How Computers Could Plan Your Next Party

A new app could transform your dinner party, plus hosting tips from the humans behind the technology

The app in use at its first dinner party

Imagine the scene: You're getting ready for a dinner party and decide to sear tuna for a salad. But sure enough, you overcook it. Now what? For a normal host, a glitch in party preparations — an overcooked meat, a missing ingredient, a burnt-to-a-crisp dish — would set off panic buttons left and right. Fortunately, there may be a new aid to the rescue: an app.

Mike Lee and Will Turnage, digital gurus at Studiofeast (the supperclub Lee founded in 2007) and R/GA, are working on a tech solution for dinner party problems — an app that would aid party planning, from invites, cleaning up, recipe planning and shopping to table setting. The logic behind the app (called Food. You. Me), they say, is that most apps and web sites solve a very distinct problem.

"Everything out there focuses on only one part, instead of the big picture," Turnage says. "Some apps focus only on recipes, some just focus on shopping, or the planning, but nothing really focuses on the hosting."

"What's missing is that flexibility," adds Lee. "Everything out there is so static, that it's hard to deal with the problems that come up."

There's no app or web site that aims to "pull everything toghether," Lee says; the duo's new project aims to change that. Their app (still in the prototype phase) would deal with the timeline of a dinner party, they say. By creating a "holistic" experience from start to finish, it helps the host not panic.

The prototype, which they debuted at SXSW last week, used what Turnage called "smart" recipes. Users can pick between five courses with featured recipes that would update should anything go awry. For example, if you're creating a beef appetizer but you realize a guest doesn't eat red meat, the recipe would update to a tuna-based appetizer, or a veggie appetizer. Based on user preferences, the recipes would adapt to the situation — much like a host must do.

"All recipes exist in their own universe," Lee says. "They don't realize they're being cooked together. We're trying to make these recipes flexible and easily merged with others, so it's easier for the host."

The SXSW debut of the proptotype and panel earned rave reviews from chefs and foodies alike, Turnage said, and says they've heard from others trying to make a similar technology.

"For me personally, it was reassuring to hear how much it resonated with people," says Lee. "It's good to see a new way to approach cooking."

While Lee and Turnage are still developing the app, the foodies gave their own tips for hosting a stress-free dinner party, minus the technological help:

Decide upfront what kind of dinner party you want, Turnage says. "I think people who are just beginning don't think through the whole party," he says. "When you think through what you want to be doing during the party, it will create a better experience." Example: During Turnage and his wife's annual holiday party, they have two rules — all dishes must be made in advance and served at room temperature. That way, they're not in the kitchen while they want to be entertaining.

Cook to your own strengths, Lee says. Rather than pushing yourself to make a new, difficult dish and stressing out, go for a well-executed, simpler dish. Everyone has a certain skill level; go with what you know, he says. "Each dish is a user experience in itself, so design your menu smartly for the situation," Lee says.