How to Be the Perfect Host

Published in Gourmet Live 03.21.12
Entertaining advice from Henry Alford, author of the modern-manners guide Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

Hosting a great party starts with inviting the right people. I don’t mean the fascinating and the beautiful and the recently Poet Laureated—though they’re fun, too. I mean the people whose feelings will be hurt if they don’t get invited. If you’re friendly with both Dianne and Sinead—who are best friends—then you should probably invite both Dianne and Sinead if it’s a party with more than, say, 15 people. People who realize that they’ve been shunned have a tendency to fret or self-immolate.

When you invite people to your house for the first time, ask them beforehand if there’s anything they don’t eat. This will keep your boss’ wife from meticulously picking all the olives out of the chicken tagine you serve her. Many hosts find it’s safest to serve either family- or buffet-style—this way your pickier eaters can wage a surgical strike on the offerings.

Optimizing Every Second of the First 15 Minutes

When guests arrive, the perfect host talks to them immediately, just to “take their temperature.” Does this guest need a little more attention than the other guests, or perhaps a mild sedative? Is there someone in the room whom you’re especially keen on introducing this new guest to? Do you want to whisper in his or her ear, “Miriam is the blonde”?

The perfect host makes copious introductions among the guests, even if she thinks they already know each other: It’s much nicer to be introduced than to have to do it yourself. Additionally, in the early stages of a party, it can relax many a guest if you give them something to talk about. You might do this by dangling an interesting biographical tidbit about one of the other guests (“Roberto has a thing about toucans”). Or you can tempt with a statement like, “You’ll definitely want to see the new soap dispenser in the guest bathroom. One word: bacchanal.”

The first 10 or 15 minutes of a party are critical: Guests are looking to break the ice, and then to cling to one of these recently cleaved ice floes like a polar bear in desperate search of ballast. Introductions and alluring comments about bathroom soap dispensers will help here, but you might also chat people up in a way that others can subsequently take as their cue. If the guest in question recently took a trip to Easter Island, or bought a collection of porcelain wee Scotties on eBay, ask about this. Or if you and the guest met while working on a topographical survey of Mount Washington, tell the other guests—it’s conversational fodder for them.

If you’re having a party with more than, say, 40 people, name tags are terrific. They seem geeky at first, but everyone will love you for them. Maybe make them noncompulsory—or give everyone a name tag and let them write whatever they want to on it (“Work friend, Amy,” “Noted libertine,” “I have to leave soon to teach a class so please don’t take it personally”).

Upon guests’ arrival, it’s great to serve something delicious—I’m not going to tie you to the phrase “melted cheese” here, but I’m going to throw it out—so that the very hungry can find immediate solace. Serving too much food too soon can be overkill, but you do want to have something for the guy who missed lunch and then walked to the party from work.

Who Goes Where, and What Happens There

If it’s a sit-down dinner or event, the seating arrangement is important. Start your seating plan with anyone who needs to be flattered (the honoree, or your cohost) and give them a juicy person on either their left or right. Then take care of your Special Needs guests (e.g., the speaker of limited English, your socially challenged neighbor), and cater to them seating-wise. Finally, sprinkle others as needed, splitting up the spouses and parceling out the extroverts so they don’t clump.

Have lots of food on offer. Have lots of drink. In Japan, you never pour sake for yourself—you only pour for others, and they pour for you. Let this lovely custom be your guidepost when it comes to beveraging.

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