How to host a successful dinner party

There are some people that revel in entertaining at home and others who break out in a cold sweat at the mere prospect. Arlene Harris is in the latter camp and so set off to ‘Hostess with the Mostest’ bootcamp

WHEN I arrived at Sarah Malone’s house for a lesson in how to be the ‘Hostess with the Mostest’, it was with some trepidation that I rang the doorbell. With visions of Hyacinth Bucket at the forefront of my mind, I was more than pleasantly surprised to be greeted with a genuinely warm smile and a cosmopolitan cocktail.

The annual Ennis Food Festival runs on September 24-27 and Sarah is just one of the organisers of the event. As well as a plethora of delicious dishes, stalls selling everything from organic free-range produce to sumptuous cakes and top tips from restauranteurs and wine buffs, the four-day festival will also feature Sarah’s ‘Hostess with the Mostest’ workshop.

Covering everything from napkin folding and flower arranging to choosing a menu and sampling wine, the evening (proceeds of which will go to the Laura Lynn Foundation) promises all the advice on how to host the perfect dinner party.

Sarah, who is originally from Dublin, has been in the hospitality business for 30 years and believes there is a resurgence of interest in cooking for friends at home and, despite many hosts feeling intimidated, most people have the ability to create great dishes and a relaxed atmosphere.

“Since the recession, more and more people are entertaining at home — particularly men as there is a certain kudos to looking after guests with confidence — this is a very attractive quality in a man,” she adds.

“But in my opinion, the advent of TV chefs has been a double-edged sword, as although it provides inspiration, some people feel their food has to reach perfection to be acceptable, or that they need very sophisticated equipment. We always make a point when doing cookery demos to deliberately use the least amount of gadgets and gizmos. The Celtic Tiger era also convinced people that eating out and spending exorbitant amounts of money were prerequisites for a great night, but that is not so.”

After a couple of sips, I regretfully parted with my cocktail as it was well-before lunchtime, but moments later was ushered into Sarah’s bright and airy kitchen where I was given the low-down on how to dress a table, arrange flowers and fold a napkin. Then I was handed a delicious (and I’m told, simple to make) starter called san choy bau.

“Preparing a starter in advance is a great way of ensuring you are not running around when your guests arrive,” says the mother-of-five. “Something like san choy bau (minced pork with vegetables and oriental seasonings) which is served on baby gem leaves is ideal as it can be ready to serve and involves very little washing up.”

Gesturing to the colourful yet unfussy table decorations, Sarah, who also runs Zest café’s with her husband Ean, says it is important to keep food, flowers and atmosphere as relaxed as possible.

How to host a successful dinner party

“I would encourage people to practice their dishes so they can do it blindfold as many tend to try out new recipes and then get flustered,” she advises. “Have a simple starter and a dessert you can make the day before because then you can be with your guests, instead of dashing in and out of the kitchen.

“With regard to décor and atmosphere, keep the lights low with loads of candles, have a great playlist in the background and both you and your home will look totally cool.

“A fool-proof menu would be a colourful and generous sharing platter to start as this is great to get people talking. Then good quality oven baked chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham, served with vibrant steamed greens (asparagus, mangetout, petit pois, and broccoli florets) and fondant potatoes. To finish, I would go for the Avoca mixed berry tiramisu — it’s so easy you can do it the day before — and I’ve seen grown men lick the bowl after second helpings — it’s a real winner.”

As we rounded up our tutorial with a sumptuous platter of white chocolate mousse with fresh raspberries, a handmade bounty truffle and a mini-pavlova with blueberries, I was totally convinced that Sarah will provide a fun, informative and delicious night out for participants of her ‘Hostess with the Mostest’ course.

“There has always been a great interest in classes of this kind,” she says. “They attract everyone from young couples to people who have been cooking for years and have either become jaded with their own repertoire or have lost their confidence so we just help them to get on track.

“So I for one am looking forward to the night as we have done these events before and they are always great craic, particularly when people have had a glass of wine as there is much hilarity involved when trying to do something like getting a napkin fold right. But there is limited availability on the evening (which will be hosted in the Ennis branch of Zest), so I would encourage people to book fast. All proceeds are going to my favourite charity — the LauraLynn Children’s Hospice as they provide a valuable resource to families when they need it most.”

Fully sated after sampling Sarah’s delicious food and further educated in art of successful home entertaining, I reluctantly took my leave as I mentally prepared my next dinner menu whilst planning to source all the ingredients at the upcoming Ennis Food Festival – Hyacinth Bucket, eat your heart out.

The Ennis Food Festival takes place on September 24-27. For more information or to book a place at the Hostess with the Mostest class, visit 


Warmly greet each guest and introduce to other guests.

Have some spiced nuts or savoury snacks on small tables around the reception room to relax your guests.

Offer a signature beverage. There’s a charm to being handed a drink you wouldn’t normally have.

Set the table creatively and imaginatively — that way, your guests will be predisposed to liking your food before they’ve even sat down.

Keep floral arrangements low, to avoid blocking eye contact between guests, and decorate your room with lots of candles.

Always have a starter that’s ready to go on the table.

Serve dishes you’ve made before, so you’ll be calm and in control.

Keep your numbers to between six and eight guests, and make sure your table is big enough.

People subconsciously eat to the speed of the background music, so make a nice playlist in advance.

Avoid visually boring dishes such as creamy pastas or cauliflower and potato as people eat with their eyes.

Don’t serve cream-based soup and heavy sauces, followed by cheesecake dessert — keep courses light and balanced.

Have enough white wine chilled for the entire meal, don’t depend on your guests to bring a bottle.

Open your red wine at least 1-2 hours beforehand to let it breathe. Ideally decant it into a wide-bottomed decanter.

Choose your main course first, and build the starter and dessert around that.

A cheeseboard is a good option for dessert as it requires little preparation and can finish off a meal superbly. Four to five cheeses is ample and add grapes, apple slices, nuts, figs, crackers, relish and serve with a glass of good port per guest.


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