Tricks of the Party Trade


“Giving a party is like handling a stage production,” says Sue Campoy of Julienne, a take-out cafe in San Marino. “There is just no way one person can perform all the parts.” But you can organize all the parts--if you plan ahead, stick to a budget and remember the most important rule of party-giving: A host’s place is with the guests, not in the kitchen.

That last bit is always the toughest to manage. And so we consulted some of the city’s best party experts--caterers--and asked them to share their secrets for not only surviving a massive holiday party, but for enjoying it too.

The current state of the economy is causing hosts to take another look at America’s frugal past. “We’re going back to the basics,” says Julienne’s Susan Campoy. “We’re cooking stuffed cabbage, sausage ragout, casseroles of baked pasta, but we’re upgrading them with modern touches.”

For instance, the sausage ragout she serves is topped with feta or Gruyere cheese crumbs; baked pasta is made with shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto and three different cheeses. The traditional antipasto is given a California twist with baby corn, grilled peppers and smoked mozzarella.


Campoy’s trick: “If you want to enjoy a party, you need to have reliable people to help--but they don’t have to be expensive professionals. Use your neighbor’s children or friends. “

All of the caterers agreed that keeping things simple is very important. “The days of multi-course menus of five years ago are over,” says Kathleen Bergin of The Butcher, The Baker, The Pasta Maker. “Now people want to cut down on the cost by planning parties with fewer dishes, less silver and china and fewer rentals to worry about.” Hosts are also looking for low-cost but plentiful entrees served with a few salads and a terrific dessert.

Bergin’s trick: Serve pasta for a cost-conscious party.

Andrea Bell of L.A. Celebrations in Los Angeles suggests developing a detailed menu and timetable. List the concept or theme, the menu and a shopping list (including beverages). Then set up a timetable for all aspects of the party--from setting the table to reheating a dish at the last moment. “Nothing should be left for the last minute that can’t be handled in advance,” she says.


Bell suggests simple, hearty meals that can be completely made ahead and reheated at the last moment, such as a vegetable-and-bean soup served with grilled sausages, assorted breads (from different bakeries) and herb butter, followed by an easy, inexpensive dessert of Bartlett pears with honey and fresh cheese.

The day before, wrap salad greens in towels and make the dressing. Have serving pieces polished and labeled to go with appropriate items.

Mulled wine is a good beverage to keep in mind, says Bell, because large quantities can be prepared ahead and only need to be heated up at the last minute. Eggnog also can be assembled ahead, leaving the addition of whipped cream for last.

Bell’s trick: When cooking party food, never use recipes you haven’t tried before.


Lila Green of Renta Yenta in Beverly Hills says oversights can ruin a party. An example: “A lot of people pick up food at take-out places, but forget to get a chafing dish to keep the food warm.”

Ice, Green thinks, is another item that is often overlooked. “You’ll save money by having the ice delivered by the 100-pound bulk rather than buying small bags at the supermarket and carrying them yourself,” she says.

Another tip from Green: figure out how much Champagne you’ll need ahead of time, because once Champagne has been iced, it should not be allowed to come to room temperature. “It’s wise to assess exactly how many Champagne bottles should be iced, to avoid ruining good Champagne,” Green says.

Green’s trick: “Close the bar an hour to a hour and a half before the end of the party and set up warming drinks such as tea, coffee or cocoa, for the road. Don’t forget, the host is held responsible for their guests safety once gone.”


“You’ll save lots of money if you give a party in the afternoon rather than at night when drinking is heavier and the food and beverages more varied,” advises Aleta Parrish-Dichter, president of Duck Duck Mousse in Pacific Palisades. For a party that’s easy on the host, Parrish-Dichter suggests cold dishes to which guests can help themselves, such as pates, terrines, Brie layered with nuts or pesto, or sandwiches and salads, rather than hot meals that require special equipment, careful replenishment and, perhaps, costly labor.

