How To Make Your Dinner Party More Meaningful

By Carolyn Stine March 25, 2019 

Thinking beyond the food and drink to focus on bringing people together and cultivating good conversation.

Now that you’ve been reading our Bashed articles for a while now, you’re approaching pro status on how to plan a menu, shop for a dinner party, and whip up a fabulous spread of food and bevs. But contrary to popular belief, a successful dinner party isn’t all about the gougerés. Who you invite, how you cultivate conversation, and how you plan the flow of the evening are just as important as the epic cheese spread and four-tiered salted caramel cake that you baked while praying to the food gods that it would come out moist.

So per usual, we turned to the professionals for some expert tips and real talk. Meet Jenny Dorsey, a professional chef, author, and artist who specializes in multi-platform storytelling that fuses food with social elements. Not only is she obsessed with food, but she has a unique perspective on entertaining that we couldn’t wait to share with our Bashed audience. We picked her brain about how to think about everything from a dinner party invite list to whether we should be creating any rules for our guests at our next festive fete. Read on for the inside scoop that you’ve been waiting for.

How to have a meaningful dinner party

Q

Let’s start from the beginning - what makes a meaningful dinner party?

A

A meaningful dinner party comes down to the guests. You need to have the right people there who are willing to truly open up and engage beyond surface-level topics. In order to do so, it’s important to supply them with the right “tools” -- that means making sure the atmosphere is unpretentious and feels safe (i.e. what is said here stays here), and the food and drink are curated properly (i.e. has levels of meaning). I also find it helpful to have a theme, however broad, to coalesce people around.

Q

What are the different ways that we can throw a dinner party? Are there different “types” of dinner parties?

A

There’s no particular “personality” that I’m looking for, but I do think it’s important to create a balanced group of people with a mix of different occupations, introvert/extrovert, interests/hobbies, backgrounds so there’s plenty of different opinions present and discussions can be forthcoming and lively. The #1 factor is that these are the type of people who want something more from the experience than to eat, make small talk and leave -- and are willing to take that step to be proactive and dive into conversations.

Q

Your guests have been invited, RSVP’ed, and now it’s cocktail hour time. How should we approach the pre-dinner conversation?

A

The most uncomfortable part of an event is the beginning, and too often I see these “mingle for 30 minutes” type openers to dinners. How are people supposed to just randomly mingle with people they don’t know? That’s awkward AF. So what you always see is everyone just beeline towards the bar. Or show up really late and disrupt actual dinner service because they wanted to avoid that awkward open. I think it’s important to ensure there’s a few ‘activities’ for people to do -- something both individual and communal. For example, we installed hanging edible terrariums for people to cut off from the ceiling and nibble on when they wandered around the space, and there was a question of “What’s this dirt in the terrarium made of?” that gave strangers an easy question to ask someone they didn’t know “What do you think? I think X.” That’s what I mean by ‘tools’ to give people something to just start with, so they feel more at ease. People also like having something in their hands, so making sure they immediately have a drink or food upon entering is key.

How to have

Q

Ok, let’s talk about the conversation at dinner. Do you ever plan any conversation pieces for the group? What if there’s a lull in conversation?

A

A lull is natural (especially if it’s a group of mostly strangers), and not a big deal as long as it doesn’t then continue for the rest of the meal. However, it’s important to provide little bits and pieces of conversation starters that don’t feel like the dreaded icebreaker. For example, one of the things we do is ask questions in advance (i.e. “Are you in the job you want, and if not how are you getting there?”) and use that as the name tag for people to find their seats, so that immediately ensures people know something personal and specific about the others at the table. It also pushes the conversation beyond “What do you do?” because it’s 100% guaranteed that is one of the first 3 questions people ask someone they don’t know. There’s a million ways to stash these little questions throughout the meal to keep infusing conversation topics in a more natural way, but there’s also something nice about leaving things be and seeing where people want the evening to go.

Q

How do you feel about setting rules for your dinner party, such as “no work talk”?

A

You can set whatever rules you want, but these are adults and they will do as they please 🙂 I think it’s better to say “We would encourage you to do X instead of we don’t want you to do Y”. It’s really the same thing, but it comes off very differently. You don’t want to add more friction to a dinner before it even starts.

Q

As a chef, how do you use the food at dinner parties to bring the group together? Do you ever think about how you serve (plated vs buffet vs family style) and how that impacts the overall energy? What about food that is interactive?

A

All my food is very symbolic, with layers of meaning and intent behind each ingredient, cooking technique, and plating. In my most recent project, Asian in America, I use virtual reality and poetry as a way to explain the details of each course to the guests. Other times, I will come out and discuss what each course means. My husband does the same with his cocktails. Because there’s so much story for each course, that also helps add more topics of conversation to the event as guests want to discuss their own interpretations of each course (i.e. one course is about the White Savior Complex, and it’s great fodder for discussion). I do only plated events, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity with family-style to make something feel more casual and help people loosen up. I personally do not like buffets because it feels too cafeteria to me.

What do you do to make your dinner parties more meaningful? 

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Carolyn Stine

A party without cake is just a meeting.

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