Life is too short
to eat off dull dishes.

My beautiful stepmom C throws the most exquisite dinner parties. A firm believer that good food must to be shared with great friends, she manages to find a reason to celebrate every other week or so. So here’s a few tips straight from the horse’s mouth on how to be the hostess with the mostess.

Last week she hosted dinner to celebrate the launch of K’s art collection here in Singapore. It was a wonderful affair – the food was prepared by Chef Sebastien from Senso (go check it out, he’s relatively new and makes the most delicious scallop with pumpkin & green apple). The produce, waters and wines were supplied by Culina (air flown fresh direct from France and Australia twice weekly), and the company brought fabulous conversation and hearty appetites. Now, you don’t need all that to make your dinner party memorable, just pay attention to the details.

Whether you’re decorating a house or getting dressed in the morning, the details make a huge difference. What makes C’s style (from wardrobes to washrooms) so incredibly covetable is her attention to the most minute things (our contractor says she has bionic eyes – she can see cracks in the wall that normal human eyes cannot detect – he detests her for it). From flower arrangements to place cards, she’s got it all covered, and she pays attention to it even on regular days when it’s just us dining in on take-out food – the plates have to match the placemats. Practice makes perfect right? And these every day situations give her a chance to mix-and-match her china sets to see what works best.

To be fair, we have a lot of china (I mean, really, what’s the point of fabulous food if you’re going to serve it on dull dishes?), so there’s a lot to play around with, but what makes it really exciting is watching C mix it up and pair pieces from different sets (it’s very similar to mixing different tops & bottoms). It’s also fun because our china spans the gamut – we’ve got everything from Target to Alberto Pinto – and with an eye as good as C’s, anything is possible. So take risks and try mixing & matching – layer plates like you layer clothing and eventually you’ll get the hang of it (it’s funny, I still suck at layering clothes but I’m getting decent with the plate situation). What I loved about this particular setting was the slate slab (courtesy of Anthropologie) she used in place of placecards, she wrote our names in chalk  – personable, reusable, unique, and fun to doodle on after dinner is done.

Now that you’ve mixed up the china, you might as well toss some vegetables into the mix. A unique centerpiece is sure to set people’s tongues wagging and save the boring dinner conversationalist. If your guest has nothing to say (which means you either planned the seating poorly – omg plan your seating!!! – or have poor friends), they can at least talk about the flowers (or in this particular case, vegetables) that made up the centerpiece.

Yes, that is a mushroom, and yes that is a head of broccoli, and yes, we did throw in some fennel for good measure, and yes, this was all C’s idea. She has a florist whose willing to try out all her wacky suggestions so our centerpieces are often the center of attention, which is exactly why you bother with them. So make good friends with a florist. Otherwise use things you have lying around – we’ve used branches and boughs (Christmas), seashells and sand (summer), and if you’re out of ideas/time some strategically placed candles in an assortment of holders, sticks, and jars will do.

And finally, clean crystal! Grubby fingerprints marring the shining surface of polished glass (or silverware for that matter) will bring the downfall of your perfectly planned dinner party. It doesn’t all have to match, especially if you don’t have enough of the same set (I never did in college), but they do have to be clean. Mixing the sets up on purpose gives it a little more charm and a more casual artsy feel. Have some drinking from over-embellished super girly champagne glasses and some drinking from heavy duty goblets – it’ll provide a lovely juxtaposition that adds texture to your dinner.

Properly chilled beverages. Okay, so C isn’t a huge stickler for this (she usually leaves us to select the wines and chill them, the little alkies that we are), but I am. I abhor being served wines that are not at the right temperature. I’m not saying use a thermometer to get it right, but it is pretty important, the temperature of the wine affects the way it performs on the nose and palate and plays a big part in your enjoyment – as wines warm up, all the wonderful aromas are released, and gives you that heady nose full of beautiful things like juicy peaches and ripe berries and fresh cut grass in the summer, I swear sometimes you can even smell the sunshine.

A good rule of thumb (and an easy one to remember) for white wines is to remove a fully chilled bottle from the fridge at least a half-hour before serving. Alternately, if you have a bottle at room temperature, put it in the freezer for a half-hour to cool it down (though I really don’t recommend this as you might, as I often do, forget about the poor bugger and it will freeze over).

And for the love of Dionysus, do not serve red wine at room temperature. The problem with serving a red wine at room temperature especially in Singapore is that rule was not designed for tropical climates (the average temperature of a French/Australian living room is a lot lower than ours) and it will ruin the wine. Why? As the wine gets warmer, all of the imperfections will come out (just as how the good stuff comes out when it is warming up from the correct starting temperature). So, if possible, pop that lovely red in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes before serving, it will make a world of difference.

As C said, it’s all in the details.

Oh yes, and invest in an ice bucket (the type for chilling wines), you will use it a lot and they tend to last a long time.

[If you’re interested to know more about serving wines, pay a visit to Culina and have a chat with the sommelier, or click here]

A seriously underrated and oft forgotten little ritual of the dinner party is the Antipasto. C’s a big fan of easy antipastos as she’s usually got her hands full with other details. Your poor hungry guests need something to snack on while sipping their drinks and waiting for dinner to be ready (and it is never ready on time), be a good host and feed them dammit. She recommends the usual – olives, sundried tomatoes, peppers stuffed with feta, organic walnuts/almonds, all of which can be bought pre-packed at your grocer. Take them home and dump them in an assortment of bowls and glasses of different sizes to dress up the table –  olives & nuts in bowls, cheese sticks/bread sticks in tall glasses, teacups for candy, flatware for fresh produce. C being the health nut she is, is a big fan of vegetable sticks – but only if they’re fresh, evenly cut, and well cleaned. There’s nothing more pathetic than a wilted scraggly carrot.

C shops on the day of the party. This is to keep the food as fresh as possible. It’s easy to impress your guests if the food you serve is so fresh it looks like it tumbled off the vine and onto your serving platter. It also cuts down prep time because things like freshly baked bread, sweet tomatoes, platters of cheese and succulent oysters don’t require any cooking and are best when served au naturale. Find grocers that fly in their products regularly, know their flight schedule, and shop on the day they get in. Or have your grocer specially indent items for you (just in time for your dinner party), so no other shopper has a chance to paw through them and bruise that perfect tomato.

This one is my favourite – Invest in something fabulous, like our Puff the Magic Dragon dish, which a lot of you have emailed to enquire about. It’s an exquisitely crafted stone dish with two golden dragons on the side, their tails and talons intertwine to form the base. C picked it up from L’Objet in Paris, and what attracts her to their pieces is the combination of modern and organic elements, blending both European & Asian influences. It’s a wonderful conversation piece that also happens to be very versatile. It doesn’t come cheap but if you take good care it’ll make a lovely heirloom one day. I’ve already bagged it as mineMineMINE! :)

And after all that prep work, unwind with a glass of wine, turn on some music, lower the lights, set some candles and you’re ready to roll.

*Please excuse the lack of pictures of actual food or guests, I was too busy getting drunk on bubbly and stuffing my face :)