Australians know you don’t have to be a great cook to be a great entertainer – some of the best parties are hosted by the worst cooks. Fancy food is far less important than people and atmosphere. Here’s a quick guide to how Australians organise relaxed get-togethers that let the hostess have just as much fun as the guests.
DO SKIP THE SMALL STUFF
Forget formality. Go for a relaxed atmosphere. Your guests will probably remember the pretty table setting. They might remember the super delicious aperitivo of camparis and fresh orange juice. But the three-course meal you didn’t serve will go largely unnoticed. Allow yourself to skip over somethings. No one will notice except for you. We never serve three courses. You can go without a lot of ‘necessary’ items, save time, hassle and most importantly, money. And no one will bat an eyelid.
DO WORK WITH THE SEASONS
Don’t drive yourself crazy with a pre-determined colour palette or menu. Work with what’s in season. A lunch in the middle of a great outdoor setting doesn’t need much more than the green grass and blue sky for décor.
DO LOVE YOUR GUESTS
This is the golden rule. When most Australians invite people to their home, it’s because they like them and they come because they want to. A dinner party is a pact to have a good-time together – that means all of you, including the host and hostess. Everything else – the food, the wine, the setting is secondary.
DON’T SERVE COMPLICATED FOOD
Australians don’t spend all day stuffing cherry tomatoes with 27 ingredients. You’ll be exhausted and you’re guests will tense up at the sight of the food, wondering how they’ll reciprocate. The food should be simple, generous, easy to serve and easy to eat. If you want to be Martha Stewart become a professional caterer.
DON’T BE CONFINED BY THE SPACE YOU LIVE IN
If you think your home is too small or not smart enough, think again. The people and conversation are what make a dinner party great. Sure, a stunning table overlooking the ocean at sunset is fun, but it’s not necessary for a dinner to be fun and memorable.
DO CREATE A PARTY ATMOSPHERE
Your kitchen and house shouldn’t be the same as they are everyday. Light candles, set the table with a tablecloth, pretty china, napkins; play great music; fill the room with foliage and flowers; and put on a fab dress.
DO BE FLEXIBLE
Accept last-minute party guests. If your best pal’s cousin is in town for the night, or someone extra arrives, don’t glower, welcome them. You’ve always got enough food for one or two more.
NEVER BE RUDE
If someone spills red wine on your new sisal flooring, or burns a hole in your favourite cushion, keep the charm flowing and go on as if they’ve done you the biggest favour. Most offences seem less serious the next morning.
IF THINGS GO WRONG
If the casserole burns, the fish is off, or dessert is a disaster, never despair or apologise. Make light of the catastrophe, your guests are here for a good time, they don’t need to know your pain. Raid the cupboards, get creative. Even if it’s pizza for main course, keep the portions generous, the wine flowing and the laughs coming. Remember the hostess sets the tone of the evening.
There’s no point having everything so, if you’re guests don’t feel welcome. Do as Australians do; be warm. Greet your guests. Rush to the door – even out to the car. Usher them in – gush over their little gifts, and make them feel loved. Introduce everyone. Give them a drink, and have one yourself. Stay with them while they drink it, too. Those first few minutes are vital. This is not the time to rush to the kitchen and start beating cream.
DON’T SHOW OFF
Australians tend to resist the temptation to get out every piece of silver they own. They don’t want to end up looking like a restauranteur. One water and one glass per person is usually enough. They also prefer to keep the cutlery simple.
BEFORE ANYONE ARRIVES
Preparation is the key to a great night. All you need to do is look good, be charming and dish up the food.
DO DRINK AND BE MERRY
Nothing makes people more relaxed than a generous glass of something when they arrive. Hit your guests with a grand gesture in a glass. Try Campari, martinis, or generous slugs of gin-and-tonic. Alcohol is the great ice breaker, don’t underestimate it. It’s amazing what a few glasses will do to relax a room and get everyone laughing.
DO LIMIT YOUR TIME IN THE KITCHEN
Don’t leave your guests on their own, making polite chitchat while you vanish to cook. Pre-prepare as much food as possible. That will leave you plenty of time to relax and spend with your guests. Don’t wash up during dinner: what you think takes a few seconds, actually results in your guests being left alone and unloved for ten long minutes.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
In the food department, do only what you can comfortably. If that’s five courses, congratulations. Otherwise, pare back to something dead simple because your guests will only be relaxed when you are. Simplicity can cost a little more (a mountain of prawns and oysters, a whole salmon cooked on the barbecue) but it leaves you free to sparkle.
The higher quality the ingredients, the less you have to do. Nothing beats slow roast lamb or a filet of beef. So easy to serve and far better than sweating over it. To finish there is nothing wrong with cheating – so long as your shop-bought pastry is a stunner.
Once your pals arrive, work the room. As long as the atmosphere is right, all you need is enough food to go around, served simply. With smiling relaxed hosts, people will have more fun tucking into one great course, than a feast dished up by largely absent hosts.
MAKE IT LOOK GOOD
Presentation is everything. You can make plain food look great, styled correctly. Big white bowls and wooden bowls are a good start.
LET THEM SERVE THEMSELVES
Don’t plate up food. There’s nothing nicer than helping yourself to what you fancy. Use different sized platters and pedestal bowls for interest. It looks (and feels) modern.
DON’T GIVE THEM INDIGESTION
No lunch or dinner should have more than one creamy course or more than once course involving pastry (forget that menu of onion tart, followed by beef wellington followed by pear tart).
KEEP GUESTS OUT OF THE KITCHEN
You don’t want to turn your guests into sous-chefs of scullery maids, and people who hang around chatting slow things down in the kitchen when they should be animating the dinner table. Generally, they’ll only come to talk to you if you’ve been spending so long in the kitchen that they feel guilty. Their presence is a sign for you to head back to the table.
DON’T RUSH TO DO THE DISHES
One of the best parts of a dinner is the time after the meal is finished when everyone lingers at the table. Open a fresh bottle of wine. Sit back, relax, and let the lively conversation commence.
WALK PEOPLE TO THE CAR WHEN THEY LEAVE
There is nothing lovelier than having the whole family come out to say goodbye and wave guests off. Let people know you care and that you’ve appreciated their company. It doesn’t matter who they are: the richest man in Australia or your friend and her latest hopeless boyfriend. Never let anyone leaving your house open the door themselves. It’s bad luck for them, and hideously ill-mannered on your part.