It's completely normal to be nervous your first few dinner parties.
It’s okay to be nervous the first few times you execute a dinner party. You're often walking into a strange kitchen, meeting your client for the first time, and expected to serve dinner at a precise time using appliances you may not be familiar with.
There are a lot of steps involved in planning a dinner party and ensuring the food is ready on time. It can be intimidating, but after you’ve had a few successful events, you hardly get nervous anymore.
What is a typical dinner party?
The aspects of a dinner party are the cocktail hour, main course and dessert. Because this is your business, you get to run it how you'd like to do it, but for my dinner parties, I have a package offering one-hour long cocktail hour that includes two different appetizers. The main dish includes one main protein dish plus two sides followed by dessert. If the host would like to add additional dishes, there is an added fee. Package pricing is tiered based on the number of guests attending the event.
There are three different ways to present food at a dinner party.
There are three different ways to present food at a dinner party - buffet, family-style or plated.
A buffet is usually at a location other than the dining table and is often practical in groups of 20 or more guests. As the chef, your job is to maintain that the buffet is presentable, the food temperature is appropriate, and that there is enough food for everyone to eat and possibly go back for a second helping. I have personally fed 80+ folks over numerous buffet events without additional cooking assistance, though did hire help for cleanup.
A family-style dinner party is what I offer in my personal chef business. Large platters of food are passed around the table for everyone to help themselves, similar to Thanksgiving with the family. You may have backup platters of food available in the kitchen, should guests wish to have additional helpings. It's important to make sure the passed platters aren't too heavy, too large, or too hot to be passed safely.
Finally, a plated event is more formal with the entire dinner placed on the plate by the chef followed by the chef or server delivering individual plates to each guest. Two to three plates can usually be brought out at a time, so you can imagine that having a table of twenty guests would be quite awkward to bring out plates just two at a time. Plated dinners often require additional servers to avoid this awkwardness.
Before agreeing to accept a dinner party, you'll want to understand details of the event including time of day, location, number of guests, food requests, celebration type, style of plating and whether the host needs rentals or serving platters, among just some of the questions.
The day of week and time of event is important. Guests often eat less at a luncheon than an evening event. A cocktail party at 8pm will often have less hungry guests than one that begins at 5pm. A weekday event will have guests leaving early, possibly rushing through their dinner, than a weekend event when they'd linger longer.
If the dinner is taking place at a client's home, you're able to ask questions such as the number of ovens that will be available as well as number and size of stove burners. Oftentimes, however, my events take place at rental homes. I often ask clients to send me a photo of the kitchen if possible, so I can get an idea beforehand of what I have to work with.
Number of Guests
Depending on the size of the party, you may need to enlist the help of a server or bartender to pour wine and present platters of food. After a few events, you'll figure out what your ideal party size and limitations will be for your business.
One of the first questions to ask before accepting an event is if the client and/or guest of honor have any food requests and making sure you're comfortable making those special dishes. The requests could be as simple as "gluten-free" or it could be that they'd like an authentic paella, something you may not be a specialist with and unable to accept the event.
You should ask the reason for the celebration. Is it going to be some ladies having dinner together or football players having dinner? Obviously, the quantities are going to be vastly different. It's also nice to know if there is a particular person who is being celebrated, so you can do your part in making them feel extra special for the evening.
If the event is taking place in a client's home, they often know how many plates and utensils they have, but with a rental home, you never know what you're walking into. If the dish situation is an unknown, you could ask the client to request the information from the rental home owner or suggest they contact a rental company to borrow dishes for the evening.
Renting dishes is not very expensive, but is a burden the client should accept, not the chef. It is helpful, however, to assist the client with a suggestion of your favorite local rental company. Take into account each course and beverage, thinking through each table setting and what will be needed for a successful dinner party. It could be that your company offers rentals with dinner service, your choice.
Allergies and Diets
Most importantly, you want to ask if there are any allergies or dietary restrictions because that’s going to play into your entire menu. It is rare for the host to say, “there are no dietary restrictions or allergies.”
Once you have an idea of what all the dietary restrictions are, then you can begin researching recipes and putting together a menu of options to present to the client. That’s the fun part, but it is time consuming, taking anywhere from one to three hours. Already, you’ve put in time for consultation with the host and now you’re putting much time into research.
Once you’ve gathered some menu ideas, put them into an email and send it over to the client for them to create a final menu. I like to offer about a dozen appetizers, ten different entrees, about fifteen side dishes, and about eight desserts. Offering too many choices is going to make the host feel overwhelmed. You want to just give them enough to plan a great menu and not restrict them, but you also don’t want them to feel overwhelmed.
Once you send menu options to the host, they’ll probably have more questions and you’ll have more discussion about the menu. It does take some time from consultation, researching recipes, more discussion, then finally you’ve agreed upon a menu.
Calculating quantities for a dinner party is a pretty involved topic. Smaller dinner party quantities are obviously easier, but once you approach fifty or more guests, quantities can be tricky (though not impossible).
As a quick food quantity run down, I would say under twelve guests, plan for six ounces of protein per person. If you’re offering two appetizers, assume they’re bite-size appetizers, figure 1.5 to 2 of each of the appetizers per person. For total side dishes, I judge about 2-3 cups per person. That’s likely going to leave you with leftovers, but it’s better to have too much than not enough!
Once you’ve provided the host with a guesstimate of groceries (if requested), you'll want to send them a checklist of party items needed. This shows that you're organized and don't want to miss any small details of the event. The list may include tablecloth, serving platters and serving utensils for appetizer hour, appetizer plates, dinner plates, glasses for water, etc.
The next step in planning a dinner party is working on the timeline. When first starting, it would take me a couple hours to prepare a timeline, but now seasoned, I can complete one in about twenty minutes. The timeline should include everything from packing up equipment to cooking dinner, time for loading the car, traveling to the destination, unloading, setting the table, time to chat with the host, some “just in case” time, cooking and cleanup.
Once you've been through a few parties, you get a better handle on your timeline of course. It's likely that you've already done several dinner parties yourself, but haven't yet been paid as a professional.
When you picture yourself as a personal chef, do you see yourself putting on dinner parties or doing meal prep?
Private dinners can be a great side business. They’re usually Saturday nights. If you’re okay with working Saturday nights, maybe two a month, it could be a supplement to what you’re already doing or perhaps as a side business to your full-time job.
Perhaps you see yourself doing meal prep as a personal chef full-time with a few dinner parties here or there for supplemental income. That's how I became successful in my business!