Idea Lab


This editor’s personal m.o. for a lively gathering is pre-setting the stage; then letting the crowd take off. Placing outré décor like a campy platter, an antique kitchen tool, a funky wine glass, even a piece of kitsch like the Dancing Santa from the TV show Frasier can fuel a party mood since everything has a story: If it doesn’t, invent one, the wilder the better. But that might not be for everyone, so we’ve also asked our experts how they juice up their own holiday soirees.

Greet each guest at the door

  • Alexander Smalls

    Greet every guest at the door and introduce them when they enter the room, sharing an inviting fact or story about them or your friendship.

Chefs have two schools of thought regarding prep: Most say prepare ahead for more time with your guests

  • Nicolas Abello

    Just like we do at L'Appart, make sure you have everything ready in advance of your guests’ arrival: Have a cocktail ready at the door — we do a Jamaican Christmas Punch — make sure music is on, and smile!

Over-prepare to send guests home with a treat

  • Alexander Smalls

    Host your party from soup to nuts; your guests are there to see you. Be present and engaging, energize the conversation and really visit with each person until the last guest departs. I also always over prepare so guests can take goodies home with them.

How to prepare? Every chef has their own method

  • Floyd Cardoz

    First, always have something available to eat when people arrive, even if it's just a pre-baked dip, charcuterie, etc. Also, always ask in advance if people have allergies or dietary restrictions; it's the worst to prepare a big meal to find out after that half of your party can't eat what you prepared. Prepare things that can be made ahead of time and then easily be warmed in the oven, so that you have time to spend with guests rather than spending your entire evening in the kitchen! Last, make sure that your appetizers and hors d'oeuvres can be eaten with your hands and in one or two bites so no one has to worry about holding a plate and a drink while trying to eat!

  • Lidia Bastianich

    Bake it! The challenge with holiday hosting is often the number of guests the cook needs to feed. Baked lasagnas, baked pastas and baked vegetable dishes are always great to do ahead of time, and leave the cook plenty of time to interact with the guests. The Italian tradition of antipasti spreads is also a must. A beautiful assortment of olives, cheeses, cured meats and a variety of breads can be put together just an hour before everyone arrives. It involves little to no cooking but leaves everyone extremely satisfied. Pair these assortments with some crostatas made before and cold dishes like seafood salads or rice salads, and you are going to have as much fun as your guests.

  • Kamal Kouiri

    Set up small stations with cocktails and wine paired with a bunch of treats. This cocktail party format lets guests hop from station to station whenever they feel like, which also feels comfortable and conversational.

  • David Burke

    I order a pizza about 30 minutes before my guests are due, but ask just for the crust without any sauce or toppings. When it arrives, I add my own toppings like olive oil, herbs, and crushed red peppers. This way, when my guests show up, I have a snack ready and waiting for them to enjoy with zero work.

  • Chad Walsh

    I love the idea of a dinner party, with place cards and elaborate tableware, but in reality that's not how most holiday parties go. Without going totally to the "Cher in Mermaids" playbook of all hors d'oeuvres, going with lighter, snackable or passable food is always a better bet. If you have to cook something, keep it simple: One of my best parties was based off snacks and dumplings (bought frozen in Chinatown for basically nothing) that just needed a quick boil before being served. That way I spent more time chatting with friends than sweating over the stove.

    Also, no one can get enough bubbles. Getting a case of good Champagne (or less good sparkling wine) and letting it flow, makes it easy for your guests to overlook any of your failings in the kitchen.

But then there’s that rebellious soul — Guy Fieri, we’re talking to you — that says, do NOTHING ahead

  • Guy Fieri

    One of the things we do on any of the “eves” (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s) is to ask everyone coming over to bring just their favorite ingredient, no composed dishes. We have friends showing up with a case of lobster, maybe some dry aged New York steaks, a great cheese, or once one of my buddies came with some oysters he had caught a few hours ago. As a group, we start to brainstorm what we’re doing: It becomes this big conversation, almost a “rap battle” between chefs as to how we’re going to freestyle the meal. As a chef, and as someone who usually has lots of other chefs come over, it’s a great way to take the pressure off of creating a set meal in advance and lets everyone get creative in the kitchen.

Add a dollop of macabre to the punch

  • David Burke

    I would bring something to serve in an ostrich eggshell, like eggnog: It always sparks conversation when the egg hits a table at BLT Prime by David Burke and Tavern62. The Vikings used to drink out of skulls and say Skol (“Cheers” in Scandinavian). Serving eggnog out of the ostrich egg would be a clever nod to that history at any holiday party.

Or a conversation starter that can be rather dangerous unless handled by an expert

  • Marcus Samuelsson

    I would have to bring Swedish fermented herring, Sur Strömming. We had it at every holiday meal in Sweden and it's something that Americans aren't familiar with. Definitely a conversation starter.

    (Editor’s Note: Because of its powerful aroma, the safest way to open the can is underwater.)

Run them around, get the blood pumping with something active: A little competition will amp up both the appetite and the party mood

  • Todd English

    Good music, lots of wine flowing, sometimes we put out fun little games for the kids to get them to interact; anything that gets people talking and laughing. If it’s nice out, we’ll have croquet or badminton on the lawn, Ping-Pong in the garage, touch football, even Pitch and Putt. It gets people active and doing something a little bit challenging so they can have fun and laugh together.

The best dinner partner may be someone you’ve never met

  • Pamela Thomas

    I’m a believer that the liveliest parties are usually a good balance of people who have something in common along with a few new guests who are completely unfamiliar with the others. The mix adds energy and diversity, which provides for some great conversations. The key is to make the newer guests comfortable. If I’m throwing a large party, I make a list of the guests who many not know anyone there, and “partner” them with a friend who does, briefing them on their assignment the day before. At the party, I introduce the two saying, “You, my old friend, please take my newest friend here and make sure they meet as many interesting people as possible.” It’s a simple way to ease them into the mix.

And even cozier if guests eat with their hands

  • Pamela Thomas

    If it’s a dinner party, I make sure people are seated with someone they don’t know and then I serve food that is enjoyed without utensils: ribs, corn on the cob, crabs, mussels, pizza. I’ve found that it’s difficult to be shy or stand-offish when you’re slurping broth or have sauce on your chin, making the meal an instantly shared experience. Another benefit? You’ll never see anyone at the table pull out their phone.

Then perhaps take a moment to reflect on family, home, and the spirituality of the season

  • Vanessa Robledo

    Our family hosts Thanksgiving at our mother's home in Napa. Once everyone is served my mother sits at the head of the table and begins dinner with a prayer and toast. We then go around the table sharing what we are thankful for. We celebrate our ancestors' contribution to the wine industry by pouring wines that honor their memory. Alters are also prevalent through out my mother's home. Well-groomed multicolored roses are placed in front of saints and deceased family photos. We offer them a plate of our dinner and wine once farmed and grown by their hands.

  • Tony Chi

    To sit amongst a group of the people you love, taking in the cheerful hum of conversations shared, the smiles and laughter on their faces, taking in course after course of love, relishing the idea that memories are being woven in their minds right before your eyes; that is what a holiday meal is all about: That is the perfect recipe for holiday memories.