By Chef Saul Bolton
When I think about “the perfect meal”, it really rests in knowing your guests. After all, a perfect meal, like beauty, lies within the eye of the beholder. It starts with listening to and observing your friends and loved ones and using that information to come up with a menu and a plan.
The success of the perfect meal is largely predicated on the preparation before. I think this holds true for any event.
It seems boring, but it’s a critical component of planning a perfect meal. You want all of your guests not only to be able to eat the food you prepare, but to delight in it and to be satiated.
How many people are coming? Ensure you have enough space, seats, and place settings for all of your guests and that you prepare enough food for everyone to be satiated.
Who is coming? You want a mix of guests who will get along with and be comfortable with each other.
What are their tastes, dietary preferences, and any potential allergies? You want everyone to be able to enjoy all aspects of the meal and not be afraid of an allergic reaction.
Know what’s good now – think local, seasonal foods. This is the first step to ensuring delicious dishes as better ingredients more locally sourced and in-season tend to have better flavor.
What style of the meal will you have? Is it a formal or informal meal? Will you have courses? Will you be serving family-style? Is there a theme? This step helps ensure a cohesive meal.
Are you eating inside or outside? This will help determine the timing, temperature considerations, and meal format.
Once you’ve answered those questions, give yourself time to be inspired! Perhaps there’s a specific dish that captures your imagination. You can then build the rest of the menu around it. Or if there’s a theme, using local and seasonal foods can help inform specific dishes you’d like to prepare.
Once you’ve built your menu, it’s time to plan your prep.
3 or More Days in Advance
Clean your dining, living, and eating areas – vacuum, dust, and wipe down surfaces to make sure your guests are comfortable.
Prepare your kitchen – make sure it’s clean and organized and ready for your meal
Assemble your plates, glasses and silverware and make sure everything is clean and in good condition
Prepare your cooking equipment and ensure you have the tools you’ll need
Review your menu and break out timing of each dish. Identify items that can be prepared in advance. It can help to prepare a day-of timeline along with cooking temperatures
1 Day in Advance
Proteins – clean and portion your proteins
Vegetables – wash and properly dry lettuce, herbs, and vegetables. Store carefully to prevent wilting or drying out
The Guest Experience
It’s important to make sure you do as much as possible to make your guests feel the love when they walk in the door.
Smell – it should smell great as your guests walk in the door. It could be flowers, garlic, or something roasting. Whatever you think would stimulate your guests’ senses.
Sound – music is very important. It should reflect you, be appropriate to the theme of the meal, but it should not be too obtrusive.
Sight – the dining area should be cared for, clean, homey, and fresh without looking as if too much energy has been exerted. It should feel natural. Flowers, produce, plants, and herbs make great accents.
Touch – I love a special tablecloth and napkins. They add a textural as well as a visual component to the room.
Prepare a drink – a toast and a little conversation are always great before dinner. Prepare an aperitif (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) and some light snacks for guests to enjoy while you prepare the first course.
Planning these things in advance make it possible not only to cook a great meal and to create a great ambiance for your friends, but it enables you to participate in the evening and enjoy yourself. Which brings me to the execution of the meal without sweating.
THE PERFECT MEAL
Summer herbs, coconut milk, peekytoe crab
toasted pepitas, lemon juice, oil
ray’s tomatoes, summer squash, garlic, toasted breadcrumbs
lightly whipped cream, crushed amaretti cookies