Three Chefs Share Their Best Tips for Putting Together a Virtual Dinner Party Menu
Whether you're cheering on your alma mater with your cross-country sorority sisters or celebrating your aunt's 70th birthday with family who live throughout the state, hosting a virtual dinner party offers a fun, festive way to share a meal when you can't literally share your meal. Ahead, professional caterers and private chefs alike share their best advice to get your party cooking.
Start with a cocktail—but just one.
Just like you would at your favorite restaurant, begin with a drink. "I always like to start my virtual dinner parties with an easy cocktail or mocktail and an appetizer," says Jennifer Hill Booker, the owner of Your Resident Gourmet Cooks! "This helps everyone to get over their kitchen jitters—plus there is something tasty to sip and snack on while the rest of the meal is being prepared." She recommends a "crisp, effervescent" ginger martini, paired with her BBQ cola chicken skewers. Chef Sam Davis-Allonce, a private chef and owner of Hot N Saucy, likes a Bloody Mary or red sangria spiked with brandy, citrus, and ginger, while Petrina Peart, chef at Gaiya's Harvest, pours Aperol spritzes in the summer and red wine or muddled whiskey cocktails during colder weather. "Your drink just needs to be something you enjoy sipping on—and I do mean sip!" Peart says. "As the host of any party, you're tasked with keeping things progressing towards the goal of the party, and virtual parties are no different. It's nice to commence with a community toast and set your intentions for the evening; it's not so nice to get drunk and forget to turn on the oven."
Brainstorm a theme.
Tie your meal together—from appetizer to dessert—by choosing a consistent type of cuisine, ingredient, or cooking technique to create a cohesive experience. "Pasta is universally loved and extremely versatile," says Booker, "as are entrée soups, salads, bean dishes and grilled items." If you're making multiple courses, incorporate the same ingredient—whether it's fresh mint, berries, or peanuts—into each. "Puff pastry is my favorite go-to for a situation like this," says Davis-Allonce. "You can make appetizers, like little bites with mushroom, caramelized onion and balsamic vinegar; a tomato tarte; and for dessert, cream cheese and whatever jam or jelly you have. One ingredient, three different courses." Or put a personal spin on it by dishing up your family's favorites. "We all have our favorite holiday foods: Aunty So-and-So's mac and cheese, Grandma's sweet potato pie, or your mother-in-law's deviled eggs," says Peart. "This would be a great opportunity for families to share and pass down recipes."
Accommodate chefs of different skill levels.
If not everyone on your guest list spends their weekends perfecting knife skills or attempting fussy desserts, design a menu that's accessible and enjoyable for everyone. "Virtual dinner party dishes need to be quick, to the point, and made with ingredients that are easy to find," says Davis-Allonce. "A whole roasted chicken is great—chicken is often on my menu because it is a quick clean-up, and leaves me with 45 minutes on my Zoom call to connect with family and friends and really enjoy my cocktail." Opt for something familiar to give amateur chefs an advantage. "When we approach something like risotto, not everyone will know what the end result will be, and that can be intimidating," says Peart. "[With] lasagna, mashed potatoes, chicken, mac and cheese, burgers—we have a guide line of flavor and presentation that we have to follow."
If you are coordinating several groups cooking together, choose a meal that gives even young chefs a chance to participate. "A dish with lots of ingredients, like a chicken ramen bowl, gives everyone something to do—regardless of their skill level," says Booker. "One family member can boil water, literally, while someone else chops the veggies, pulls the leaves off the cilantro stem and dices the chicken. This approach gives everyone a part to play in preparing each dish, all while having a good time."
Your dinner party should help you feel closer and connected to your guests—not anxious about the details. "It's always best to keep it simple, especially when you are dealing with people in different states," says Davis-Allonce. Choose adaptable recipes, like casseroles, stews, and soups, made with easy-to-find ingredients—broccoli, mushrooms, cheese, rice, pasta—and know that some guests might need to swap the listed foods out for what the grocery delivery service provided that week. "Don't add any undue stress by being too rigid on recipe ingredients—grilled veggies can vary and still taste delicious in a pasta dish," says Booker.
If your group includes guests with little (or no) interest in cooking, enjoy their company without being too rigid about what exactly they cook. "Instead of choosing certain dishes for everyone to make, I would suggest choosing certain ingredients or asking folks to stick to a certain theme," says Sara Elise of catering and event production company Harvest and Revel. "This way, you're sharing certain elements of the process but you don't have to worry about the varied cooking levels amongst the group, people can use up what's in their respective kitchens and pantries, and it makes the sharing of what each person came up with all the more interesting!"
Coordinate the prep work.
Getting multiple courses prepared by multiple chefs ready all at the same time takes some advance planning. "Your menu should reflect the amount of time you have available," says Peart. "A quick appetizer and dessert is best when the entrée is time consuming—sometimes a long, complicated menu can make you feel overwhelmed or discouraged." If you opt to make something with a lot of mincing and dicing, or an entrée that needs a longer bake time, prepare as much as you can before the call. "Give some thought to what dishes take the longest to prepare or cook and start there, working backwards to the quickest, easiest dishes last," says Booker. "This will help with timing and getting all dishes done at the same time." (You should also check the limits of your video conferencing app so your group isn't disconnected halfway through.) "When the call starts, already have your appetizer ready and drink made and your entrée already working," says Davis-Allonce. "By the time all the niceties and conversation starters begin, you can have your meal ready for final tasting and seasoning and ready to plate and enjoy."
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