Having a party? Make it a PARTY!

Simcha Lourie

BY MARGI LENGA KAHN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

There are parties, and then there are PARTIES. 

Most of us have hosted a party. For example, you may have had family or friends over for a backyard barbecue. Or you may have hosted your child’s birthday party in your basement. Or you may have even invited friends or colleagues to your house for a formal sit-down dinner. And in the process, you may have made a guest list or planned a menu or created centerpieces or dreamed up favors for your guest to take home or you may have done all of those. 

In short, you may have hosted a party.

Now let’s talk about a PARTY. Let’s imagine you plan to host a bridal or baby shower. Or perhaps a festive gathering after a bris or bat mitzvah. Or the celebration of a big birthday or anniversary for your parents. Or your child’s wedding rehearsal dinner. This is where things get more challenging. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Unless you have the innate ability to flawlessly plan and execute large parties, you (and I) will benefit from some advice from the pros. After all, this is what they do for a living.

I spoke with two professional party planners. I asked them a few questions, hoping that their answers might provide some helpful tips and good ideas for your upcoming celebration. 

Simcha Lourie founded Simcha’s Events more than a decade ago. Her team is one of the area’s premier event coordinator and designer. Lourie told me that her team strives to deliver events that are unique to each family (i.e., not formulaic or scripted) and honor tradition without being traditional. They focus on luxury service, outstanding vendor relationships and attention to detail.

My other party planner is Sherry Goldstein Muehlfarth, who founded the Party Broker LLC in 2003 after 13 years as a co-owner of another catering and party planning company. She is a full-service event planner — from weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs to corporate events and nonprofit fundraisers — and a broker of catering, entertainment and decorations.

Here’s the advice I received from these two experts on planning a PARTY:

Q: Do you suggest working around a theme when planning an event? What are two of your favorite themes, and the centerpieces and party favors, you suggest for those themes? 

Lourie: The purpose of a theme is to create a memorable experience, not just be a collection of items surrounding a particular topic. First, answer the question: What do I want my guests to experience from the moment they arrive until the moment they leave? That will help you determine if a theme is the right approach.

Goldstein Muehlfarth: My first favorite theme is an international or “Around the World” theme. I’ve enjoyed developing it for several of my bar/bat mitzvah clients. The centerpieces for individual tables can each represent a country or region, but it’s the buffet centerpieces that really wow the guests. From a cheese and wine station under the Eiffel Tower to fish and chips alongside London’s famous Double Decker Red Bus, the options are endless. For favors, I’ve used passports with a list of the countries stamped on them to direct the guests to the food stations where they receive a wine charm for each station they visit. 

How do you calculate the correct amount of food, and how many different menu items do you recommend? 

Lourie: Determining the right amount of food is going to be based on the number of attendees. At Jewish celebrations, having plentiful hors d’oeuvres is as important as the type of entrée you serve. For a wedding or larger event, I recommend six to eight pieces of hors d’oeuvres per person. I know that sounds like a lot, but guests arrive hungry. For a full cocktail hour, you want to ensure you have enough food to accompany the beverages. Additionally, you want to ensure the venue staffs enough servers to allow guests to easily enjoy the passed items.

Goldstein Muehlfarth: For buffets, I like to recommend an average of six items. The key is to create a well-rounded menu. It should include two to three proteins, a starch, a vegetable and/or fruit and possibly a cheese. This formula can work for a brunch, lunch, cocktail or dinner buffet. I always try to not duplicate an item, such as offering a beef appetizer as a passed hors d’oeuvre along with a beef entrée in the same evening. The food portions are not an exact science. The more variety in a menu, the smaller portions you’ll need to serve. If you have two entrées, then 3 to 4 ounces of each is fine. If only serving one entrée, then a 6- to 8-ounce portion would be appropriate. For a cocktail party, two of each of the six items is normally a sufficient quantity for a two-hour reception. I would rely on the chef or caterer to make suggestions for you. 

What are two menu items every host should avoid? 

Lourie: For a cocktail style mix-and-mingling party, I recommend avoiding foods that are hard to eat while also holding a drink. Anything that is too large or that can easily spill or leak should be avoided. For example, stuffed mushrooms seem like a fairly easy-to-eat hors d’oeuvre, but when you bite into them, the mushroom tends to leak and can ruin clothing. Also, avoid things that leave your hands sticky, like chicken wings.

