Is there a secret to the perfect dinner party? Yes, there is. How can you learn it, I hear you ask? Well, it’s no easy matter: it takes many years of patient practise, study at the knees of seasoned hostesses, consultations with Michelin-starred chefs, substantial outlay on the finest food and wine. And even then, well, nothing is certain grasshopper. No, I’m only kidding, really! I mean, how hard can it be? I’ve just been watching Hell’s Kitchen – Big Brother for foodies – and have seen with my own eyes the inimitable Marco Pierre White turn a former world champion boxer, a washed-up comedian, a lingerie model from Essex and a daytime TV presenter into the culinary equivalents of Superman.
All Marco used were his trademark wide-eyed stare and a few stock guru phrases, such as: “Let me take you by the hand and guide you” … “Mother Nature is the true artist, I’m only a technician” … and “Right or wrong, right or wrong?” … and his acolytes were like whirling dervishes in the kitchen, producing everything from wonderfully politically incorrect foie gras to unctuous Eaton Mess. The only time there was a hint of the Moonies about it was when Marco occasionally bawled across the kitchen: “What are fingers for?” – and without even looking up from the furry bunnies they were eviscerating with total concentration, like off-duty members of the SAS, the assembled crew replied as one: “Burning, chef!” Good for them. That’s what I like to see in someone preparing food for me – total fanaticism. Apart from Marco, think Gordon Ramsey at Claridge’s, Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, Angela Hartnett at The Connaught …
So Rule Number One – make sure the food is perfect. On the other hand, there’s more to a successful dinner party than the best of food and drink, much though we may enjoy them. There’s ambiance – that little something that’s so hard to create. Merge the two, ambiance and culinary flair, and you have a hit on your hand. For this particular combination think Nigella … though she admits she does have an unacceptable tendency to graze while she’s cooking!
Multi-national dinner parties, of course, are something else again. Because apart from creating a friendly enjoyable atmosphere and producing a tantalizing array of goodies, there are the diplomatic implications to consider. Apart from being Chef de Cuisine, you’ll also have to become Chef de Protocol. Take a typical Mallorca evening. Your guests are likely to be British, German, Spanish, perhaps Dutch, conceivably Italian, maybe American, a veritable United Nations of well-travelled, well-heeled, well-practised gourmets. I heard recently of ten different nationalities around one dinner table! What a recipe for cultural misunderstanding!
For instance, the Dutch typically like to eat early. So if you’re Dutch, make sure that when you’re invited to a Spanish home for make sure that when you’re invited to a Spanish home for dinner, you don’t turn up at 6.30pm, just as they’re climbing out of the pool and thinking about going shopping Dinner is likely to start at 9.30pm, but ask just in case! In France or Spain it’s perfectly acceptable to arrive fashionably late for a dinner party. Here where I live in the Dordogne in France, it’s referred to jokingly as le quart d’heure Périgourdin – the Perigourdine quarter-of-an-hour – and it’s automatically built in.
Here, however, once you’re à table, you’re there for the evening, whereas in Spain it’s not unusual to have several appointments in one long evening. On the other hand it comes as no surprise that with our German friends, precision is everything. If you’re invited for 8pm, then you’re invited for 8pm, it’s as simple as that. And if you’re invited for a dinner party, you’re invited for the evening.
As with most nationalities nowadays, mobile phones are turned off. They do NOT ring, even with those annoying little bleeps to announce you’ve had a text message. If you’re an on-call brain surgeon, leave your host’s landline number with your hospital – and inform your hosts in advance. You won’t find that advice in the German etiquette bible, the Knigge – called after the 18th century writer and Freemason, Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge, author of Über den Umgang mit Menschen (On Human Relations) – but stick to it anyway!
And you’d be well-advised to stick to this particular pointer too. In Cologne, apparently – as in Austria – if you are clinking glasses with other guests, you MUST make eye contact with them. Why? Because if you don’t … wait for it … you have doomed youself to seven years of bad sex. Honest Injun! I really didn’t make that up.
But wait, I still haven’t let you in on the biggest secret of them all when it comes to a successful dinner party, multi-national or not. Yes, there is one and it is simple. And it’s this: invite friends – people you like, people who like you. Don’t get caught up in extended dining circles with people you barely know and don’t, let’s face it, really like. Right or wrong? Like all profound wisdom – it’s the essence of simplicity, grasshopper!