Food is so much more than what you put in your body.
“Food is the great connection for us all. When we break bread together, we really are communicating with other people. It’s a gesture of love,” said Denise Marchessault, the self-described “ambitious home cook” who has now published two cookbooks, The Artful Pie Project and British Columbia from Scratch.
Along with being a cookbook author, Marchessault stays busy teaching online cooking classes from her commercial kitchen in Victoria, where people can cook with her live, step by step in their own kitchens or watch and cook later.
For Marchessault, cooking and sharing food is her love language.
For others, breaking bread and immersing ourselves in deep conversations with friends may be something we enjoy partaking in, but planning the event can be quite stressful.
What do I cook? What if I don’t have enough food? Do I decorate?
HARVEST asked Marchessault if she could share her tips and tricks for hosting a dinner event. Here’s what she recommended.
Keep it seasonal
“My planning always is based around the menu.”
The easiest way to plan your menu is to start with what’s in season. For summer months, this may be fresh fish like salmon or steelhead trout, corn on the barbecue and a kale salad, she recommended.
“The more appetizers you have, the less you have to worry about the main dish and the fewer portions you have to have.”
Easy appetizers include dips, nuts, tapenade, crackers, strained yogurt and fresh, in-season berries.
“Those are nice grazing foods that you can put out.”
Keep it simple
It can be easy to go over the top, but what’s easier is to keep it simple.
Marchessault likes to put craft paper on the table and decorate it with whatever is in season, which you can also theme the party around.
“If it’s summer, it’s going to be wildflowers … If I have a lot of salal, I’ll decorate with salal, and I would put it directly on the table in a long stream.”
For fall, she recommended leaves and in the winter, pine cones.
Another simple but fun thing you can include is coloured markers next to each person’s plate or in a few jars on the table.
“Usually, people don’t pick them up until the wine is flowing, and then it makes for a very interesting evening to see what people have written beside [their plates]. Sometimes it’s really lovely and sometimes it’s really silly and sometime’s it’s really funny. Sometimes it’s just pictures and doodling.”
It’s also a great activity for kids.
As for the rest of the decor, “let the food speak,” much of what can be prepared ahead of time, including dressings, pickled vegetables or desserts, Marchessault said.
Maybe it means having the pizza dough made in advance so guests can be ready to top them up with the pre-chopped ingredients.
“Buffet style works best.”
Still intimidated? Rest easy for the rest doesn’t have to fall on you.
“[Ask guests] to bring something.”
Not only does this take the weight off the host’s shoulders, but it makes the evening interactive.
“Parties are fun when the host is having fun. If they’re not—when the host is stressed or worried about the timing of the food—it definitely reflects on how the guests are feeling.”
Guests can alleviate this stress by getting involved. They can bring appetizers, salads or drinks or be in charge of laying leaves across the table.
They can also make their own meals—say gyozas, where the dough is premade and they select their own fillings—which gives them a sense of pride.
“It gets them involved and they’re very proud of it. You know, if you’re putting [the food] in the oven, they get very territorial. ‘No, that one’s mine!’ … They’re very proud of their work when it comes out of the oven.”
Liberate yourself from perfectionism
“It really, truly is about sharing and I think sometimes because we see such beautiful food all the time in magazines and we see these beautiful spreads, we have these high ideals of what it should look like and what it should be like.
“It really is about sharing. When someone makes something for me, I am so thrilled. To me, that is a gift.”
Marchessault’s most recent cookbook, The Artful Pie Project, came out last year and was a collaboration between her and Deb Garlick, artist and photographer.
“She brought the cookbook to life with her playful blend of creativity and artistry.”
Preparing for the pie cookbook involved a lot of, well, baking pies, which meant further collaboration was needed.
“When I was writing this pie book, I did not know any of my neighbours but I was testing a lot of pies … I would send my husband out with a tray of pies around the neighbourhood and I got to meet so many people that way. People were so touched. It came back to me tenfold,” explained Marchessault, who had neighbours returning the gesture with knitted socks, bottles of wine and vanilla from Mexico.
“When you make something for somebody or invite somebody into your home, it is very special … Plan something, you know, with a little bit of heart, then it always turns out well.”
You can learn more about Marchessault, her cookbooks and cooking classes by visiting denisem.ca.