Parrish-Dicter’s trick: A full bar is expensive and requires a skilled bartender. Serve only beer, wine and nonalcoholic beverages.

“To avoid crowds collecting in one spot at a large party,” suggests Gary Ware of Ware’s the Party Catering in Los Angeles, “group foods on tables set up in stations around the house.”

Ware also believes that finger foods, although labor intensive, work best for a crowd. “Anything requiring knives or sauced foods spells trouble for buffet service,” says Ware. Brownies, cookies and other desserts that can be easily eaten while standing are better than pies and gooey cakes. Ware also thinks small seven-inch plates work best at buffets because guests have a tough time juggling large plates when they are also trying to hold a drink and a napkin.


Ware’s trick: Set up a trash bin that is visible to all--perhaps tied with a colorful bow--to help keep surface areas clear of debris. “Otherwise, people are at a loss to find a spot for their dirty plates and end up using any surface they can find, including the buffet table.”

Ruth Hedges of Culinary Productions in Los Angeles thinks you can save 60% to 70% of the cost of flowers by picking them up yourself. However, if you are not artistic, it’s best to leave the arrangements to someone who is.

Hedges’ trick: Use chafing dishes that have no lids. “Heavy lids are a nightmare to handle for people who are trying to balance a plate and a drink,” says Hedges.

Darlene Miller, owner of Savoir Faire caterers in Tarzana, recommends getting rid of chafing dishes altogether by serving hot foods from the kitchen. She suggests having a big simmering pot of hearty mushroom-barley or onion soup on the kitchen stove and letting guests help themselves. Or, to avoid spills and accidents, assign someone to man the pot. Serve the soup with several warm crusty bread loaves and butter.


Appetizers can be placed at a station in the main party room; Miller favors crudites , which are low-cost and colorful, and bite-size hors d’oeuvres , such as cubes of seasoned chicken, caviar torte, pates , Brie warmed with a topping of sauteed almonds, or smoked salmon decorated with a holiday theme.

Miller’s trick: Give each guest a parting gift from a basket filled with colorfully wrapped fudge and pumpkin bread placed strategically near the door.

Patsy Allen of Creme de la Creme in West Los Angeles thinks simple, light salads or inexpensive dishes, such as rice with chicken curry or pastas are best suited for large parties on a budget. “Invest in some interesting breads and make your own herb butter,” she says. “The dessert, however, should be spectacular.”

Allen’s trick: A large store-bought chocolate mousse cake can be served with a homemade fruit sauce and decorated with flowers and spirals of cream.


Carl Bendix of Ambrosia in Santa Monica thinks that most people overlook the importance of lighting. “Lighting is one of the most important parts of a good party,” he says. Lighting can come from candlelight, the fireplace or torchiers placed strategically in rooms.

Bendix suggests making the beverage area as self-sufficient as possible, by serving only one drink that is interesting, such as Aqua Libra, a drink using sunflower extract from Britain. “It becomes a conversation-piece drink. Otherwise, plain water and assorted colas and coolers, beer and wine are best bets, if you want to keep the party simple.”

Bendix’s trick: When you don’t want to spend a lot of money on flowers, use simple flowers such as daisies but increase the volume to create a sense of extravagance without the cost.

“Pack ‘em in,” says Hallee Gould of Somerset Caterers Inc. in Los Angeles who believes that parties are better controlled and more fun when confined to a single area. “There is nothing worse than having people rattle around in a big space,” says Gould. “The energy is better when the place is crowded.”


Gould’s trick: It’s wise to have both a bartender and someone to replenish food and remove empty plates. “Guests don’t like to see a host working. And never let guests clean up.”

For a holiday party with Pacific Rim style, Bob Wilson of Parties Plus in Los Angeles suggests purchasing Chinese carry-out from your favorite inexpensive restaurant. Pick it up hot the day of the party and then transfer food to your own platters and serving pieces.

