By Caroline Wissing
A gourmet group puts the fun and ease back into hosting dinner parties.
Inviting guests for dinner is an ideal opportunity to create an unforgettable evening. From finding the perfect place setting and stunning centerpiece to mixing an elegant pre-dinner cocktail. But the thought of cooking all those courses, from appetizers to entrees to dessert, including side dishes, all by yourself is daunting enough to make anyone think twice. And the cleanup? Ugh!
So why not try getting together with a few friends and organizing a gourmet group?
A gourmet group allows you to rotate hosting duties, delegate dishes to other members, and go all-out to do something really lavish because you host only once a year. The group can be made up of couples, singles, women only, or any other combination you choose.
In 2000, Heather Duncan started one such group in Kanata. Her first baby, Morgan, was only a year old, and Heather was looking for scheduled dates to catch up with friends and have much-needed adult conversation. It also allowed her to let her creative side out by setting a beautiful table and cooking a single, very special entrée.
The inspiration to form a gourmet group came from Heather’s childhood. When her parents moved to Peterborough, the local Welcome Wagon matched six couples who were new to the city and didn’t know one another. The organization arranged for the couples to get together for dinners at one another’s homes, in order to break the ice and allow them to make friends in their new city.
Heather’s mom took it a step further and began arranging these dinners as ongoing bi-monthly potlucks. Soon the group members developed themes and cooked meals dedicated to different countries, such as China, India, or Germany. Each couple brought a dish to the hosts’ home, and they broke bread and chatted into the wee hours.
Heather says, “Growing up it was awesome because we always liked when all the people came. And there was all this different food, and smells. And the next morning there’d be dessert left on the counter, and we’d finish the dessert for breakfast.” She laughs.
Over time, couples came and went but the dinners continued. Now Heather and her husband Graham are carrying on the tradition with a group of their own. Today, five couples are members, with each scheduled gathering as much about delicious food as it is about creating a beautiful atmosphere. From simple elegance to rich opulence, every evening is as unique as its hosts.
The most recent additions to the group, Lorraine and Larry Murat, joined about four years ago. When asked what that first dinner was like for them, Lorraine says, “I was nervous. But everyone was so welcoming.”
Other recent members are Dieter and Isabella Schmidtlein. Isabella says of those evenings, “They’re always really pleasant and interesting. It’s so fun. I always look forward to it and always enjoy myself.”
In trying to create a sophisticated and authentic experience, Dieter once started two weeks in advance to make a brisket using a recipe from Anne DesBrisay’s cookbook, Ottawa Cooks: Signature Recipes from the Finest Chefs of Canada’s Capital Region. When he didn’t understand one of the instructions, he texted the restaurant and the chef responded to clarify the process, which involved putting the meat in brine for seven days and turning it every two days.
When asked what she likes best about the dinners, Heather replies, “I like everything. I like having everybody together. I like the different foods and the conversation, because for so many years I was the stay-at-home mom, and this was my creative outlet and my adult stimulation.”
Marcela Grosner and Pete Worthing are original members, and Marcela says the delicious food and the opportunity to see friends on a regular basis have kept her in the group for almost 18 years. When asked if there’s anything she doesn’t like about the dinners, Marcela laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t like to cook. So if I can get Pete to make it for me, it’s a bonus.”
But what if something just doesn’t work out? No worries. At one of this group’s dinners, Marcela remembers, the dessert was a coconut ice cream that hadn’t set. Each guest scooped a serving into a baggy and dropped that into a bag of salted ice. Everyone stood around the kitchen chatting, laughing and shaking their baggy (and their booty) until, lo and behold, the concoction thickened and coconut ice cream was born.
Often, a simple and delicious dish will become part of a member’s home cooking rotation. Isabella says, “One time we made a tomato and potato torte. It was dead easy to make, and I’ve made it, like, a hundred times since then.”
There are probably as many ways to run such a group as there are people who want to join one. This is what works for this group.
Back when Heather’s mother was running her cooking group, the ladies would get together to create a schedule and research recipes, even going to the library and making photocopies to share. Today, the ladies meet in late August for an annual planning dinner at a nice restaurant where they select the dates for the coming year. The first date is in September, and the dates fall every other month until May. Taking a break for the summer makes sense because of family vacations and other obligations. Setting the schedule this far in advance ensures everyone is (hopefully) able to make it to every dinner. And who’d say no to a night out at a restaurant with friends?
The hosts choose the theme and the menu, and they assign each dish. Online sites make it easy to find and share a variety of recipes. Scanners allow you to copy cookbook recipes without having to type them out. Hosting is the biggest responsibility because the host provides the main course as well as the drinks, which can also follow a theme. The bonus is that hosting duties, for this group anyway, happen only once a year.
A theme for your gourmet dinner can help narrow down the recipe possibilities and add flair. Include fine wine or craft beer from the country of origin if it’s a cultural theme, or sophisticated cocktails sparked by a movie-related theme (shaken, not stirred). Inspired by the international Le Dîner en Blanc event, you could create a chic environment, inside or out, and ask guests to dress in their finest white attire. Or do the dichromatic opposite and try a Harvest Noir party with everyone in black, including elegant Venetian masks.
Websites such as Pinterest and Instagram can provide inspiration for decorating your home and table for your gourmet hosting night. From colour schemes and serving ware to lighting and flowers, the ideas are virtually endless. Try pairing black and gold, or blue and silver with white linens.
From mocktails and cocktails to red or white wine, a beautiful drink can put a unique stamp on your evening. For cocktails, there are dozens of mixology books and websites you can consult for ideas. For wine, ask the experts at the vintages section of the LCBO. Be prepared to tell them what you’re serving, so they can help you find the perfect pairing. Hosts can relax knowing that, thanks to ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, anyone who wants to indulge will be able to get home safely.
Nobody likes the daunting task of cleaning up after a dinner party. But with a gourmet group, the dirty platters and casserole dishes head out the door with the person who brought them. And with the help of a dishwasher, bing-bang-boom, cleanup is a snap.
Heather wants people to know how much joy the group brings to her and the other members, and says, “I wish more people did it.” She believes people are intimidated about starting a group of their own, thinking it’s too much work. It’s not. Dinners can be as casual or formal as members decide to make them. And when dishes don’t work out, it simply makes the dinner more memorable.