Whether you’ve spent time in Paris, watched Marion Cotillard on screen, or have a serious girl crush on the wardrobe of the new French graphic designer at the office, there’s no denying that the French have a certain je ne sais quoi. But while it’s pretty well known that the French have impeccable style, their taste extends far beyond the realms of Chanel. We want their fashion sense, their devil may care attitude, and also... their entertaining style. There’s a certain studied simplicity and effortlessness to how French women approach entertaining, and we’re breaking it all down so you can entertain like a Frenchwoman at home (joie de vivre included at no extra cost).
Rules of Engagement
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we want to lay down some ground rules so that you can fully get into the mindset of being a fabulous French hostess. Just as we admire the French for the way they throw together casual ensembles, this is a thread that runs through entertaining as well. French women are wonderfully stylish, but always an element of being slightly undone, of not trying too hard, that makes them quintessentially French. Think: your boyfriend’s striped Breton tee with a classic red lip. Chanel with vintage, ripped jeans. When throwing a dinner party like the French, remember that simple and effortless is the name of the game.
Slow it Down
The French are all about slowing things down and enjoying every moment, every bite, and every morsel. You quickly notice when in Paris that no one is eating a sandwich on the fly, or taking their coffee to-go. In this same vein, ensure that your dinner party is truly about spending quality time with your guests over good food and wine. Give them a loose arrival time (the French wouldn’t dream of showing up on time), and don’t set an end time. If you end up eating at 10pm and having guests linger over red wine until 1am, c’est la vie!
Simple is Better
Think of a Pinterest-style dinner party, where every element is carefully choreographed and Instagram-worthy. The French do not entertain like that. The goal is to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen, and the most amount of time with your guests. Also, note that it is very French to not make everything from scratch. The baguette can be from the local bakery. The tart can be from your favorite patisserie. Pare down the course offerings so that they are as simple as possible, and let them shine.
The truth is that many of the stereotypically “French” dishes that we think of as Americans are not regularly consumed by the French. They wouldn’t dream of serving French onion soup followed by steak frites followed by a cheese course followed by chocolate souffle. When crafting your menu, think about balance. Is your main course more rich and heavy? Lighten up on the appetizers. Are you choosing to focus on a spectacular dessert? Make sure that the main course is more refreshing. Don’t go over-the-top indulgent across the board.
Just as the food does not need to be Pinterest-worthy, neither does the decor. A French woman may, indeed, grab some local wildflowers if she has the chance to swing by the outdoor marché that day, but if not, she’ll use what she has at home. The table can be rustic and a bit undone. Don’t be scared to mismatch your tableware, and to scatter mismatched candles throughout. A tablecloth and cloth napkins go a long way in setting the mood, but keeping it simple.
Getting Things Started
The French are all about starting things off with aperitifs and light bites, which is very different than an American cocktail hour. While we often picture a full bar and coffee table packed with appetizers, the French have a quite pared-down situation before dinner. The aperitif, such as a classic kir royale, is served alongside light bites to stimulate the appetite, not to fill you up before dinner has been served. Think a briny green olives, a small bowl of nuts, or fresh radishes from the market to accompany the aperitifs.
The real secret to French cooking is that Frenchwomen truly shop local. It’s all about the local farmers market, and most French meals are naturally farm to table. In France, this isn’t a trend; it’s a way of life. Focus on what’s local and in season, and craft a simple menu that way. Salmon en papillote is refined, yet oh-so-easy. A crunchy endive salad has both bitter and salty notes. A velvety artichoke veloute is perfect when in season. And don’t forget to serve the meal coursed out, with time in between courses for guests to digest.
Wine and Dine
In the French way, wine is to be served with dinner. There’s no signature cocktail or fussy punch at a French dinner party; it’s good wine all the way. If you don’t have enough wine glasses, try serving that Bordeaux in rustic tumblers, or mixing and matching glasses.
A Word on Cheese
As much as we love cheese at all hours, the French don’t serve theirs during cocktail hour as many Americans do. The cheese course comes after dinner and before dessert, and is stripped down to highlight just a few cheeses, fresh from the farmer’s market. We recommend serving just 2-4 cheeses (depending on the number of guests), alongside a bunch of fresh grapes, with simple sliced baguette on the side.. Don’t forget to take the cheese out of the fridge 30-45 minutes before serving so it can come to room temperature.
So often, dessert at a French dinner party is not the crowning achievement of the meal. It may be purchased at a local patisserie, and not be homemade at all. Or, it can be as simple as fresh berries from the famer’s market, adorning a thin fruit tart, or served naked with fluffy whipped cream.