For better or worse, food knowledge has become a form of conversational currency. Whether you pickle your own ramps or seek out the top taco trucks in sketchy neighborhoods, you’ll find no shortage of self-proclaimed experts on all things gustatory. We all know an annoying foodie—the person who babbles endlessly about his last meal of sea urchin with bone marrow or his latest post on Yelp. Don’t be that guy. Instead, be the man who throws down in the kitchen and pours a perfect glass of champagne, all while making each guest feel as though he or she is the only person in the room. Actually knowing how to cook and how to throw a proper dinner party is what separates the talker from the doer. Everyone eats. Not everyone dines. The difference? Knowing how to stage a meal the right way.
Few things are more impressive or rewarding than throwing a great dinner party, but there’s a rhythm to it, a vibe. The dinner should be both personal and communal. It’s your party and you’ll cook what you want to, but if your offerings don’t please the crowd, what’s the point? Vinny Dotolo, Ludo Lefebvre and Jon Shook know better than anyone how to feed a group. That’s why their restaurant Trois Mec in Los Angeles is the hottest ticket (you have to buy one online to grab one of the 24 seats) on the American dining scene. This culinary supergroup has deep roots in dinner parties. Dotolo and Shook parlayed their caterers-to-the-stars status into two of America’s best restaurants, Animal and Son of a Gun, and Lefebvre’s legendary LudoBites pop-up events cemented his reputation as one of the world’s top chefs.
To learn how to apply the highest level of culinary prowess to a house party, we talked the chefs into throwing one for us. The location: the Hollywood Hills home of their good friend, producer and director R.J. Cutler (his credits include The September Issue, Nashville and the upcoming feature film Fabulous Nobodies). We secured nearly $10,000 worth of caviar from topflight brand Petrossian and poured oceans of Cristal, Roederer and Moët. While the chefs cooked dinner with effortless ease, we talked them into spilling their secrets. And it turns out they have remarkably basic rules for throwing amazing events.
“When I do a party in my house, the most important thing is to really organize myself, because I’m working alone,” Lefebvre says in his thick French accent. “I also want to spend time with the guests, so being smart enough to do good food with less prepping is very important.”
Choosing your guests is where it begins. Bringing new and different people together works for Shook. “I like parties that come together organically with friends,” he says. “I’m not a big planner. Sometimes too much anticipation can kill the spontaneity.” Lefebvre also likes variety but is cautious. “I want to do a party that’s based on putting people together,” he says, “but I’m not going to put Italians and French people in my house, because they’ll fight about soccer.” Having a group of people who all know one another creates a dynamic much different from mixing and matching. We prefer the latter. Showing your skills to a new group sets a more exclusive tone and provides an opportunity to impress a potential business associate—or, even better, that gorgeous girl you keep bumping into in the elevator. For our dinner we invited a motley crew of writers, producers, party promoters, actresses and family friends. The only thing they had in common was their friendship with the chefs themselves.
One of the most effective ways to organize yourself and the menu is to choose an ingredient and use it throughout the dinner. Since decadence is what Playboy is about, caviar took center stage. “I usually try to think of a theme for the menu,” Shook says. “Then I move on to the guest list and budget.” Coursing your meal might seem obvious, but it’s more than just spacing out dishes. Like songs on an album, each dish gets a chance to shine and the host gets to be the star. Greet your guests with a glass of champagne and have a starter already laid out.
Going for decadence is easier than it sounds as many of the most indulgent dishes contain ingredients that can be eaten without cooking. Caviar works especially well. “Caviar eaten off the back of the hand is definitely decadent,” Shook says. “But you can’t buy cheap caviar. It’s similar to wine in that there are many levels. The cool thing is that you can buy everything online.” Although caviar is inherently expensive, he warns not to immediately associate price with luxury. Being creative with everyday ingredients such as fruits and vegetables is a great way to impress. “A really awesome vine-ripened tomato presented on the vine can be just as pretty and decadent as caviar.”
If you want to make the evening special, keep the sourcing at the highest level. When heading out to purchase the meats that will be the anchor of your dinner, bypass the shrink-wrapped, prepackaged aisle and get your product from the people who know. “Start with a local butcher or fishmonger,” says Shook. “Go to the store with two or three different ideas and really talk to the person to get his or her take. For fish it’s smell, and for meat it’s color.” Although this plan of attack may go against your initial menu ideas, the quality of the product you’ll bring home will be well worth the effort. Lefebvre agrees. “Don’t plan your main dish until you go to the store and see what is the best,” he stresses. “I always tell my cooks, ‘You go hunting first and then plan the menu.’”
A decadent dinner party can seem daunting even for someone who knows his or her way around a kitchen. Try to remember it’s not work; it’s a party. If that mantra doesn’t ease your anxiety, Lefebvre half jokingly suggests more champagne not only for your guests but for you as well. “Make sure your guests have more than enough to drink, and order some cabs to take them home,” he says. “That way, if the food doesn’t turn out, they’re not going to remember.” Shook agrees. “Don’t make the food too difficult and out of your reach,” he says. “Enjoy the party.” Just as Shook finishes his thought, Dotolo walks by with a tray of transmontanus caviar, baby strawberries and perfectly fried homemade potato chips. With just a hint of sarcasm he adds, “Or you can make the food way too difficult and just hide from everybody.”