Move Over, Martha
When I read The Art of Gathering, by gathering guru Priya Parker, it finally dawned on me: My approach to hosting dinner parties for friends was all wrong.
My modern millennial Martha Stewart-esque dinner parties were always immaculate. The food I spent hours preparing was always on point. And my friends and I always had fun.
But I always felt something was missing.
My dinner parties weren’t getting the, “Wow! We have to do this again ASAP!” and the extra intimate connection-creating result I wanted.
And Priya made it clear to me what I was doing wrong. Her advice was sometimes counterintuitive, but I knew she was right. That’s because it explained what made one of the best dinner parties I have ever been a part of ten years ago, so memorable.
Here’s how this unforgettable party went down, how it checked all the boxes of the “Priya Method” as I now call it, and how you can get a similar result when you host your next dinner party.
1. The Why
Your dinner party’s not about the food.
This memorable dinner party I’m talking about happened over a decade ago. The seeds were planted at Christmas party. That’s when I met Evan.
He made small talk about how good the appetizers were. I responded, “Of course they’re good. I made them.”
He was impressed. And he wanted to impress me back. He confidently told me about his recent cooking class with his dad, some of his most famous dishes, and how he’s learned a thing or two from the popular British TV series, Come Dine With Me, a show where people compete to put on the best dinner party.
I wasn’t sure whether Evan was bullshitting me or not, but I liked the guy and wanted to hang out with him again, so after a couple of glasses of boozy mulled wine, I challenged him:
“Let’s do our own Come Dine With Me. You versus me.”
He agreed. So it was on: Kim vs. Evan.
Little did I know, this was following Parker’s recommendations to a T.
Find a purpose.
“There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so.”Priya Parker
Before anything else, Parker says every memorable gathering needs a purpose. It should be unique, clearly-stated, and even disputable.
Evan and my purpose was to determine who hosted the meaner meal. Other examples could be:
- To make new friends when moving to a new city.
- To express how much you and your friends care for someone on their birthday.
- To decompress after a long week of work.
Whatever your purpose, pick one and stick to it. Then plan everything else in your dinner party around it.
2. The Who
The more, the
We needed judges for our Kim vs. Evan battle. It couldn’t be anyone, either. We wanted it to be a fair fight, so they had to be honest, unbiased, and as into food as we were.
My friend, Alica, exactly met those criteria, so she was an easy choice. Evan said his friend, Matt, was the same, so we invited him, too.
And we consciously didn’t invite some of our other friends. They would’ve made the party more lively, but they wouldn’t have taken the Kim vs. Evan battle seriously. We kept it exclusive, instead, just as Priya Parker would’ve recommended.
Having only two judges seemed too few at the time, but it ended up working out great.
Be purposeful with who you invite.
“We tend to over include, because we don’t know how to say “no” or there is not a culture of being able to say, “It doesn’t make sense for you to be here.” But when you actually figure out who should be there for the purpose, then it doesn’t feel so personal when you don’t invite everybody. It’s purposeful.”Priya Parker
Parker says you should focus on quality, not quantity when deciding who to invite. If they don’t very clearly serve your dinner party’s purpose, put off their invite until next time.
3. The How
Don’t be a chill host.
Evan and I flipped a coin to see who’d host first. He lost, so he hosted first.
On the Monday before the battle began, he sent out an email clearly defining the rules we’d agreed on and the logistics.
It went something like this:
Kim vs. Evan: Round 1
- Address 223 Something Street. (Buzz 223#. Second floor, on the left.)
- Start time: 7 pm SHARP
- Hosts provide all food, drink, and activities (if any) for the evening.
- Hosts may spend as much or as little as they want on food and drinks.
- Dinner must be home-cooked. (No catering or store-bought food allowed.)
- Guests aren’t allowed to bring anything but themselves.
- Guests should wear semi-formal attire for photos.
- Open judging discussion will take place post-dessert.
