Q: How do you tell longtime friends they are not as good cooks as they think they are? Leathery ravioli, tough soft-shell crab, pork chops bloody at the bone; these are a few of the meals I have endured at their hands. They have informed me that their dinner party invitations have gone unreciprocated and they often receive cookbooks as gifts. Clearly, hints are falling all around them and they haven't noticed. I think I might give them a gift certificate to a cooking school. Any suggestions?
—Claudia Perry, Evanston
A: Wow. What a question! Plenty of tact is required, clearly, whatever you do. I thought the best strategies might come from professional restaurateurs in Chicago, those folks whose prowess in the kitchen is matched by their diplomacy in the dining room — theirs and whoever they're visiting. A couple of quick Facebook messages back and forth and here you go:
"My first thought was also the cooking school gift certificate as a 'thank-you' for all the times they've hosted dinner parties, although carefully framed as 'I know how much you love to cook, so I thought you'd enjoy this!' Or perhaps an offer to help share the work next time they're prepping for a dinner party, while strategically (and politely) offering tips throughout the process to make the dishes more successful? Collaborative dinners are always fun, and they minimize the amount of cooking the host has to do themselves!" —Emmanuel Nony, owner, Sepia
"As per my ebullient personality (or at least that is what I have been told), I would take a softer, more caring approach and ask if they wanted me to help them prepare dinner. Make it a fun little experience of showing good technique, etc. If that doesn't work, I would politely decline. Nothing sadder than a tough soft shell, my friend." —Joncarl Lachman, chef-owner, Vincent, HB Bistro
"Set them up with a personal chef for the day and have them host a dinner for the evening, make it a fun day and a memorable evening for everyone so this memory will always stick with them. This may be expensive, but worth it in the long run." —Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef, Boka, GT Fish & Oyster
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