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Party Planning for Real People

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Party Planning for Real People
Written by Emily Storrow | Illustrations by Kristen Solecki
Photo by Amanda Greeley.

Sarah Adams’ Party Planning Wisdom

Southerners love to entertain (and we have the porches to prove it). Perhaps no one knows this better than Sarah Adams, a native of Sullivan’s Island, just east of Charleston, who’s made a career of cooking for folks and hosting fêtes. After getting her start in some of the Holy City’s top kitchens, she co-founded Bad Bitches, a dinner party series that raised continuing education funds for women in food and beverage, to the tune of $60,000 in six months. Three years ago, convinced there’s a better way to cater, she launched Curated Dining. While she’ll cook for as many as 200 people, she prefers to go smaller. (The perfect party, she says, is between thirty and sixty.) Needless to say, she’s got the hosting game down pat— but she’s also not afraid to throw a few curveballs, like warming a pizza on a waffle iron for her brunch squad. Read on for her best entertaining tips—for real people.

Entertaining isn’t just about food and drink. “It’s about people having a good time together— everything else is just a bonus.”

What have restaurants taught you about entertaining?

I think fine-dining restaurants are like home entertaining. A hostess is there at the front to greet you with a smile and make sure your experience is seamless. They don’t want you to think at all. They want you to walk in and have it flow perfectly, for everything to be there when you need it. That’s how you want people to feel when they walk into your home.

What do people get wrong about throwing parties?

People think that’s when they should pull out some crazy thing they have never done before, and that’s the wrong way to think about it. When you’re entertaining, there are a lot more variables involved. So the more variables you can take away, the better. That’s the time you really use the dishes that you know back and front. A lot of times people are like, “I’m going to try a beef wellington,” when they’ve never made a beef wellington before. And that’s not a great idea.

People always wonder how much booze to buy. What’s your rule of thumb?

Buy more and you can return it. (Just don’t chill it.) You know your crowd better than anyone, but I hate running out of alcohol. And I don’t like running out of ice. Just stick the extra bottles in the closet and bring them out as you need them. And that way, there also won’t be bunch of half-opened bottles.

Nowadays, you basically throw dinner parties for a living. What made you want to start Curated Dining?

People make excuses for catering. Their expectations are lower, and I want to break that. My goal is to provide the same high- end, quality food that you’d get at a restaurant around town and bring it to you. The menu isn’t the same over and over again—it’s bespoke to whoever is doing the event and specific to the time of year. I work with a lot of event planners to create something cohesive and special for that client. I’ve focused on going smaller, because I’m cooking at every single one of my events.

Any calamitiesalong the way?

We had someone steal a truck one time. I was doing an event with [event planner] Lauren Fox. The night before, Lauren had packed up all the décor in a truck. And there was a guy who was supposed take the truck from point A to point B. But he never got to point B. We didn’t find the truck for about five days. We had to get all new stuff that morning. But at the end of it, no one knew. Even everyone working the event didn’t know.

What’s a sure-fire sign of a good party?

If everyone’s Ubering home.

Entertaining Essentials

CHOOSE JULIA CHILD OVER PINTEREST

Sure, the internet makes it easier than ever to get your hands on free recipes. “Unfortunately, that includes a massive amount of untested recipes or ones that really aren’t great,” Adams says. She’ll always be a fan of Julia Child, but for home cooks seeking time-honored sources with a slew of online recipes, she recommends Martha Stewart and the New York Times.

TAKE YOUR MENU TO THE WINE STORE WITH YOU

Adams knows a thing or two about wine, but she still turns to the professionals when playing host. “Let them know what kind of party you’re having, talk about the food, and tell them your budget.” And really—don’t be afraid to emphasize your budget. “They don’t care how much you’re going to spend,” she says. “The people working it that wine shop aren’t going home and drinking a $30 or $40 bottle a night. Everyone in F&B is trying to find that best-bang-for-your-buck wine.”

CURATE A BOMB PLAYLIST

Entertaining isn’t just about food and drink. “It’s about people having a good time together— everything else is just a bonus,” Adams says. “You can set whatever tone you want simply by picking the right music. If I’m having ramen, I’ll go ’90s R&B. Brunch is a Spotify playlist called ‘Hanging Out and Relaxing.’ And when in doubt, play the Stones.”

ALWAYS HAVE FRESH FLOWERS

Adams is a big fan of having beautiful blooms at home. “Not only do they bring joy, but if you’ve got great flowers you don’t have to do much else,” she says. And there’s no reason they can’t be affordable: “Just grab some hydrangeas from the grocery store and you’re golden.”

QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

Great dinner parties are simple dinner parties. “Don’t think you have to make ungodly amounts of food,” Adams says. “If you make one or two things well, people are going to be happy.” This time of year, she recommends a one-pot classic: paella. Filled with spring peas, asparagus, and shrimp, it’s a showstopper that celebrates the bounty of the season.

PREP, PREP, PREP!

Why have folks over if you’re going to be stuck in the kitchen the whole time? Take a cue from chefs and prep to death. “Most people would be surprised at how little food is prepared to order in a restaurant,” Adams says. “Do yourself a favor and do as much as possible before people arrive. This includes cutting everything, blanching vegetables, and making dessert.”

TAKE HELP WHEN IT’S OFFERED

When somebody offers to bring something, take them up on it. (Remember: You’ll always need a bag of ice, Adams says.) For a larger party, she’ll even hire out a bartender or cleaning service for the next day. “It allows you to enjoy your party too.”

STOCK UP ON ZIP-TOP BAGS

When an event is over, Adams wants it to be over. “I store as much prep and food as I can in Ziploc bags. That way I’m not washing and keeping track of lots of Tupperware,” she says. Her other storage favorite is quart containers—Chinese takeout style. Because: universal lids.

HAVE A PARTY TRICK

“For some people it’s a napkin fold; for others it’s sabering a bottle of bubbles. No matter what your party trick is, everyone should have one in their arsenal,” she says. “I recommend taking to YouTube to find your source of wow.”

CASCADE PODS ARE YOUR FRIEND

“When I was a dishwasher, I knew as long as I could keep the dishwasher full and running, I wouldn’t get in the weeds. With these things, there’s no pre-rinse involved. They’re a gift from above.” (No dishwasher? She recommends a hack from friend Nathalie Dupree: Toss your dirtys in a cooler filled with hot soapy water and stow it away until your company leaves.)

DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE KITCHSY

Entertaining is about having fun, after all. Take a waffle iron- warmed pizza Adams served at brunch recently. (It was leftover from the night before—“we pulled a move that I hadn’t done in ten years: ordered a pizza at midnight and woke up to my doorbell ringing. I threw it in the fridge and went back to sleep.”) It was a hit.

LIGHT THINGS ON FIRE

There’s something magical about fire, Adams says. “Maybe it’s the movement, maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s the destructive power— who knows?” Try incorporating a flambé or flaming cocktail into your menu. Or if you’ve got the setup for it, “nobody’s ever been mad at a bonfire.”