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How to entertain as a chef: my top ten tips

My thoughts on home entertaining have changed over the years. I once thought it was all about the food: showcasing skills and providing restaurant-style and quality meals. Which is almost impossible at home. For me now, it’s all about the people. I have learned much more by doing it wrong than doing it right. So here are my tips on how to survive, and enjoy, entertaining at home.

1. Plan, plan and plan again. I know it’s boring, but it’s vital. Plan what you are going to serve, plan when you are going to prepare it and plan how you are going to deliver it.

2. Do not serve food on individual plates. This one is just as important as planning. But do serve it on platters, bowls or large plates, which you can place on the dining table. There are two reasons for this. One: if you serve in bulk it’s much easier to deliver food hot and in perfect condition. Two: your guests can help themselves. This not only saves you a load of stress but also makes for a much more pleasant dining experience for your guests. They won’t feel obliged to eat a plate full that you have given them and they can pick and choose what they want to eat. I also find kids large and small eat more food this way. They start off being a little apprehensive, but before long they are back up for seconds. This style of serving food is rightly enough called ‘Family Service’.

3. Cook for your actual guests and style the food accordingly. By which I mean: think about the age group, personalities and occasion. Ask yourself what you would expect if you were going to this event. A night with the boss for dinner is very different from a crowd of your closest friends. 

4. Think about the equipment you have in your kitchen and design your menu carefully, taking this into account. Try and have a good mix of food coming from every area of the kitchen – some things from the oven, some done in the pressure cooker if you have one, some from the stove. Also ensure you have cold food on your menu as this also uses that vital bit of kit – the fridge. Try not to have too much food coming from the same place. 

5. Recruit some assistants, even if you are a kitchen maverick who always cooks alone. Sorting the table, setting cutlery and glasses – help with these can be a real time saver for you. Even if your assistants haven’t got a clue about what’s needing done in a kitchen, I’m sure they can sort out tableware!

6. Work within your capabilities and don’t be over ambitious. Don’t create a whole dinner entirely with new recipes: always have a couple of dishes that you know inside out. This will give you the headspace and time to try something different. It also ensures your guests have something edible to eat if the new stuff doesn’t work out! 

7. Minimum work and maximum impact. Think of what you can buy that involves very little work but provides a proper wow factor. The big flavours of smoked products are brilliant crowd pleasers. For example, hot and cold smoked salmon, duck breast or smoked chicken all take little work to make your own. Cured meats, pickled vegetables and olives make impactful intermediate courses. 

8. Practise if you can, especially if you want to try something different. Chefs always practise new dishes long before they attempt to serve them to the public. 

9. Taste, taste and taste again. It’s vital to taste food when you cook. For most chefs this is pure instinct. As I said at the start, it’s like driving a car: to change gear you press the clutch without any thought, but when you are learning you need to really focus on it each and every time. Seasoning is the same: the more you do it the more instinctive it becomes. When tasting always remember the golden rule, which is never ever double dip.10. Chill out, relax and enjoy the company. This is my most important tip and I have left it to last. Remember, it’s just a plate of food – the worst that can happen is you have to phone in a different plate of food.

  • Gary MacLean

    Scots in New England Honorary Board Member Gary Maclean is a multi-award-winning chef who is a favorite presenter at the NH Highland Games. He is a senior lecturer at the City of Glasgow College and a MasterChef: Professionals champion in 2016. He is Scotland’s first National Chef and the author of Kitchen Essentials: The Joy of Home Cooking. He lives in Glasgow with his beautiful family.

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