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Bend, don’t break

Times Staff Writer

My wife, Lucy, and I love giving small dinner parties.

By small, I mean eight or nine people. These aren’t magic numbers, just the number of people who fit comfortably around our dining room table.

We don’t do this very often, though. Why not? Because as much as Lucy talks about “doing something simpler next time,” she’s congenitally incapable of simple. So she spends hours poring through recipes clipped from food magazines and chefs’ cookbooks, and we wind up with a five-course dinner that takes her all day to prepare. I serve wines to match and wind up staying in the kitchen till 3 in the morning doing dishes and hand-washing and drying each of the 20 or 30 wineglasses we’ve used. By bedtime, we both feel wiped out, and it takes a while to forget that and pick up the cudgels and cutlery again.

But we do -- and now that we’re headed into fall entertaining season, we’ll probably do it soon. When we do, we’ll try to keep in mind one thing we’ve learned over the years: Yes, the guests and the food and the wine are the most obviously important “ingredients” in a successful dinner party. But without one other critical yet often overlooked ingredient, all the planning, shopping, cooking and pouring you do can be for naught.

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That ingredient is flexibility. There’s always the chance that a guest will throw you a curve, and if you’re not prepared to adjust, neither you nor your guests are likely to have a very pleasant evening. And pleasure -- the hosts’ and the guests’ -- is, after all, why people give dinner parties

Lucy enjoys cooking. She’s a hard-working career woman in a high-stress job, and she finds cooking relaxing. Planning, shopping, chopping, sauteing, roasting -- each step, each act, is so different from her workday life that it’s almost therapeutic. I, meanwhile, enjoy choosing the wines, trying to figure which ones will go best with each dish and which ones our guests are most likely to enjoy.

Together, we plan the guest list. Who’s interesting? Whom haven’t we seen in a while? Who’s a good match for whom? Who will like the particular dishes and wines we’ve chosen?

Until relatively recently, when I got lazy, I always kept track on our computer of the guests, dishes and wines we had at each dinner party, so we could avoid duplication. I mean, God forbid that someone should have to eat the same scallop dish with the same Marcassin Chardonnay, seated next to the same person, as he did three years ago.

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When we call to invite guests, we always ask, “Is there anything you don’t eat or drink, anything you are allergic to or have aesthetic, political, religious or any other kinds of objections to?”

We have friends who are vegetarian -- not many, thank the Lord -- and friends who keep kosher, and one friend who says he’s allergic to all California wine. But some guests are reluctant to tell you of any such restrictions, and others -- given the opportunity -- may change their mind about food or wine after they arrive and see what we’ve planned. That’s when it helps to be flexible.

Typically, for example, most first-time visitors ask for a tour of your house, and our tour includes our modest wine cellar, next to the laundry room, so when we get there, if I sense that a guest is interested in a particular wine or a certain kind of wine that I hadn’t planned to serve, I ask if he would like to drink that with dinner instead.

To be flexible, you have to be relaxed, not uptight. For Lucy and me, that means careful planning and no last-minute rushing. Thirty minutes before our guests are scheduled to arrive, we’re showered and dressed, with Champagne and white wine on ice and hors d’oeuvres on the kitchen counter. (I do, however, remember one time, shortly after our son was born, when we had not yet mastered the combined logistics of parenting and entertaining. I was in the shower when two guests arrived 20 minutes early. Bare-chested, I yanked open the door and yelped, “What’s the matter with you people? Can’t you tell time?” I apologized, of course -- profusely and often -- and have been neither tardy nor as rude since.)

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I’m happy to say that many of our guests have commented afterward that despite all the obvious work and organization and timing that go into our dinner parties, Lucy and I always seem relaxed, and the evenings feel casual and without either tension or pretension.

This was even true at what could have been our most stressful dinner party -- a 50th birthday party for Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino. We’d become friends with Selvaggio and his family, and when we asked whom he’d like us to invite, he suggested his friends Wolfgang Puck and Michael McCarty and their wives.

Lucy wasn’t exactly thrilled when I told her she’d be cooking dinner for three of the biggest names in the local food world. In fact, her first response was, “Let’s do burgers.”

I laughed and said, “For this group, on this occasion? Not on your life.”

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So she proceeded with a multicourse dinner and nary a flutter of evident discomfort -- not even when Wolf and his then wife, Barbara Lazaroff, showed up an hour late and Michael’s natural (albeit wine-enhanced) ebullience led him to accidentally knock my cigar humidor down a flight of stairs, where it literally exploded into a small collection of firewood.

