As a recent James Beard Award winner and a high-profile Los Angeles chef, Suzanne Goin knows a thing or two about entertaining for a crowd. She not only owns multiple restaurants, but she's cooked for the president of the United States three times. So what has she learned from preparing five-course meals for the country's highest-ranking official? How does cooking for President Obama differ from a typical dinner crowd? And, for home chefs and entertainers around the world, how might those lessons translate into advice you can follow? Here are four lessons in entertaining that Goin learned:
Preparation Is Key
It's no surprise that cooking for the president requires preparation—and not just for the food. The first time Goin was going to serve President Obama, for example, the event was blocked out on her restaurant's calendar for months, even though she didn't know who was coming. When she finally found out it was the president, she had to sign a nondisclosure agreement and a team of Secret Service agents came out to inspect the location. "It was just this impending pressure over the two weeks before when we knew he was coming," she said. Likewise, as anyone entertaining for a crowd will tell you, preparation is important. Planning for an event means anticipating problems before they start, thinking through the menu thoughtfully, and prepping as much as you can beforehand to simplify the work the day of the event.
As you might expect, running a dinner service for the president of the United States is an event that involves "military precision," says Goin. Every component of the night, from initial remarks to when a particular course should be served, gets scheduled ahead of time, right down to the minute. While the level of precision required for a presidential event might not be necessary for every big gathering, paying attention to details is always crucial.
While a chef like Goin likely has his or her own ideas about how a meal will progress and when certain dishes will be removed, serving the president means knowing how to be adaptable. "This is bigger than me," Goin remembers realizing. "If they're telling me they need the pasta at 7:21, I am putting the pasta up at 7:21 ... It was about making it happen the way they needed it to happen—and, of course, still making it super delicious." Flexibility is, in fact, a vital part of any effective entertaining strategy. In order to make your guests comfortable, you have to know how to roll with the punches.
Enjoy the Moment
There's no denying that cooking for the president is unforgettable. Goin said she had been asked who the most important person she had cooked for was. After cooking for President Obama, she said she realized, "I've had that moment now." At one event, she found out the president wanted a picture with her and the kitchen staff. "When he came through the curtains, everybody went crazy, just cheering and cheering." A smaller version of that same satisfaction from a job well done comes from any good experience while entertaining. And while not every party ends with an introduction to the president, they can all end with a rewarding sense of success. It doesn't matter if you're cooking for the president or a group of friends, any event can benefit from careful planning, attention to detail, flexibility, and enjoyment.
It doesn't matter if you're cooking for the president or a group of friends, any event can benefit from careful planning, attention to detail, flexibility, and enjoyment. The next time you're entertaining a crowd, follow these four tips from chef Suzanne Goin and remember: your guests are visiting for the pleasure of your company, not a perfect table. Relax and enjoy your time together.