beautiful woman at the table,” says Emsie, adding playfully, “but I don’t see why there shouldn’t be an attractive man as well.”
Traditionally, the hostess serves the food and the host serves the drinks. “In my opinion, Champagne or sparkling wine is always a good aperitif and can even be enjoyed throughout dinner. Create an amiable atmosphere by properly introducing people to each other.” Pair people with common interests and share compelling anecdotes as openers to their conversation.
But, she cautions, “Guide your guests to the table within an hour of their arrival. Otherwise, they might drink too much!”
When deciding on how to seat your guests, start with the host and hostess. “They always sit opposite one another,” says Emsie. “The most important male guest sits to the hostess’s right and his partner, diagonally across to the host’s right. Similarly, the second most important male guest sits to her left and his partner, to that of the host. During drinks, before dinner, “If you see clusters forming, break them up and redistribute your guests,” says Emsie. “Before you know it, the men’s conversation will be dominated by rugby,” she laughs.
“Tretchikov’s daughter, Mimi, said, ‘You eat with your eyes,’ so your table should be original, beautiful and colourful,” says Emsie. “There should be no serving dishes on the table, except for a tasteful, glass salad bowl. A nice touch is to garnish your salad with edible flowers to make it a real centrepiece.”
On that note, don’t forget the flowers. “Marieke de Klerk said that when she and her husband, F.W., were invited to dine with Queen Beatrice of the Netherlands, they arrived to a breathtaking, long table adorned from end to end with flowers,” says Emsie. “But do watch the height of your table decorations. Your guests should be able to make eye-contact comfortably from across the table.”
When it comes to setting the cutlery and crockery, Emsie says, “In my experience, most men don’t pay attention to the finer details. Oftentimes, they’ll pick up a fork meant for the main course when served the starter. A good hostess doesn’t overcomplicate the table setting with an arsenal of cutlery, crockery and glassware. It makes your guests uncomfortable. Leave the dessert ware, coffee and tea cups off the table until you need them.”
For a group of eight, the hostess could comfortably serve the guests. “Always serve from the left and take from the right. When holding a dish for the guests to help themselves, make sure there’s a large serving spoon and fork for them to use. And whatever you do, don’t move the serving dish until the guest has placed the serving spoon and fork back in the dish.”
For a formal dinner, use white damask napkins. “One must never put napkins in a glass. They look like rabbit ears. Always put them on a plate. And for heaven’s sake, never stack used plates on top of each other on the table after a course,” says Emsie. “Guests often do this as a good gesture to their hosts, but it’s so undignified. Take the plates to the kitchen one by one.” For less formal dinner parties, Emsie says, “I prefer a buffet. It gives you a chance to show off your most beautiful serving dishes and gives people an opportunity to mingle.”
“When planning your menu, play with colours, flavours and various interesting textures, like black rice, nuts and seeds for crunch,” says Emsie. “Prepare dishes you know your guests will enjoy. Also, this is not the time to experiment. Play it safe. If you’ve never made a dish before, rather make something you know will be a hit.”
Something that can cause a lot of unnecessary stress is the starter. Your guests might take their time in getting to the table, for instance, and if you’ve planned a hot dish, your dinner is off to a bad start. “A cold starter might be preferable,” says Emsie.
If you do decide to serve soup, Emsie says, “Serve it with sherry. It might be a slightly old-fashioned custom, but it’s entirely acceptable – at even the most distinguished functions – to pour a bit of your sherry into your soup.”
A colourful ensemble of guests needs to be managed. “Sometimes, you might find a guest talks too much,” says Emsie. “Then it falls to the host or hostess to say, ‘Isn’t that interesting, David. Jeremy, didn’t you say you also played tennis?’ What you want is for every guest to go away thinking, ‘I had a great time. I didn’t feel ignored.’”
The onus to ensure a good evening for one and all is not on the host or hostess alone. Guests are also expected to pull their weight. “Read the situation,” says Emsie, “If you’re talking too much, you’re not getting around to eating. Watch your hostess and keep up. Plates can only be cleared once every guest has finished his or her course.”
The celebration should end on a high note. Everyone who was at the dinner should leave enriched. By the time the final guest has gone, you are left with a table of flowers, the smell of candle smoke and lingering perfumes, and a home with new stories to tell. “I always say, your guests must go home with aching tummies,” says Emsie, “not from eating too much, but from laughing so much, and with a general sense that it’s wonderful to be alive.”