We have had other dinner party mishaps. I once sliced off part of my palm on a mandoline just before the guests arrived, and I had to sit through dinner with my hand elevated -- and periodically excuse myself to change the blood-soaked bandage. On another occasion, a Christmas dinner, I was trying to fulfill the host’s responsibility to keep his guests’ wineglasses full when I set fire to a brand new shirt -- a Christmas present -- by carelessly reaching across the top of a burning candle, decanter in hand.

While several guests teased me -- “Didn’t like that shirt much, huh, David?” -- I raced to the bathroom, doused the flames and resumed pouring with the other hand. Then I excused myself and changed shirts.

Guests have occasionally contributed to an awkward moment or two as well.

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We once invited a young man and a young woman whom I thought would make a good couple, but the man was so nervous that he drank too much too quickly, excused himself from the dinner table 10 minutes after sitting down ... and never returned.

Each time I went to check on him, I found him curled up on the floor of the bathroom, unable to speak. Each time, I reported to the young woman that he remained indisposed and I apologized on his behalf as the evening proceeded merrily along. He slipped out at 5 o’clock the next morning, by which time he’d clearly unburdened himself of more food than he could possibly have eaten in those 10 minutes.

I remember another first-time guest accidentally spilling an entire plate of Lucy’s carrot-parsnip puree on the floor and subsequently saying how relieved he was when I casually picked it up and told a joke as I gave him a fresh serving, without a hint of disapproval or dismay.

We don’t have assigned seating at our dinner parties -- I don’t think anyone who’s gone past the third grade should be told where to sit -- not even when, on occasion, we break our pattern of having eight or nine at table and have as many as 14. When we do that, we seat six at our kitchen table. But we’re careful to make clear that there is no “A” or “B” table. Lucy sits at one table, I sit at the other and we change places between courses and urge others to do likewise if they wish.

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People seem to enjoy that, and sometimes -- as the evening winds down -- everyone will move to the dining room table, shuffling chairs as needed.

One hopes, of course, for guests who are also flexible and considerate, and we’ve been fortunate in that regard, though we have had guests show up an hour late from time to time.

Knowing that for some guests, L.A. traffic and the L.A. lifestyle make punctuality a somewhat more elastic concept here than elsewhere, we try to build possible tardy arrivals into our dinner parties.

We usually invite guests for 7 or 7:30 and plan to sit down to dinner at 8 or 8:30. For the folks who are on time, we always have plenty of preprandial libations and nibbles -- olives, nuts, salami, pate, bruschetta, Lucy’s home-cured salmon -- so they won’t grow hungry or impatient.

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No-shows or last-minute cancellations are even worse, of course, than late arrivals. And late announcements of dietary restrictions can be especially difficult. One time, a couple called the morning of the day we were expecting them and said they were vegetarians -- something they hadn’t disclosed when we invited them and asked about dietary preferences and prohibitions. Lucy immediately changed her menu and sent me shopping for the necessary ingredients. Most everything was done when the couple called about 6 p.m. and said they couldn’t make it.

We called another couple, close friends, and invited them, explaining the reason for the last-minute invitation and warning them of the vegetarian fare. They came and we all ate, more or less happily, although I may have consumed more wine than usual to compensate for having to eat all those vegetables.

Our dinner guests are almost invariably very appreciative, thanking us profusely and showering compliments on Lucy’s cooking, but they rarely reciprocate by inviting us to their homes for dinner.

Lucy and I have often discussed this phenomenon, and self-aggrandizing though it sounds, we’ve wondered if perhaps they’re somewhat intimidated, uneasy about trying to “match” the meal they had at our house.

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Some guests have said just that, and when the opportunity has presented itself -- i.e., when a guest says, “Boy, we could never invite you to our house” -- Lucy and/or I have hastened to reply, “Don’t be silly. We don’t eat like this very often. We like simple food too. We’re perfectly happy with a bowl of pasta and a green salad. It’s the company that counts.”

We mean it. Honestly. But no one believes us. So we don’t get many dinner invitations. Of course, that may have nothing to do with intimidation. Maybe our guests like our food and wine but don’t like us.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.

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Tips for the attentive host

* When deciding whom to invite, choose guests who are both interesting themselves and likely to find one another interesting -- and compatible (or at least not incompatible).

* Ask your guests beforehand if there’s anything they don’t eat or drink for any reason.

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* Try to finish preparing everything a few minutes early, so you can be relaxed by the time guests arrive.

* Let your guests decide for themselves where they want to sit at the dinner table. If you have a larger group, requiring more than one table, make it clear that there is no “A” or “B” table by seating yourself at one table and your spouse, significant other or co-host at the other.

* Keep your guests’ wineglasses filled, and keep a general eye on things to make sure no one’s wanting for anything.

* Be flexible and relaxed. Expect last-minute changes and problems, and don’t panic when they happen.

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-- David Shaw


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