When Annette Joseph hosts a dinner party, it’s not just about the food. Certainly the menu matters, as does creating a welcoming setting for her guests. But for her, a good party is all about the people. We recently had a chance to sit down with the home and food stylist to talk about what makes for a memorable gathering, and her go-to tricks for making it easy.
The Guest List
Her first step in composing her get-togethers is to artfully assemble the right combination of guests. “You want an eclectic mix of people, some of whom have never met but have something in common,” says Joseph. She likens hosting a dinner party to directing an orchestra pit — you’re putting the pieces of a puzzle together, attending to your guests needs, and helping them make connections. Once your guests are settled, then you can worry about the drinks, replenishing the food, and checking to be sure your chicken roasting in the oven isn’t burning.
Setting the Scene
If you’ve decided to have friends over, Joseph cautions about getting too caught up in what’s on the surface. “Gatherings are about the people — the food is secondary,” she explains. You shouldn’t be obsessively fretting about what flowers you should set out on the table, what music to play, or whether or not your specially-ordered monogrammed cocktail napkins will arrive in time. Your state (are you relaxed and mingling, or frazzled and stressed?) sets the tone for how your guests feel, and your goal should be to make them feel at home and important — that’s what sets the scene for your party.
Engaging Your Guests
Instead of hiding away cooking in the kitchen, Joseph suggests situating yourself near the door, saying hello to each guest as they arrive and making introductions as necessary. Make them feel at home by either handing out a signature cocktail or encouraging guests to help themselves to beverages and food you’ve set up in advance. As the host, you are also the one providing the entertainment. If you notice someone that looks uncomfortable and not welcome, go up to them and engage them in a conversation or introduce them to someone else who they might like. It's the same at the dinner table. If the conversation dwindles, it's up to you to come up with a story. Games are also fun to play — or go around asking guests to name their favorite movie or who they think the cutest actor is.
What to Serve
Joseph is a very visual person, so when planning her menus, she strives to give even the plainest ingredients an elegant appeal. “First go through the process of serving,” says Joseph. “Instead of thinking about what you’re making, think out your menu. How will you plate the food and how will it be presented?” She prefers to serve food in an visually-interesting way — labeling your dishes so your guests know exactly what they’re choosing, serving some foods in napkin-covered baskets, while spreading others on slate platters. She spends lots of time in Italy, so when entertaining at home, Joseph is naturally drawn to European favorites like spreads of charcuterie and cheeses. “You don’t have to cook everything from scratch when having a get-together,” Joseph cautions. There is nothing wrong with picking up a pre-roasted chicken to help you save time. “Just be sure to stick to serving simple food that people can relate to.”
In addition to being a natural host, Annette Joseph is a photo stylist/producer with 15 years of experience working in lifestyle editorial content. She is currently working on her first book On Home Style and Stylish Entertaining.