Hosting This Holiday Season? Private Chefs’ Secrets for Easy and Elegant Entertaining

With the bustle of the holidays quickly approaching, you probably have plenty of parties to plan. How do you host with elegance and ease? Make It Better consulted three top-notch Chicago private chefs for their tips and tricks.

Executive chef and owner of My Private Chef, Chris Tong, has been creating distinctive cuisine and upscale dining experiences for 30 years. Patricia Butkus, chef and owner of Seasoned Kitchens, an in-home food delivery and private chef service, believes in a back-to-basics approach. Kyle Cooper, a contracted private chef with elite clientele for over 20 years, specializes in gluten-free, kosher, holistic, organic and Paleo foods (and this writer’s aunt).

All three chefs agree on this: Keep it simple, seasonal and fresh. Here are their other secrets for pulling off a party with panache. 

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare — So You Can Focus on Guests

Make event day as low-stress as possible by preparing as much as you can in advance. Check, chop and marinate the day before. You’ll have more time to react to unexpected circumstances (like rotten or unripe produce) and focus on the fun at your party. “Peel, trim and package everything individually, so the flavors don’t get muddied,” recommends Butkus. “Then pull it all together just before serving for that just-prepared taste.”

2. Make the Menu Friendly to All Appetites

Ask about allergies and intolerances in advance and remember to include a vegetarian option. “Offer healthy alternatives so people on special diets can indulge too,” recommends Cooper. “Include a dish that is hearty enough to satisfy vegetarians as a main course,” suggests Tong. Mushroom or scallop risottos are great choices.

Chris Tong’s Scallop Risotto (Photo by David Rinker Photography.)

3. Never Test New Recipes on Guests

“As tempting as it may be to try a new recipe, just don’t do it,” say Butkus. “Restaurant meals taste so delicious because they are prepared over and over again to achieve perfection.” A restaurant would never try a brand-new recipe on its guests — and neither should you. Go for dishes that you have practiced in advance and feel comfortable cooking.

4. Remember Successful Meals Are Like Movies

There should be starring roles and supporting dishes to round out an amazing production. “Don’t agonize over each and every offering,” recommends Butkus. “Get the oohs and ahhs with a few glamour dishes, then support them with some basic, but well-executed options.”

Photo by Howard Wine Photography for Patricia Butkus.

5. Freeze and Thaw Desserts for More Variety

In order to offer a full bounty of tempting treats on the sweets table, bake and freeze them weeks before. “Cakes, brownies, cupcakes, tiramisu, cheesecake and chocolate truffles all save well if you wrap and freeze them, toppings separately, up to three weeks in advance,” says Cooper. “Just thaw and decorate the day of the event.” Top with fresh fruit, never frozen. Cooper’s Carrot Pumpkin Cake is a seasonal favorite.

Kyle Cooper’s Carrot Pumpkin Cake

6. Go for Gold With a Signature Cocktail

Celebrations sing with seasonal cocktails. Signature drinks add a wow factor and set the tone for the menu to come. Try chef Tong’s Champagne and Pear Nectar cocktail. Rimmed with gold sugar and garnished with poached pear, it’s sure to ramp up the festive fun.

7. Entice Appetites With Small Bites

“Tiny tastes of rich foods that guests don’t often cook at home make the perfect appetizer,” says Cooper. Salmon bites and coconut shrimp draw even the health conscious in for a decadent morsel, without spoiling appetites.

Try Cooper’s Salmon Bites recipe.

Kyle Cooper’s Salmon Bites

8. Plate Portions With Flare

Soups in shot glasses and tastes in Asian spoons make festivities more fun. “Creative individual servings add to the presentation and control portion sizes,” says Tong. Twelve Asian spoons can be purchased for $15 at Crate and Barrel or at your local Asian grocery store.

9. Sharpen Knives for Clean Cuts

Save time and cut down on accidents with regularly-sharpened, high-quality knives. Cooper recommends Zwilling J.A. Henckles or Wustoff block knife sets. Sharpen to mirror shine with a Belgium Blue Sharpening Stone (starts at $49).

10. Use Produce That Pops

“Fresh herbs and vegetables add visual interest,” says Tong. “Flavors should be vibrant and ingredients should vary in color.” Beets, asparagus, corn and peppers are Cooper’s favorites for enhancing flavor and adding color. Have fun with a full spectrum of in season vegetables.

Photo by Howard Wine Photography for Patricia Butkus.

11. Try This Super Handy Tool

Don’t have the space or energy to drag out your blender or food processor? Cooper recommends the Cuisinart Smart Stick 2-Speed Hand Blender. This $60 tool chops, blends, purees and whips. Use it for silky, smooth soups, chopped nuts or salad dressings blended in seconds.