Goldstein Muehlfarth: Avoid foods with hidden nuts, excessive garlic or extreme spice. You can always ask your caterer to put the crushed peanuts and hot pepper sauce on the side for those guests who enjoy them. Try to cater to the average guest’s tastes so everyone can enjoy the menu you’ve planned.

What factors should a host consider when trying to decide between hosting an event at their home versus an event at a venue? 

Lourie: Consider the number of guests you are entertaining, and what that means for your budget and logistics. Hosting larger events at your home may appear to save you money, but when you outline all of the items you may need to rent, the cost of food and the stress that comes with having an event in your home, you may realize that a venue is a better fit. Of course, I’ve seen some wonderful events in homes. My advice to the host is: Unless you want to spend your entire party running around instead of having fun with guests, make sure you have the right support and staff on hand to allow you to enjoy the experience.

Goldstein Muehlfarth: The main factors are time and space. Always evaluate your guest list to have a realistic guest count or range. You don’t want to use your home if the group is too large for the space. The next is your time. If you work outside the home or if you have guests staying with you during the weekend of the event, it may be more stressful for you to host the event at your home. Worrying about cleaning your house or picking up after your guests can be avoided by booking a separate venue.  

What are the three most important questions you ask your clients about the event they would like to host? 

Lourie: My first question: “What is most important for you when you think about planning your wedding or child’s bar/ bat mitzvah?” Is it to have fun with the planning process? To be efficient in your usage of time? Is it to have a guide, to allow you to only focus on the big decisions? I’m clearly biased, but hire an experienced and passionate event planner. A good planner should save you time and money. A great planner will develop a true relationship with you during the planning process and, as the event day nears, know what you need to keep your stress level down and your energy focused on excited anticipation for the event to come. 

My second question:“What kind of experience do you want your guests to have?” Who are you inviting and why is it important for them to be there? What kind of feeling or experience do you want for you and your guests on your event day? This will help you prioritize what you put your budget towards and where to place emphasis.

My third question: “How do you want to feel on the day of your event?” Our measurement of success is seeing our families engulfed in the celebration. When it comes to event day, give yourself permission to forget about all the planning and details that have transpired in the prior months. Breathe in the experience and enjoy every moment.

Goldstein Muehlfarth: I always ask the client to describe their vision for the event, i.e. atmosphere, décor, dressy versus casual, etc. I ask them to give me a sense of the size of their guest list. Then I try to get a sense of their budget so we can create an event that is realistic for them. Then I put my creative hat on and start working.

***

Along with these great ideas and suggestions from the pros, there are dozens of wonderful books and a wealth of information available online. And bear in mind that you have a valuable source of information based on your personal experiences; namely, the parties you have attended and close friends who have hosted these types of parties. In fact, here is a great example from my own experience:

Good friends of ours have been hosting a legendary annual party at their home in late December for the past 12 years, carrying on a 40-year tradition started by one of their parents. That party is one of those genuine happenings that we wouldn’t think of missing. There is a different theme each year, and that theme permeates every aspect of the evening, from the food to the music to the costumes to the decorations (including on the front lawn). 

As one of them explained to me, having a clever theme not only makes the other party decisions easier but also adds to the fun for the hosts and their guests.

For example, the theme one year was “Cowboys.” The menu featured smoked meats and chili; a mariachi band provided the entertainment; and the decorations included wanted posters with pictures of family members accused of crazy crimes. 

Another year, the theme was “Safari.” Foods included safari sliders and grilled lamb chops, and the decorations featured animal prints. This past December, the theme was the Kentucky Derby. There were derby hats and floral garlands for the guests, and my husband came home with an “I Got Lucky in Kentucky” pin. 

Our friends truly enjoy having people in their home and believe that their annual party would not be as appealing for them, or their 100-plus guests, if it were held at a venue. 

Finally, everyone enjoys a great party. But it’s important not to lose sight of the party’s purpose. Whether it is to celebrate a marriage, a bat mitzvah, a new baby or a milestone of any type, be sure to make that the focus. 

That’s my advice. 

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking  instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected]

Sign up for Your Morning Light