The Secret to Throwing a Dinner Party with Zero Stress

“It’s not entertaining—it’s having people over.”

When senior editor Meryl Rothstein proposed that as the headline for Alison Roman’s feature story in our October issue, I emailed back immediately: “Yes! Exactly!”

We all have that friend whose house we go to for a dinner party, and she just makes it all look so damn easy. Like she hadn’t actually spent three days planning the menu or sourcing the ingredients from five different specialty stores. Like she didn’t even decide what to make until standing over her kitchen island, surveying the produce in front of her, all while uncorking a bottle of Sancerre and dialing up a playlist on Spotify.

Of course, the question is how the heck do the rest of us pull this off? We all know that cooking for a crowd isn’t easy, and entertaining is even harder.

Here’s what I think, and it’s something I am just now learning at age 47: Don’t plan.

I know, I know. That doesn’t sound like shrewd advice. But it’s not our guests who apply pressure on us—it’s ourselves. If we’re given a week to map out a menu, we’ll use every minute, flipping through magazines like this one and scouring our favorite sites for recipes and ideas.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

0617 lau judy pork nuoc cham

Nuoc cham and pork. Yes to both.

Photo by Alex Lau, styling by Judy Mancini

A few Saturdays ago my wife and I had our friends Gabe and Jules over for a dinner party. Not until that afternoon did I have time to hit the market and, because of the usual workweek grind, I hadn’t given much thought about what to cook.

I started at the butcher. As is often the case, some gorgeous bone-in pork chops spoke to me. Good meat + salt + hot grill = done. One dish checked off the list.

And then I remembered how when Gabe was a guest on the Bon Appétit Foodcast, he went on (and on) about his admittedly inauthentic take on nuoc cham, the great-on-everything, dead-simple Vietnamese sauce. (To make: Combine a couple tablespoons each of fresh lime juice and fish sauce, a tablespoon of sugar, some grated garlic and ginger, minced red or green chile, and minced cilantro stems.) Which got me thinking about some bok choy at the nearby farmers’ market and how that nuoc cham would be perfect spooned over it and the pork. Done and done. Two dishes checked off the list.

While at the market, I spotted a mountain of in-season zucchini. I figured that if I already had a hot grill going, I could throw the zukes on there, sliced thin, and finish them with a mess of fresh mint and minced garlic simmered in extra-virgin olive oil.

Back at the house, Gabe and I organized the ingredients while Simone and Jules opened a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and fired up the grill. I wouldn’t call our evening spontaneous, but it wasn’t exactly planned out, either. It’s like when you call your spouse and agree to meet up at a bar after work instead of spending weeks planning an overwrought fancy-dinner night out. We all know which one ends up being more fun.

So there we were, the four of us on our double date, hanging around the table, eating and drinking and remarking, somewhat surprisedly, on how well our spontaneous meal turned out. Nothing crazy, just good food and good company. And when you’re having people over, isn’t that exactly what you want?

Need proof that Adam can grill? Here ya go.

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