12. Create a Simple, Yet Elegant Ambiance

A stunning table setting makes for a stellar dinner party. Personal touches shine with seasonal elements. Use flowers and herbs to decorate plates and trays. Squash and apples look festive in fall vases. “It’s best to keep everything edible,” says Cooper. Tong recommends placecards tied to mini pumpkins with gold cord. “But don’t shortchange your food preparation to focus on table presentation,” warns Butkus. “No plate or glass ever made the food taste better.” Keep it simple.

Chris Tong’s Pumpkin Placesettings

13. Hide the Clutter in a Clean Spot

“Clean a place in your closet, basement or garage,” recommends Butkus. “Take everything off your kitchen counters that is not absolutely necessary for your party and move it to that cleaned area.” You’ll thank yourself later, during the party and when you’re able to put your kitchen back together with ease after the event.

4 Impressive Dishes From Chef Pat Butkus of Seasoned Kitchens 

Radicchio Cup Salad

The leaves of a larger, fresh, crisp head of radicchio lend themselves to be an easy and creative salad presentation. Select a head of radicchio that is firm without any apparent browning or wilting on the edges of the outside leaves. Use a small paring knife to carefully remove the core. Gently peel the leaf from the head by starting at the base and gently pulling away from the head, taking as much care as possible to keep the leaf intact. The radicchio leaf cups can be prepared in advance on the day of the event and stored in the refrigerator under wet paper towels until ready to use. To serve, place the radicchio cup, base side down, centered toward the back side of the salad plate. Gently fill with your favorite greens allowing them to cascade to the front of the plate. Garnish with fresh or dried fruits, toasted or candied nuts, crumbled cheeses, roasted root vegetables and lightly top with your favorite dressing. All of these items can be prepared the day before, packaged individually and stored in the refrigerator. Assemble and dress the salad just before serving.

Grilled Vegetable Platter

This is always a hit. Some key tips for grilling vegetables: Make sure your grill grate is clean. Lightly toss vegetables with olive oil and salt and pepper before grilling. Dress with vinaigrettes or balsamic glazes after grilling while still warm. Par cook root vegetables and whole garlic bulbs to reduce cooking time on the grill. Make sure to not crowd the vegetables. Cook in a single layer and turn once during the cooking process. Grill lemon halves facedown to bring out the natural sweetness. Squeeze the juice over the vegetables just before serving for a clean, bright flavor addition.

Kabocha Squash Casserole

This is a fun individual presentation for Shepherd’s pies or meat or vegetable stews. Shop for squashes all about the same size with no skin bruises or soft spots. Carefully cut across to remove the top. Be careful, as the shell of the squash is very hard and can be difficult to cut through. If the squash does not sit solid on its bottom, use a sharp knife to trim the protrusions causing the unevenness. Use a large spoon to remove the seeds and fibers. Rub the inside and outside with olive oil and season the inside cavity with salt and pepper. Oven roast, uncovered, at 375 degrees until the orange flesh is tender but the outer shell is still firm — about an hour. Squashes can be prepared in advance up to two days prior and refrigerated until ready to use. These squashes are delicious when filled with your favorite stew or Shepherd’s Pie recipe, which can also be prepared two days in advance. Top the squash by piping you favorite mashed root vegetable on top, which is best when prepared just for assembly. To assemble, make sure all components are hot. Gently reheat the squash, uncovered at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, dependent on size. Place squashes on a tin foil covered sheet pan. Ladle in hot filling until very close to the top. Use a large piping bag with a star tip to pipe florets of the mashed root vegetables. Transfer the squash to keep warm in oven. The squashes can be assembled up to an hour before and held in a 300-degree oven, lightly tented with tin foil. Check occasionally to ensure the root vegetable mash is not drying out. You can also light broil the tops just before serving for an enhanced presentation. This is a one-dish entrée offering that can be a complete meal. A simple salad is the perfect accompaniment. This is also a stunning vegetarian offering for formal dinner parties.

Steak and Maytag Blue Cheese Stuffed Onion

The star of this dinner plate offering is the garnish, which is a perfectly grilled 3/4-inch slice of red onion stuffed with Maytag blue cheese. Shop for a solid red onion on the larger side. You will get two good 3/4-inch slices from the center of each onion. Reserve the remaining unused red onion pieces for another use. Brush each side of the onion slices with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium high heat until well marked and tender. To achieve grill marks, turn each slice 1/4 of a turn one time about half way through the cooking process. Flip and repeat the process. Total cook time should be about 10-15 minutes, dependent on the heat of the grill and the size and thickness of the onion slices. Allow one onion slice per person. Carefully remove the slices from the grill to insure they stay intact and transfer to sheet pan in a single layer. Onion slices can be prepared up to two days in advance. To assemble, pre-heat your broiler. Place the onion slices single layer on a lightly greased, tin foil lined sheet pan. If possible, remove the smaller center rings in each slice and place a generous piece of a quality blue cheese in the center crevice. Broil just until the cheeses starts to bubble. Remove quickly and use a metal spatula to carefully remove from the sheet pan and place on the top center of your prepared steak. Garnish the cheese-filled onion slice with a sprig of fresh herbs, if desired.

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