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10 Supersmart Holiday Entertaining Tips from Star Chefs

These 10 chefs are super-rigorous in professional kitchens, but at home during the holidays they’re all about ease and fun. Here, clever strategies that make it simple to host a memorable holiday gathering.
Joanne Chang
Photo © Keller + Keller.

Joanne Chang

Pick a Strong Playlist

“The right music can make your party memorable and fun. My husband and I typically stay away from holiday music, though we have this annual argument about Mariah Carey’s song All I Want for Christmas Is You: I love it and want to play it every other song. But my husband hates it, so I try to slip it in and my husband gets really upset. But generally speaking, we stick to nonseasonal stuff. We know from running our restaurant that you want something that will add to the party and not detract. We tend to pick songs that are fun, poppy and bright.”

David McMillan
Photo © Fredrika Stjärne.

David McMillan

Pour Freely, But Watch the Alcohol

“When you go to the liquor store, take a close look at the labels to find the ABV percentage, and buy wines that are below 12 percent if you can. You may have family over who aren’t accustomed to wine, and there’s a lot of bad wine out there that’s 15 to 16 percent ABV. Grandma’s going to have one glass and she’ll be lights out. When I drink three glasses of 14 percent wine, I’m exhausted. There’s also nothing wrong with adding water in your wine, or sparkling water to make a spritzer—and a spritzer can be 1 ounce of wine and 4 ounces of soda. I have Italian friends who make them with Coca-Cola or 7-Up—half wine, half 7-Up, ice cubes, they love it. You can even serve it in a Champagne glass. It lets people to go the distance and always have a beverage in their hands.”

Dorie Greenspan
Photo © Alan Richardson.

Dorie Greenspan

Have an Indoor Picnic

“Think room temperature. When I’ve invited lots and lots of people for dinner—as I often do—I make what I call an indoor picnic. I forget about first courses and main courses and just fill up the table with great food, all at room temperature, and let everyone pass the dishes around and take whatever they want in the order that they want it. It’s always fun and it’s great if you’ve got people who might not know everyone around the table. It doesn’t take more than a few dish-passings for everyone to put their elbows on the table and start talking to one another like old friends. ”

Grant Achatz
Photo © Ethan Hill.

Grant Achatz

Make a Scented Centerpiece

“I like to play with aromas in my cooking, and the holidays are associated with so many nostalgic smells: pumpkin pies out of the oven, a turkey roasting, a pine tree if you do a tree. Giving a nod to all that, you could set a beautiful glass bowl or vase in the middle of the table, and fill it with cut oranges, vanilla beans, foot-long cinnamon sticks (which you should be able to get from any good spice purveyor, like The Spice House or Williams-Sonoma) whole chestnuts or walnuts (it’s best if you can toast them in their shells and crack them with the back of a knife) pine branches (if you can’t pick them outside, you can always find them at a florist, or disassemble a grocery store wreath). I prefer a vase because I like height, plus it takes up a smaller footprint to leave room for the food. At first it’s bordering on Martha Stewart; it just looks like a nice arrangement. But when you bring out your beautiful roasted main course, whether it’s goose or beef or turkey, bring out a teapot of hot water. As the plates go down, pour the hot water into the vase to release the aromas. The room will be perfumed with cinnamon, orange, roasted nuts and pine, and all those smells will spark memories and get people talking. What seemed like a pretty centerpiece becomes a real conversation starter. The only tip I have is to make sure the bowl or vase is made of tempered glass so it doesn’t crack when you pour the hot water—that would be a disaster.”

Tom Valenti
Photo courtesy of Ouest.

Tom Valenti

Reheat Sous Vide-Style

“I have a great technique: Ziploc freezer bags are my salvation. I figured out my system once I realized that, after running around at the last minute cooking everything the morning before the meal, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat any of it. By the time everything was ready, all I wanted was a bologna sandwich and a beer. So now I make everything the day before. The butternut squash puree, the mashed potatoes, the brussels sprouts: I make them, slip them in a Ziploc bag and refrigerate them overnight. Right before the meal, I immerse the bags in a gentle water bath. Once they’re hot, I cut a corner off the bag, squeeze the contents into a bowl and I’m done. Just make sure the bags are well sealed; those mashed potatoes will quickly turn into vichyssoise if they’re not sealed properly.”

Daniel Boulud
Photo © Peter Medelik.

Daniel Boulud

Braise and Relax

“The ultimate wintertime entertaining dish is a braised dish. You can prepare it the day ahead, or during the day before the guests arrive, and you might even have time to go see a movie. The house smells so good, and there are so many braising recipes you can use from all over the world. You can make something simple or more complex, depending on your mood. But above all, braising is all about taking it slow, which is important to do during the holidays.”

Marcus Samuelsson
Photo courtesy of Paul Brissman.

Marcus Samuelsson

Get Your Guests Dancing

“I like to teach Ethiopian tribal dance moves during my holiday parties. Most of my friends aren’t Ethiopian, so it’s pretty memorable for them. If you Google ‘Ethiopian tribal dance,” you’ll see what I’m talking about. The moves are the same for men and women, and everyone looks silly, so it’s a fun icebreaker. Just put on some Ethiopian music, pour some glögg and some cranberry caipirinhas and get down.”

Megan Garrelts
Photo © Bonjwing Lee.

Megan Garrelts

Give a Parting Gift

“I love to remind people of your party the next day by giving people something to take away with them: a little of your favorite coffee or tea in a tin, or a sliver of pound cake or cranberry bread, a breakfast bread or muffin. Especially if you have out-of-town guests cooped up in a hotel or at grandma’s house, it’s a nice thing to have for the day after.”

Scott Conant
Photo © Melanie Dunea.

Scott Conant

Put Leftover Wine to Use

“Since there always seems to be some leftover wine—not in people’s glasses, but in the decanter or the bottle—I’ll take that wine, add some vinegar to it, and then use that for salads and other vinaigrettes after a couple of weeks’ time. Let’s say you have 2 cups of wine leftover: I’d add about a 1/4 cup of vinegar to that at most. That’s your starter—or what they call the mother. Put a cork in it and let it sit on your counter for a few weeks, the mother will turn the rest of the wine to vinegar. Sometimes when I tell some people that tip, they like to tell me there’s never any leftover wine in their house. So here’s another tip: Don’t drink so much. Leave some left over for your vinegar.”

Akasha Richmond
Photo courtesy of Akasha Restaurant.

Akasha Richmond

Outsource the Cleanup

“I’m terrible at cleaning up afterward. If I entertain at my house, I have my husband clean up or I hire somebody. If I go all day and am creative, and cook and cook and cook, there’s just no way I can clean up—it’s not in me. You know how some people are the doing-the-dishes-as-they-go kinds of people? I’m not one of them. I’m pretty bad at that. But I suggest hiring someone. Call a local staffing agency; it’s the best money you’ll spend. Because you want to have fun at your party. You don’t want your friends to leave and see the mess and say, ’Oh, my God.’”

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