Food is meant to be shared with family and friends, and longtime local caterer Bill Coxwell believes there is no better way to make others feel special than by throwing them an unforgettable party with fabulous cuisine.
“The meal should crescendo from a good appetizer to an outstanding entrée to a showstopping dessert,” says Bill, the owner of Sweet Azalea Gourmet Shop, Café and Catering in Augusta.
While the food is the centerpiece of any special occasion, the cookbook author and Johnson & Wales University culinary alum says people often make a couple of common mistakes when planning a party. Hosts underestimate the amount of time it takes to get everything done and forget to make a good checklist.
However, from making a guest list to budgeting, planning a menu to creating a beautiful tablescape, carrying out a theme to selecting a caterer, Bill shares some of his best tips for stress-free entertaining.
• Invite a mix of people to a party, including “the” person who can talk to anybody about anything. “If everybody at a dinner party works at the library, then you’re going to have only one topic of conversation,” says Bill. “You need to have a mix of people so they can make new acquaintances and find things in common.”
• Decide if you want to have an indoor or outdoor party, or if you want to rent a venue to accommodate more guests. If planning an outdoor party, however, consider the season and whether or not it’s feasible to leave the doors open.
• Start small by entertaining two or three couples if you haven’t hosted a lot of parties. “I like smaller parties because you can be a little more intimate with the food and put more into the presentation,” Bill says.
• Expand the guest list if you have a nice patio that can serve as an overflow area.
• Watch for sales and freeze foods up to two or three months in advance.
• Serve dips and spreads rather than items that are served as individual bites.
• Take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables such as cranberries and fresh sweet potatoes during the holidays.
• Remember than you can put down a deposit for a party such as a wedding reception and pay the balance later.
• Don’t pay someone else to do something you can do yourself.
• Think about the foods that guests would like to eat. In other words, hosts can serve something they don’t like. “It’s about the guests,” Bill says. “It’s not about you.”
• Consider the time of year when planning a menu. For instance, don’t serve chili in July.
• Vary the color and texture of the food.
• For an engagement party, try to serve favorites of the couple.
• For a wedding reception, serve food that appeals to all ages.
• Choose universally accepted, well-received entrees. If you’re on a budget, serve pork tenderloin instead of beef tenderloin or shrimp dip instead of pickled shrimp.
• Decide how creative you want to be. “I always try to do one dish that’s a little different,” says Bill.
• Serve signature items and foods that you prepare well.
• Outsource foods you’re not comfortable preparing.
• Serve people something they don’t get at home. Let the guests experience the food rather than taste it.
• Don’t skimp on beverages. Top brands let guests know you value their company.
• Learn by doing. Practice making a casserole dish and spoon it into six-ounce portions to determine how much food you need to feed your number of guests.
• Consider the demographics of the party. While Bill says he learned at culinary school to offer two to three hors d’oeuvres per person, he doesn’t stick to that rule. For instance, men will eat more of an hors d’oeuvre that includes meat.
• Have too much food rather than not enough. “I’d rather look at it than look for it,” says Bill. However, he notes, some people don’t mind running out of food because it signals that the party is over.
• Plan on 1.5 plates per person.
• Have at least two napkins per person for a cocktail party.
• Use disposal plates and glasses for a large or informal gathering.
• Use glassware for smaller groups, especially at night, to make the gathering feel more intimate and formal.
• Save the fine china for a group that will appreciate it.
• Let the dishes and crystal complement each other.
• Look for unusual serving pieces at flea markets. “You might not use them more than once a year, but it makes the guests feel like the host took the time to set the table to make them feel special,” says Bill.
• Take inventory of your serving pieces and make sure you have the items you need. Do you have toothpick holders? Are your trays large enough so that they don’t need to be replenished constantly?
• Take out serving pieces a week before the party to polish and clean them. Put a sticky note on each piece with the name of the dish that will be served from it.
• Don’t underestimate the power of presentation.
• Elevate some items on risers for a buffet, but make sure the base is sturdy.
• At large parties, set up stations to eliminate a traffic jam at the main table. They can include iced tea, desserts or a farmers’ market spread with fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
• Use fabrics that complement the serving pieces, whether you use silver and fine china or pottery and baskets.
• Line the table with mint julep cups that are filled with flowers or greenery instead of putting one massive floral arrangement in the middle of the table.
• Arrange charcuterie boards tastefully and artfully.
• Remember that simplicity is elegance.
• Name the food to match the theme. For instance, baked corn dip can become Mexican Street Corn Dip for a Cinco de Mayo party. For a Mardi Gras party, call sliced pork tenderloin Gator Tail or crab dip Cajun Crab Dip. “The food itself can carry out a theme most easily,” Bill says.
• Serve a signature beverage with a fun name such as Swamp Water Punch for a Halloween party or Bog Bayou for a Mardi Gras party.
• Write the food and beverage names on place cards or chalkboards to put next to the dishes.
• Fill gift bags with theme-related favors such as a corkscrew for a wine tasting party.
• Ask people for references when selecting a caterer.
• Get menus from several different caterers before hiring one for your party.
• Meet with the caterer ahead of time to plan and discuss the party.
• Invite the caterer to your home or venue in advance so they can see the space where they will be working.
• Know the charges up front. Are delivery, cleanup, plates, forks or cake cutting included in the price, or do these services involve extra fees? Does the price include the caterer’s staff?
“Catering is much more than food,” Bill says. “Caterers are an extension of the host or hostess. They should make the host look good and the guests feel good. When guests leave, they should think, ‘That was a great party.’”