Before Dec. 23, Tony Conway’s Atlanta-based catering company, Legendary Events, has 161 parties to execute. But Conway, a veteran of the hospitality business for 40 years who’s known for making the impossible happen for clients such as Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, doesn’t sound the least bit anxious about it over the phone. He sounds positively sedate, the epitome of grace and composure.
“Hosting a party is all about being prepared,” says Conway, “and having a great team to get it all done. At Legendary Events and Flourish (his special-event venue in Buckhead), I feel sort of like the orchestra conductor, and my team members are the players. We know the music, and we have a network in place to help when we break a string or lose an instrument.”
The same philosophy, he says, can be applied to holiday parties. But even if Miss Winfrey or Mr. Perry aren’t in attendance, hosting can still be nerve racking.
So how do you throw a holiday shindig and still manage to feel merry and bright?
“Prepare ahead,” says Archna Becker, restaurateur and owner of Bhojanic in Buckhead, Bhojanic Market on the Emory campus and, since October, at Georgia Tech. Becker’s special love of food and music have a made her a favorite of award-winning musicians such as Dave Matthews, Yo Yo Ma, Phish, Widespread Panic and members of the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers Band. “Try not to cook at all the day of the party,” says Becker. “You don’t want to be so exhausted that you can’t enjoy yourself.”
That “be prepared” theme seems to resonate with professionals. Gena Berry, founder and owner of Culinary Works who styles and creates meals and dishes for film and television, agrees. If MacGyver needs a meatloaf bomb, Berry’s the go-to-gal. She’s also the director of culinary operations at prestigious events such as the Charleston Wine + Food festival and kitchen director at Churchill Downs and Atlanta Food & Wine festival.
“I always advise home caterers to do as much in advance as possible,” says Berry. She recommends making detailed lists, and bagging and labeling garnishes and food items for the day of. “You can even set the table in advance,” Berry recommends. She suggests thinking beyond the menu to linens and serving dishes, labeling and looking them over as the date nears so that you can make small changes in case there is a change in your guest count. “Save nothing for the last minute,” Berry advises, “because something will always come up.”
Conway recommends creating a network of professionals, from florists to last-minute food-to-go, as another key in pulling off a successful soiree. Berry says to make friends with chefs and purveyors near you who can provide food items at a lower cost, or who you can borrow or rent items from. “The idea is to have people on the ground, so to speak, that are a phone call away and who specialize in specific tasks to help you get the job done,” says Conway, who’s created elaborate affairs for Winfrey in less than three days.
Another big aspect, says Becker, is to choose items for your menu that are easy to execute. “A party for 25 at your home is not the time to test a new recipe for something complicated,” she says. “Keep it simple. There are plenty of delicious recipes that are easy to prepare ahead. Don’t make anything to order.”
Part of keeping it simple is hiring people to help you, says Berry. “It’s not that expensive, and is totally worth the relief it provides,” she says.
With all this networking and preparation, what taboos are lurking to unhinge all your well-laid plans?
“Make sure your menu accommodates everyone from gluten- and nut-free to vegetarians,” says Berry. “Options make for happy guests.”
Becker recommends varying textures, flavors and spices – and not just in the food. “Your table and buffet area should be like a composition,” she says. “Vary the colors and textures to create interest and appeal.” Another insider tip? Keep ‘bad breath’ items to a minimum, says Berry.
With all these pieces in place, once the party starts, your affair will jingle all the way, and you can relax and enjoy.
Planning a party? Celebrity chefs and caterers say the key to success is being prepared. Here are three crowd-pleasing, make-ahead recipes to try for your next dinner party.
Gena Berry’s Marinated Wild Georgia Shrimp
Culinary Works founder Gena Berry loves to serve this dish at parties because it’s easy to prepare ahead of time, serves a crowd, and looks beautiful on a buffet.
2 pounds 26/30 count Wild Georgia shrimp
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup pickled nonpareil capers, drained
1 clove garlic, grated on microplane
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, an extra for garnish if desired
1 small purple onion, peeled
1 bunch flat leaf parsley
Boil (see detailed instructions below), peel and devein the shrimp.
In a gallon-sized zip-top bag, combine the vinegar, capers, garlic, sugar, salt and oils. Using a vegetable peeler, peel 1-inch wide strips of the lemon rind, thinly slice and add to the marinade. Cut the lemon in half and add the juice to the marinade.
