The secret to pulling off a stress-free holiday dinner, according to members of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier Charleston Chapter? Plan ahead — and don’t let anyone else cook the turkey. Some of the city’s top female chefs and culinary experts are holding a culinary academy Nov. 11 to help you prepare for hosting upcoming holiday dinners that are sure to impress your guests. “We’re hoping this culinary academy gives you your blueprint, gives you your game plan,” says Michelle Weaver, executive chef of Charleston Grill.
Danielle Wecksler, a culinary instructor and stylist, says the goal is to empower home cooks with tools and information they can use to take simple dishes and give them a “wow factor.”
“We want people to keep cooking, and Thanksgiving is a big hurdle,” says Nathalie Dupree, award-winning cookbook author.
Five of the instructors gave us a sneak peek of their sessions and shared their best tips for hosting a memorable dinner and having a good time while you do it.
How to Pull Off a Holiday Dinner Without Stress
With Nathalie Dupree, award-winning cookbook author
Pulling off a successful holiday meal requires a lot of prep work before you even start basting the turkey, slicing vegetables and baking pies. First you need to plan your menu, figure out what can be made in advance and frozen until the day of the dinner, and schedule when dishes should be reheated. In addition, you have to manage your guests and their expectations.
“You need to have a plan,” Nathalie says. “You can’t just waffle through Thanksgiving.”
Nathalie shares her secrets with us:
Nathalie makes a large turkey ahead of time, carves it and reheats it. Then, she makes a smaller turkey on Thanksgiving Day. “Everyone gets to see that one come out of the oven,” she says. “You just want to have the aroma.” Nathalie lets people take slices of that turkey home for leftovers. The mashed potatoes? She makes those the night before and reheats them. She also makes her dressing in advance. And, she says, turkey stock for gravy can be made months ahead of time and frozen.
Remain in control
Nathalie says it’s important that you as the host remain in control of how the day progresses. That means you need to anticipate how others might want to help and how to mitigate if it’s something you prefer to be done in a particular way. Nathalie puts a list of what needs to be done on the refrigerator, if anyone would like to help. She also makes a list of which entrees and side dishes should go on which serving dishes. If you don’t like how someone else washes your dishes, hide the dishwashing soap, she suggests.
“Do what it takes to make sure it’s your project,” Nathalie says. “Don’t ever let anyone else bring the turkey.” Because if the person responsible for the turkey is late or it takes longer than expected to cook, you lose control and the whole day changes. “You just can’t let yourself get pulled away,” she says.
Invite guests to bring side dishes and desserts
If there’s a dish that has special memories for someone, or one that they’ll miss if it’s not on your table, ask them to bring it.
“What does it hurt if there’s going to be more stuff on the table?” Natalie says.
Eat at a normal time
You can’t expect people who eat at 12 o’clock to wait until 3 p.m. without getting mean, Nathalie says. If your meal won’t be ready until later in the day, plan to serve appetizers or plan to serve dinner instead of lunch. “Children get so grumpy, and so do us old people. It’s a time of tension, and you have to keep it defused.”
And don’t wait for anyone who might be running late. Let them know you plan to start without them but that there’s plenty of food to go around.
Getting the Party Started
With Michelle Weaver, executive chef, Charleston Grill; Kelly Franz, executive chef, Magnolias
Michelle and Kelly share how to make a good first impression with appetizers that go beyond nuts and cheese balls.
“I wanted to do something different that people wouldn’t normally do at home,” says Kelly, who is making mushroom meatballs with bourbon aioli.
Michelle notes that “people eat with their eyes first,” so give some thought to your plating and presentation. A little touch can make a big difference.
To ease the stress that comes with preparing the holiday meal, Michelle also recommends getting everything done in advance that you possibly can. “You want to enjoy the guests. That’s the point of getting together.”
If you mess up, Michelle says, it’s OK. “It’s cooking. Just taste it.”
Kelly also says to relax and be forgiving of yourself. “I’m a trained chef, and I mess up every day. Put some music on and have a glass of wine.”
With Andrea Upchurch, pastry chef, Magnolias, is one of three pastry chefs leading this session
Andrea is demonstrating gingerbread cake and pumpkin cheesecake during the holiday baking session. She says the two can be layered for a dessert that has it all, or you can use each recipe separately, giving hosts lots of options.
She says she enjoys classic recipes because people always have good stories associated with them. “That comes out at the holidays.”
Don’t worry if you make a mistake, Andrea says. “That’s when you learn stuff.”
Gifts From the Kitchen
With Danielle Wecksler, culinary instructor, stylist and social media expert
If you enjoy cooking, then people will enjoy receiving a gift of food from you. It’s thoughtful and personal. Danielle suggests putting together a bloody mary or biscuit-making kit for friends, family members and co-workers. Plus, she says, cooking or creating food-related gifts for the holidays, helps get you in a festive spirit.
Wecksler, who owns Plateful Solutions, a marketing and content company, also shared her tips for taking Instagram and Pinterest-worthy photos of your holiday dinner.
Danielle’s Tips for Taking Great-Looking Food Photos
- Use natural light as much as possible.
- IPhones are fine, but use the built-in editing tools and editing apps to adjust exposure, contrast and saturation.
- If you’re at home, use pretty china or leaves to add contrast and texture.
- The rule that you should take pictures of food from above? It’s not a rule, but an overused trend. “You don’t eat that way,” Danielle says.
If you go:
The Les Dames Culinary Academy is 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 11 at The Culinary Institute of Charleston, 66 Columbus St. Tickets are $175 and are available at www.ldeicharleston.org. A portion of the proceeds go to scholarships for women pursuing culinary and hospitality degrees or advanced education.