- Guests will judge the hosts on 1) taste 2) ambiance 3) presentation and given an overall score out of 10.
This invitation kicked off good-natured trash talk between Evan and me, and our judges got into the fun, too. Excitement and anticipation built up all week.
It also allowed us all to relax. Each of us knew exactly what we had to bring to the Kim vs. Evan battle and, just as importantly, what wasn’t expected of us.
Strictly communicated rules and plans are liberating.
You never want your guests to think, ‘Hey! I never signed up for this.”Priya Parker
Parker points out that when you invite guests with a simple, “Come for dinner on Friday. You don’t need to bring anything,” you’re being selfish. By trying to give the impression that you’re an effortlessly chill host, you’re making it hard on your guests.
- What do I wear?
- Do I show up right on time, or fashionably late?
- I shouldn’t really show up empty-handed, should I?
- Who else is going to be coming?
- How late is the party going to go? I have to be up early the next day.
Then if you go with the flow during your dinner party, you risk having one guest monopolize the conversation or purpose to the detriment of everyone else.
So make it clear what guests are getting into to build up hype instead of apprehension leading up to your dinner party.
Then enforce those rules during it. So if you have a no phones or no talking about your work rule, be quick to call out any offender. That person may not like it, but everyone else will appreciate you’re protecting their interests.
4. The Where
More than just your home.
At 7 pm sharp (as instructed), Alica, Matt, and I were at Evan’s apartment door. He greeted us with extra pizzaz, ushered us in with open arms and fancy welcome cocktails, and guided us to his patio for a toast.
This ceremonious reception set the tone for the rest of the evening. We felt like we were entering an extraordinary world, rather than some basic apartment.
It also brought us together. So even though we barely knew each other, the conversation was relaxing, fun, and natural from the start.
Once we finished our drinks, Evan whisked us to the dining table for the main event.
Create an alternative world.
Evan executed a few of Priya Parker’s recommendations for creating a memorable environment:
- A warm welcome at the door to guide guests across the threshold from the outside world into yours.
- Creating a “starting line” with a welcome toast.
- Collecting guests in an appropriately confined environment to encourage interaction and prevent the energy from dissipating into space.
- Having multiple settings, which A) Keeps the energy from settling down and B) Studies have shown helps people remember different moments more.
5. The What.
Oh yeah, the food.
Evan’s confidence in his culinary skills wasn’t BS.
I can still clearly remember the slow-cooked lamb tagine complete with perfectly spiced Moroccan couscous salad. And I remember thinking to myself, “Crap. I’m going to have to step up my game to win this competition.”
But it wasn’t just the food. The dinner party was already a great success before we took our first bites. The delicious dining was just the gravy on top.
As we covered at the beginning, it’s not about the food.
Priya Parker makes no mention of the importance of fantastic food in her book.
Not because the food’s not important but because it’s not necessary for hosting a memorable dinner party.
We tend to focus too much time (and worry and money) on food and plating. But in reality, it’s not a competition, and nobody expects restaurant-level perfection. If anything, imperfection makes you more human and will put your guests at ease.
For a truly wow-worthy dinner party with friends, put more focus on the Why, Who, What, and Where instead.
A Winning Strategy
The next weekend was my turn, and I had to out-host Evan. But that’s another story for another post. Let’s just say we all won… but I won especially.
Unfortunately, I misattributed where the magic of our Kim vs. Evan event came from. It was about more than making a 5-star dining experience in my home. It was about nailing the 5 components of the “Priya Method.”
Honestly, I don’t plan on following these steps for every future dinner party I host. Call me selfish, but sometimes I just want to be a “chill host.” Not all dinner parties need to be memorable, anyway.
But now, when I want to leave a lasting impression and have my friends say, “That was so fun. When can we do this again?” I’m going back to Priya.
Give it a try next time.
More Dinner Party Tips
- The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, by Priya Parker
- Feed My Friends, I’m on a mission to bring dinner parties back in a big way with my new blog.