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Conversations About Hospitality – with Emily

February 2, 2015


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On Monday mornings around here, we talk about issues near and dear to our hearts. This month and next, we are chatting about hospitality. Grab a cup of coffee and join in the conversation!

This morning’s conversation requires a bit of background narrative. When Emily and I lived together a few years ago, we (along with some other young ladies) inhabited a nearly uninhabitable house in a ironically prime location on Capitol Hill. Together, we battled the mice and squirrels who shared our space, invented creative ways to stay warm in a house whose insulation work was older than our parents, threw away a suspicious number of bottles of wine at the end of each week, bemoaned our various politico jobs, and cooked endless dishes together (while somehow managing not to blow ourselves up using the ancient gas stove). Later, Mark and I would eat our last D.C. meal in the same kitchen, hosted again by Emily, laughing and eating with friends late into the night.

As parties go, Emily is both more ambitious and more successful by far than me. She’s recently started to make headway on a dream of hers – turning culinary daring into a profession. Naturally, I was thrilled when she agreed to sit down with me to talk.

What is your favorite kind of event to host?

Dinner parties, hands down. They never feel rushed. The festivities don’t have to end at a particular time—just when cheeks start hurting from all the laughing, eyelids start drooping, and quiet yawns surface. Those who need to leave can, and those with a little more energy can stay as long as they want. I put my Southern manners aside for a second; good company isn’t imposing, even in the after-hours of a dinner party.

Europeans and the folks in Argentina (I’m biased from time spent there), do it right: start early, end late. Isn’t it just grand to be able to settle in with a cognac or whiskey (see “Rules for an Honorable Nightcap”), surrounded by friends and talk into the wee hours of the morning? I’m in a season in life where I can do that on occasion, so I’m taking advantage of this great library we have in The Nook (our affectionate title for our house).

What is the most ambitious event you’ve ever hosted?

My most ambitious cooking experience was the first time I cooked for someone else for payment. It all happened on accident, really. For a while, I was talking about wanting to start a personal chef business. In the meantime I was hosting monthly dinner parties to practice and get feedback. My friend, Sarah, attended each party and became a real ambassador of my cooking and goals, for which I can’t thank her enough. One Friday night, she and I were talking about my culinary goals with a nice couple at a casual dinner party.

The wife asked if I could start cooking for them that weekend! On Sunday evening, I dropped off several meals and had my first client. I was in business. Questions like “Will they like the food? Can I even cook? Why am I doing this?” abounded in my head. It’s terrifying, putting oneself in a new situation. But it’s exhilarating, too. You can go after ambitious activities—but seriously, God plopped that opportunity into my lap.

What was your favorite hosting experience?

An impromptu chili night at The Nook. It was a year or two back, wintertime. I made chili, and cornbread from the Jiffy box mix (why go through all the trouble making your own if Jiffy is pure perfection?). At least ten, maybe twelve friends and housemates gathered around the big table in the dining room. A gorgeous chandelier hangs above the table, and the wall sconce lights are just as pretty.

It felt like a rustic Downton Abbey scene, but without a Mrs. Patmore handling the meal downstairs (it only took three questions to get a DA reference in). But one thing I’ve learned is to stick to familiar and doable recipes when hosting medium or large groups. It’s not the time to try making custard if you’ve never made it before, or making something for which you have to go to scout out three types of mushrooms (been there, done that). Stick to classics, stick to comfort, stick to something that matches the season. Your guests came to see you, not a chili cook-off.

What is your go-to dish for a crowd?

Ree Drummond’s Baked Ziti. It’s hearty, simple, and I can make the whole thing, or at least brown the meat and saute the onions and garlic, ahead of time. After my guests have a glass of wine in their hands, I just have to heat up or assemble whatever I need to and we’re off to the races. It pairs well with a salad and a thinly-sliced French baguette. I served it a dinner party and the guys definitely went back for seconds. One of my clients orders it regularly. Thank you, Pioneer Woman!

What was your biggest hosting mistake?

Oh, Emily, why did you have to ask me that? It was so embarrassing. I ran out (yes, RAN OUT) of pork tenderloin (and veggies) at my third dinner party. Cue my answer to #9 below. Just didn’t think about how many tenderloins to buy because I didn’t plan properly. Thankfully most of my guests were friends from church circles, so the “fish and loaves” line I quipped resonated well. I felt so guilty that I invited most of those people back a second time. And I emailed an apology around to each person. Own up to your mistakes, hard as it may be. Then move on and keep cooking.

What is your hosting “signature”?

Something creative but simple, because I’m not the type to have Martha Stewart craft materials lying around. I have twine and imagination though. Cloth napkins tied with twine. I used twine on a wine cork when a few of my guests were winemakers and those in the hospitality industry. One summer I’d gone to a lavender farm with friends, because what else do city dwellers do to get back to nature in the summer? So I affixed a lavender sprig with twine to each napkin at the next event. My mom made two sets of beautiful, elegant napkins for me, and I’m sure more are planned. She’s so supportive.

Why are you motivated to host?

My guests have dedicated their evening to spending time at my house, and time is a precious commodity. Providing a meal and atmosphere that brings them joy is one reason I host. Second, bringing people together around the table is a good thing, a very good thing. What’s that old quip–something like whatever is talked about at the dinner table is what’s on the hearts and minds of Americans? Well, with a diverse group you get some good dinner conversation. You can’t beat an evening of stimulating or just downright fun conversation along with good food and wine.

Any fun hosting plans for 2015?

Definitely more monthly dinner parties. My mom and boyfriend also both have milestone birthdays this year, so . . . I’m also looking to get more personal-meal-service clients and grow that business.

Any tips for those who would like to host more in 2015?

Start small to make it manageable, but most importantly, start. Also, write down everything: the menu, the guests, seating arrangement, what went wrong in cooking, what went really well, what to change next time, how much food you had leftover (if any), the timing of cooking and hosting and the courses (if applicable). You’ll be able to correct mistakes the next time you host or cook the same dish. Feel free to mix friend groups. Make sure you have a talker/entertainer and someone who can talk with anyone, and you’ll be set. Also don’t feel like you have to come up with recipes by yourself. Borrow and just give credit where it’s due. Chefs and cooks make the recipes available so people like us can cook well–and better–for our friends and family.

Thanks, Emily!

Don’t forget to check out the other conversations in this series with Kathy and Amy.

If you need some extra encouragement or inspiration as you entertain others, check out one of the sweetest food memoirs I’ve ever read, Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage.


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