Cut the onion in half, from the root to the stem end. Trim the root and stem ends off and discard. Thinly slice half the onion from root to stem end to make 1 cup of sliced onion. Soak the onion in a bowl of ice and water for 10 minutes. (This will remove the sharp onion flavor and also will crisp the onion.) Drain the onion and add to the marinade.
Remove the stems from the parsley, rinse well and coarsely chop. Squeeze the parsley in a dry paper towel to remove any bitter juices, then add to the marinade. Zip the top of the marinade bag closed and mix the ingredients.
Add the shrimp to the marinade, zip the top closed, squeezing out excess air and turning so all the shrimp are coated in the marinade and the onions and parsley are well distributed. Let the shrimp marinate for 3 hours before serving.
To make ahead, boil, peel and devein the shrimp. Make the marinade up to the lemon and zip the bag closed. Cut the onion and place in a sandwich-sized zip top bag with ice and a little water. Chop the parsley, squeeze and then wrap in a dry paper towel. Store the wrapped parsley and the shrimp in a zip top bag lined with dry paper towels.
Three hours before serving, drain the onion and remove any remaining ice and add to the marinade. Unwrap the parsley and add to the marinade; zip closed and mix together. Add the shrimp, zip the top closed and refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, fill a clear, 3-quart bowl half full with crushed ice. Slice a lemon for garnish and slide down into the ice. Serve the shrimp in a 2-quart bowl set atop the ice.
To cook the shrimp: Fill an 8-quart stock pot three-quarters full with water. Place over high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Add the shrimp all at once and stir to combine. Cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. The shrimp will start to curl and turn opaque. Immediately dump the shrimp into a colander in the sink and run cold water over to stop the cooking and chill the shrimp. Peel and devein the shrimp. If you are using frozen shrimp, add to the boiling water and cook just until curled and opaque. Serves: 20
Per serving: 80 calories (percent of calories from fat, 45), 9 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (trace saturated fat), 69 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium.
Bhojanic’s Alu Gobhi
This North Indian cauliflower classic is a staple on Bhojanic’s catering menu. It can serve a crowd as well as please one.
3-4 tablespoons oil (preferably an oil with a high smoke point, such as canola)
1 tablespoon whole cumin seed
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
3 teaspoons salt, divided
1 head cauliflower
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
2-4 pinches cayenne pepper
1 cup cilantro, divided
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the cumin. As soon as the seeds begin to pop, stir in the tomato puree and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the potatoes and 1 and ½ teaspoons salt; reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until the outer layer of the potato is cooked, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the cauliflower, ginger, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper and the remaining 1 and ½ teaspoons salt and stir together without damaging the florets. Cover and cook until the cauliflower is tender, 15 to 20 minutes, adding ½ cup of the cilantro during the final minutes of cooking.
Serve garnished with the remaining ½ cup cilantro. Serves: 6 to 8
Per serving, based on 6: 122 calories (percent of calories from fat, 53), 2 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 1,102 milligrams sodium.
Bengan Bharta (Roasted Eggplant)
Owner Archna Becker uses this dish as a flavorful addition to a buffet table, and the recipe is easily doubled for serving large parties.
2 large eggplants (1 pound each)
3 tablespoons oil (olive, canola, or vegetable)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 cups onion, diced
1 cup tomato puree
2-3 teaspoons salt, to taste
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 cup green peas
1 cup cilantro, chopped and loosely packed
Lightly oil hands and rub them over the surface of the eggplants. Put one or two slits in the skin so no bursting occurs. Either roast on a hot grill or broil in the oven for 25-45 minutes until skin separates from the meat and becomes soft.
After cooling, take the skin off and mash the meat with a potato masher or process in a food processor.
Heat a wok on medium-high heat and add oil. Once hot, add the cumin seeds and brown them; add the onions and cook until brown. Add the tomato puree and cook with onions for 8-10 minutes. Add the salt, cayenne pepper, coriander, and turmeric. Add peas, and cook for another 20 minutes. Garnish with chopped cilantro. Serves: 6 to 8
Per serving, based on 6: 168 calories (percent of calories from fat, 38), 5 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 895 milligrams sodium.