Holiday Party Tips From an Expert

Throw the event of the season with festive ideas from the Assistant Director of Catering at The Ritz-Carlton Chicago (A Four Seasons Hotel).

Nov 22, 2013
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  • Holiday party planning tips: table setting
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Personal touches make a big impact, says Belton. Kick off the event with a signature cocktail.
Photography Erin Lassahn
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Holiday parties are all about presentation, even down to the hors d’oeuvres.
Photography courtesy Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
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Whatever your preference, protein is the staple of any event, says Belton, who recommends testing your recipes in advance.
Photography Danny Dong Photography
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Your china and linen selections help create the perfect ensemble by bringing out other elements of your tablescape.
Photography Thinkstock

Updated December 11, 2013—On December 2, Four Seasons continued its Holiday Expert on Call Facebook series with Amanda Belton, Assistant Director of Catering at The Ritz-Carlton Chicago (A Four Seasons Hotel). Throughout the week, Belton answered all of your holiday entertaining questions and offered tips on everything from menu planning to choosing the right décor. But before sharing her knowledge on Facebook, Belton offered us some exclusive advice on throwing a grand holiday party.

Create the perfect table setting.
A beautifully designed tablescape is a great conversation starter. Seasonal greens and candles set a cosy, festive mood, while linens, china and your menu also factor into the final presentation. As for the centrepiece, “remember to keep sight lines in mind so guests can easily converse across the table,” says Belton.

Prepare a signature menu.
“Whatever your preference, meat is typically the meal’s main attraction,” says Belton, who also stresses the importance of a balanced menu. “Variety is key when bringing together different palates. This can be challenging for a host, especially if guests have dietary restrictions.” Seasonal vegetables in an unusual presentation will draw guests out of their comfort zones and motivate them to try something new.

Plan for surprises.
Forgo personalized place settings and keep it simple with open seating. “Being a great host means being flexible,” says Belton. When you aren’t scrambling because of last-minute cancellations or surprise guests, the event is more enjoyable for you.

Pay attention to details.
Personal touches and logistical considerations are essential elements of entertaining. Belton suggests opting for printed and delivered invitations to help set the tone before the party starts. Ambience is about more than décor, so choose your background music in advance, and consider details like a parking plan and a coatroom to eliminate any hassles for your guests. A sweet party gift adds a personal touch to any event. “A lovely tea towel, an ornament or a candle are great keepsakes for guests,” says Belton.

Three tips for first-time entertainers

  • Have fun: “It’s easier said than done, but enjoy your event as much as possible. Guests aren’t going to notice the mismatched coasters, but they will notice if you’re a distracted and nervous host. Toss aside the apron and join the party; a good glass of wine while prepping is always recommended.”
  • Music is essential: “Music calms the nerves. Depending on your space and party, either leave this to a professional DJ, or plan your own holiday mix ahead of time.”
  • Don’t be late to your own party: “Plan your attire, and get ready in plenty of time.”

Many of you submitted holiday party planning questions during Belton’s week on Facebook. Check out some of her helpful answers and recommendations below.

“Do you think that holiday parties should include a gift exchange? If so, any recommendations on specifics like cost, theme, etc.?”
—Kate Steir

A gift exchange definitely isn’t expected for a holiday party, but if you do decide to have one, make sure that you specify the cost range and theme to guests in advance so they can plan accordingly. Another trend I love for holiday parties is asking guests to bring a gift to donate to a children’s charity or other non-profit organization.

“What’s the best way to wind down the party without offending your guests?”
—Grace Briggs

Having an invitation with an end time (and knowing the party might go a bit longer) is always smart. Closing the bar also signals the end of the night, and if there’s hired entertainment, having them leave is another subtle way to draw the evening to a close.

“I’d love to know your thoughts on invitations. Do you think that e-vites and paperless posts are okay for holiday parties, or is it best to go with mailed invitations?”
—Nicole Arnstine Pinkert

I personally always prefer printed invitations because everyone loves getting them in the mail, and they really do set the tone for the party. If you have time, it’s always smart to send out an electronic “Save the Date” teaser, then mail an invitation. If you’re planning on short notice, though, e-invitations are a great way to go. You can instantly check to see who is attending.

“What food and beverage trends are you seeing for the 2013 holiday season? I’m always looking for new appetizer ideas!”
—Robin Mazur

For cocktails, gin is very hot right now! Everyone wants gin cocktails as we roll into 2014. Also, local spirits are a great conversation topic for your guests because they always come with a story, whether it’s a large distillery or a local family producing the product. For food, we’re seeing a definite return to the classics but with a new spin. For example, taking a traditional devilled egg but adding a spicy crab or lobster topping makes it interesting. Also, raw bars with fresh shrimp, crab and oysters are still very popular!

Holiday Experts are on call throughout the season. Visit Taste for the full lineup.


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