The Ultimate Entertaining Guide, pt. 3: Dinner Party Perfection

The Globe and Mail, December 2010

Over the past two decades, chef Chris McDonald has earned a reputation for his unlikely but brilliant flavours, cooking techniques and wine pairings. After training in prestigious kitchens, including Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in California, McDonald made his mark in Toronto, first with the fine-dining institution Avalon and most recently with the midtown tapas joint Cava. Although McDonald’s natural habitat is the restaurant, he believes that an upscale home dinner party offers extraordinary intimacy – and a terrific excuse to cook comfort food. “It’s about something simple but stylish. A dinner at home can easily be as elegant as anything you’d have in a restaurant.”

The Guest List

“If you have friends from different parts of your life, there’s a risk [they won’t hit it off],” says McDonald. “We’re not talking about a games party, where people can still play if they don’t get along. This is a highly civilized situation, meant for conversation and the pleasures of the table.” To facilitate such an atmosphere, McDonald says, invite guests via e-mail. “In this situation, e-mailing is the most gracious choice,” he says. “Copy everybody so they can see who’s coming.” By contrast, a phone call puts people on the spot and a printed invitation is overkill. McDonald also emphasizes that a meticulously planned party is not a “someone-brought-an-Aussie-shiraz-so-we-better-open-it” type of affair. “If people reply and ask what they can bring, say, ‘Don’t bring anything. Just come in a taxi, so you don’t have to worry and I don’t have to worry.’ ”

The Set-up

Simplicity is key. “A well-set table doesn’t need much,” McDonald says. “Good wineglasses are key. And rent if you don’t have enough.” Name cards, however, are “over the top” for small affairs, McDonald adds. “With eight people, there can be one conversation at the table; there’s no need [for them].”

The Vibe

Avoid anything that might distract from the food and conversation. “Be wary of flowers and candles that are too aromatic,” McDonald warns. Even music can be disruptive. “Music is for when you’re listening to music and dining is for conversation. I like to not have music when I’m having dinner,” he says, acknowledging that his approach might not work for everyone.

The Menu

For winter dinner parties, McDonald favours slow-cooked comfort foods – choucroute, cassoulet, bollito misto – because they’re ideal for large groups and advance preparation. “It might take a day to make,” he says, “but [do] it the day before.”

The king of these dishes, he says, is osso buco: “It’s my last-meal dish.” Such a rich main means the rest of the meal can be pared down. Although risotto is osso buco’s traditional accompaniment, McDonald says, “it suffers from being pre-made – and you don’t want to be stirring for 25 minutes while guests are waiting.” Instead, serve it with a soft polenta and Swiss chard.

To start, skip the canapés and pâté, starting with olives, breadsticks and oysters instead. “Oysters are good because you’re not cooking and they’re in great condition now,” he says. The salad should be light and crisp, says McDonald. “[Try] fennel or local carrots and turnips with a nice buttermilk dressing. To jazz it up, add Dungeness crab.”

Finally, McDonald recommends a cheese plate comprising a goat’s milk, a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk and a blue. Include plain crackers, a crusty walnut loaf and some sliced apple and pear. If you want to ramp up the cheese plate, McDonald says, pair the cheeses with chocolates, but do so carefully, as this can be tricky. Dark chocolates with dried fruits, for instance, may work with Stilton or other blues. For something off-the-wall, try a McDonald creation: milk chocolate with olives paired with a Camembert.

The Essential

To ensure that your guests savour every drop of their osso buco, include the right utensils. “I have marrow scoops that are made from Italian cow’s horns,” McDonald says. A silver-plated model, made in Shefield, England, features an updated Georgian design: 9 1/2-inch marrow scoop, $43 (U.S.) through

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