Twenty-five years ago when I was much younger and more naive, I entertained extravagantly. My dinner parties would have a minimum of 12 guests and no less than 12 courses each time. I would spend days preparing elaborate obscure Chinese dishes. I had much more time then and I had great pleasure and enjoyment preparing those meals. However, in the last eight years, with a heavy travel schedule with the pressures of a modern busy life, my style of entertaining has changed radically. Now when I entertain, I usually have no more than 6 guests and just 3 courses. I discovered that my friends enjoyed those intimate dinners as much as my lavish spreads of the past. Here then is how I entertain today, simply but still elegantly.
When entertaining keep the following tips in mind:
Invite friends you really want to see. Spending 3-4 hours at the dinner table with good friends is my idea of bliss. Remember the conversation and the mix is almost as important as the food and wine. Don't invite the same guests all the time, it is nice to mix and match your friends. Never have a party with all the guests from the same profession, nothing is worse than talking shop all evening.
Don't skimp, buy the best ingredients and have good wines. This is vital, especially if you have only three courses. Also your chances of success are greater if your dishes are memorable.
Don't attempt new dishes, always entertain with tried and true recipes or dishes which you feel comfortable with. You don't need the additional stress of knowing whether the dish will be good or not. However, you should feel free to mix and match dishes from different cuisines. For example, you could begin with a Chinese soup, then a lovely roast chicken with basmati rice, and a Thai stir-fry vegetable dish.
Avoid trying to impress your guests. I always think it is grander to make delicious simple food than to present pretentious mediocre dishes. There is no need to stick to rigidly to other people's rules about food, if you like fish with red wine, then serve it as such. Remember to make dishes within the realm of home cooks. Chefs, apart, I don't think your guest should expect you to be proficient in restaurant cooking. If you are making a Chinese meal, don't make more than 2 stir-fry dishes at any one meal. There are many recipes in the Chinese repertoire that are braised dishes, steamed, etc. and many can be prepared ahead of time.
Light meals are usually the best remembered ones. That means light or no sauces, avoid red meats, stick to fish or chicken. Nothing is worse than a heavy meal which can stay with you for the whole night.
Soups, especially good ones are an elegant opening. I like them because I can make it days, even a week ahead. It freezes extremely well and reheats beautifully. If you like creme soups, add the creme at the last moment.
Give your dinner a few moments of thought before you plan it. All too often, home cooks plunge into organising a dinner party without thought to the balance of the meal, logistics, etc. Think about how you would feel as a guest at this dinner. If your instincts tell you that the dinner will be good, chances are it will be.
Start the evening with champagne. Bubbles are always a festive start to any meal. It immediately puts everyone in a good mood. An important factor that will determine how the rest of the evening will flow. And buy the best, I especially like Louis Roederer and when it is a special occasion and I really feel flush, I will have a bottle of Roederer Cristal. By the way, I have found for my Chinese dinner parties, that champagne is the perfect beverage to drink throughout the meal. The acid and sweetness seems to balance out the oils and flavours that one finds in Chinese cookery.
Don't clutter the table with a huge bouquet of flowers. Nothing is worse than trying to converse with flowers in your face. Place one flower at each table setting for a nicer and more elegant effect.
Finally, never panic. If something doesn't turn out the way you thought it should, don't mention it to your guests. Just patch it up as best as you can, smile, have another glass of champagne, smile again and enjoy yourself.