Rim’s trick: Decorate the table with persimmons, grapes, Asian pears and apples. A non-edible accent: fruit lightly sprayed with gold paint.

Mary Micucci of Along Came Mary in Los Angeles, who caters parties for thousands, suggests renting plates: you don’t have to worry about breakage--and you don’t have to wash the plates.


Micucci’s trick: Make buffet foods look more bountiful by filling the bottom of a basket with plastic bags and covering with napkins. Top with lightweight food items, such as cookies and breads.


12 cups dried navy beans

Olive oil


8 large onions, minced

15 cloves garlic, minced

8 sweet red and green peppers, seeded, cored and diced

12 jalapeno chiles, seeded and minced


3 cups canned chipotle chiles, diced

3/4 cup chili powder

2 tablespoons toasted cumin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander


8 (16-ounce) cans tomato puree

8 cups drained canned Italian plum tomatoes, chopped

10 cups turkey or chicken stock



8 pounds ground turkey

8 pounds raw turkey breast, cut in 3/4-inch cubes

Garnishes such as: chopped cilantro, shredded Jack cheese, sour cream, sliced green onions, sliced avocado

Soak beans overnight, then rinse thoroughly. Cook according to package directions. Heat 1 1/2 cups olive oil in skillet and saute onions and garlic until translucent.


Add red and green peppers, jalapeno and chipotle chiles and saute 10 minutes. Stir in chili powder, cumin seeds and coriander and cook 5 minutes. Add tomato puree, tomatoes and turkey stock. Season to taste with salt. Bring to simmer, reduce heat and simmer over medium heat 15 to 20 minutes. Add to drained beans.

Heat enough oil to coat bottom of pan. Add ground and cubed turkey and saute until just cooked. Do not overcook. Add to bean mixture and simmer 5 minutes. Refrigerate to serve next day, or serve at once. Serve with desired garnishes placed in individual bowls around chili pot. Makes 50 to 60 servings.

Each serving contains about: 378 calories; 353 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 45 grams carbohydrates; 30 grams protein; 4.49 grams fiber; 24% calories from fat.



1 cup olive oil

8 cups long grain rice

4 large yellow onions, chopped

1/2 cup minced garlic


1/4 cup fresh thyme

Salt, pepper

3 1/2 quarts chicken stock

6 cups wild rice


2 cups Balsamic or red wine vinegar


6 cups extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup chopped fresh savory, basil, rosemary, chervil


1 cup chopped chives or green onions

Grated zest of 1 lemon

8 pears, peeled, cored and cut in 1/2-inch cubes

6 cups fresh cranberries


2 cups chopped parsley

2 cups hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and chopped

Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in skillet. Add long grain rice and saute until golden brown, stirring with wooden spoon. Place in large kettle.

Saute chopped onions in 2/3 cup oil until golden. Add 1/4 cup garlic and saute 1 to 2 minutes. (If necessary, cook onions and garlic in batches to avoid overcrowding pan). Add onion-garlic mixture to rice.


Add thyme, 1/4 cup salt, 1/4 cup pepper and chicken stock. Bring to boil. Boil 5 minutes. Reduce heat to very low, cover and cook until liquid is absorbed.

Cook wild rice in 3 quarts lightly salted boiling water in separate pot according to package directions. Add to white rice mixture.

Combine vinegar, 1/4 cup garlic, 1/2 cup sugar, 6 cups extra virgin olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour over hot rice mixture. Stir in chopped herb mixture and chives.

Bring 2 cups sugar, 2 cups water and lemon zest to boil in separate pan. Boil 5 minutes, reduce heat, add pears and poach 5 minutes. Add cranberries and cook just until they pop.


Carefully fold chopped parsley, pears, cranberries and hazelnuts into rice salad. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Makes 50 to 60 servings.

Each serving contains about: 408 calories; 232 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 32 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.80 grams fiber; 72% calories from fat.