Planning a party, not sure where to start? I have a lot of memories of culinary school, some good, some not so good, but some of my best memories came from my favorite class, Garde Manger. I was told it was the toughest class, but I was up for the challenge and I was determined to get an “A” in it.  The term “Garde Manger” is French and means, “The keeper of the food.” Garde Manger originally referred to a preservation method, “To dry out moisture and to eliminate growth of pathogens.” Today, the term refers to the, “keeping of a cold kitchen.” The Garde Manger station in a professional kitchen is responsible for preparing all cold food.

The variety of food preparation in the Garde Manger is what made the class so challenging. We covered appetizers, sushi, smoking, curing, canapés, salads, sandwiches, making of sausages, pates, galantines, cheeses, foie gras and, my favorite, charcuterie. Not only did we prepare all of those items, but, we were required to plate and present them in a way that emphasized the BUFF: Balance, Unity, Flow and Focal point. Caterers use the acronym “BUFF” when they set up a buffet line for a party. The class was a challenge but fun every week because it required a new presentation. Much of the information is valuable to the home party planner but space is limited so I thought that I would focus on the key elements to consider for your next soirée at your home.

Regardless of whether you are having a small get together or a large party, you’re going to need to do a great deal of planning. You first need to consider how much physical space you are working with, how many courses you want to serve, your budget, food allergies or other special dietary needs, time you want to serve, if you need to hold anything at a certain temperature, and how many guests you are expecting. You do NOT want to run out of food! Larger parties may also require special items (floral arrangements, equipment and lighting) that will also have to be considered. Additionally, you will need to create a floor plan setting up areas or zones for your food. If you need tables or linens, especially with larger parties, you may want to consider staff for both serving and/or cooking.

All of this requires organization and a list or two. I would recommend starting with a theme and building from there. I would start by considering what menu you items you want to make. My personal rule of thumb is, “make it realistic.” This is very important if you are making it by yourself. You should have a combination of hot and cold items—if you serve all cold food, the refrigerator may be too full, and if you have all hot items, how will you hold them? Once the menu is set, make a list of every ingredient you’ll need by reviewing your recipes so you can consolidate the items that appear in more than one.

You also need to consider how your guests will eat their food. Will they need a knife and fork and a place to sit?  If they are standing and mingling, you will want finger food. Start your prepping by making kits for each recipe (mise en place). Good preparation can allow the final steps of a complex recipe to take only a few minutes. Also, if you have overlapping elements in recipes do it all at once, like chopping onions. Wrapping is also critical to your prep work, so make sure you wrap it well on the top and bottom, or use zip lock bags. That way, if it tips over, it will not spill out. When cooking, if you are going to reheat for the party, prepare it slightly underdone so it will not be overcooked later. I also like to make a copy of all my recipes and keep a folder with notes so I do not have to look for or pull out a cookbook when doing all of this.

Don’t feel guilty about using high-quality prepped food, like puff pastry dough, demi-glace base for soups, or ready, washed greens for salads. These are huge time savers when working alone or with minimal help.

When it is time to start plating your food remember BUFF, some key points are:

1.             A straight line is a better presentation than a zig zag line.

2.             Garnish your entree with a simple herb to give your guests a clue on what the flavor of the item holds.

3.             Try to create height for a drama and visual appeal.

4.             Lay out the buffet table in advance, making sure you have all the correct utensils to pick up the items.

For larger parties, plan to designate someone to keep the food full and fresh, clear and clean the dishes, and help keep your guest’s glasses filled. This is a must if you want to avoid working the entire time and be able to enjoy some of your own party!

Finally, leave the best to last … dessert!! This will be one of the last memories of your party (unless you have a crazy uncle that drinks too much) so plan on making it special. One suggestion here, if you want to go the extra mile, is to send your guest home with a special treat in little gift bags. I will never forget a party I attended in New York at the Plaza Hotel … It was unforgettable for many reasons, but the one thing I will never forget—they sent us off with a box of Krispy Kreme Donuts.

This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg to proper party planning. Of course there are limitless types of parties you can put together like wine, cheese or olive oil tasting. All require some work and planning, but done well they can also be lots of fun. If the work and the planning doesn’t sound like much fun, still have the party but hire a professional.

Chef K. Marie Paulk