Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in The Winter Issue of our printed magazine.
There are a handful of universal, unwavering truths in my life. I may be a man of many hats, but I’ve always loved making people happy. All of the random careers I’ve pursued have ultimately been about pleasing people. I’ve been a mechanic, a cook, a bicycle messenger, a restaurant manager, a coffee dork and all-around hospitality guy. In retrospect, all of these seemingly unrelated occupations have afforded me the opportunity to make a customer happy. I like to fix broken stuff, make food for people, deliver items that people need––and lately, I get to have a hand in setting the positive tone for people’s days.
Admittedly, I still have no idea what I want to do, but I know I like making people happy and creating an experience that exceeds expectations. So the foundation is there, as they say.
As it relates to hosting and the purpose of this casual diatribe, I’m sure there’s an art to it, but I’m also sure that for true artists, there isn’t a choice or a modern guidebook. Instead, hosting is more like a calling.
My folks used to host the occasional gathering at our home in West Virginia when I was a whippersnapper. For a rambunctious, attention-starved kid, the onslaught of adults under my roof was equal parts annoying and exhilarating. I was definitely too young to be included in the main festivities, but even still I had the faint understanding that bringing people together was a special thing.
That feeling stays with me some 30 years later. Hosting a gathering of folks is my singular opportunity to slow down and enjoy a moment. During an especially magical dinner in my backyard, I catch myself thinking I’ve finally figured out that this is what life is really about.
While the art of hosting is a generally innate gift, it doesn’t hurt to have some training to help you mind the details. If I were to offer a few pointers from my experience hosting, being hosted and spending a decade in hospitality, it would read something like this:
Don’t overthink it. If people are willing to brave traffic and give up a perfectly nice evening of Friends on Netflix to come to your house/party/boat/bottle service event, odds are they probably don’t dislike you. I like to think of hosting as facilitating a good time. Don’t force it, don’t micromanage the experience, and for chrissake, don’t try to make some crazy spread of food and drink that you can’t pull off effortlessly. Granted (cue the #humblebrag), I graduated second in my class from Pennsylvania Culinary in 2003, so lobster thermidor or clams casino is really no problem for me, but every host should keep to his or her skill set. Guests aren’t expecting a 24-course Alinea-style tasting menu, they just want to have a good time and feel welcome, which is exponentially harder with each foam or fluid gel on the menu. Instead of trying to turn your kitchen into a Michelin-rated culinary adventure, focus on using great ingredients and cooking simple but tasty fare.
Invite some people who should know each other. When your guest list is strategic, you can worry about hosting and cooking and keeping drinks fresh while your friends just hit it off. You know you’ve nailed the invites when you don’t need to talk to anyone all night. Instead, all the people you know are engrossed in conversation with one another because you are this magical connector of cool people. I’ve met some of my greatest friends through well-selected guest lists, and now it’s up to you, dear reader, to pay it forward.
Keep it simple, stupid. That, or, keep it stupid simple. Humility always goes a long way. The goal of a host is to set a tone for the experience, and then over-deliver. If you try to create a cloth-napkin, highfalutin restaurant in your living room, chances are you won’t stand up to the competition, so just be casual. I’ve hosted memorable dinner parties where we eat Noah’s sticky chicken off of paper plates sitting on tree stumps, and I’ve probably had some really special dinners prepared by world-class chefs at tables with fancy flatware. In hindsight, I remember the sticky chicken and burning paper plates in a fire pit with greater fondness.
Plating is a to-do. When hosting a gathering, I like to serve everything family style. It’s highly photogenic for all the Instagrammers out there, and it is way less work. Plus, people can take what they want, and if by some impossibility your guests aren’t escargot lovers, they don’t have to push your signature delicacy around their plate awkwardly, in hopes that it looks half eaten.
Don’t serve snails. It’s not 1890 and you aren’t Escoffier.
This ain’t no pot luck. Hosting isn’t about collecting food that doesn’t travel well or belong shoe-horned into your well crafted experience. “What can I bring?” Oh, that’s very sweet, but if I wanted to have you cook me dinner, I’d go to your house. You can bring wine if you think people are going to drink too much of my stash. Otherwise, be hosted and enjoy yourself. I stopped encouraging friends to bring anything when someone tasked with dessert brought miniature Snickers. Although one time someone brought Bob’s Donuts, which was freakin’ brilliant.
Everything is important. Mind the details. I think this is true of life in general. If you do 100 small things right, there are no big things. Play music that sets the scene; I’m a Paul Whiteman Orchestra man, myself. Use interesting glasses and plates. Have some pre-meal snacks set out. Light some candles, you savage. Buy flowers. Spruce up your bathroom, because almost every guest is likely to visit it if they’re imbibing. Have drinks at the ready and easily accessible to your guests. Create a welcoming, lively atmosphere so new guests aren’t standing awkwardly at the door waiting for an invitation to set down their bag or jacket and find a drink. Create plenty of seating areas and if your group is struggling to find common ground, lubricate! And always be prepared with extra food, extra wine and extra place settings so nobody feels like an inconvenience. Bust out the conversation starters or the Uno deck. Boggle if the crowd needs it!
Tyler Wells is the founder of Blacktop Coffee (previously co-founder of Handsome Coffee) in Los Angeles, Ca. When he’s not hosting intimate dinner parties with friends, you can find him consulting for restaurants and cafes.