"Giving people something to do in the kitchen is more fun because everyone's engaged," says Meredith Klein, a yoga-retreat chef who throws cooking parties for four in her small kitchen at home in Santa Monica, California. "You learn a lot about your friends, too. Someone's personality really comes out when they're chopping an onion."
When cookbook author and celebrity television chef Cat Cora (who co-hosts the Bravo show Around the World in 80 Plates and is the Food Network's only female Iron Chef ) gets a break from her hectic schedule on the road, she looks forward to cooking and eating with friends at her home in Santa Barbara. The Yin and restorative yoga practitioner invites a variety of people, from fellow yogis to family friends, to cook with her. Although her guests may not know one another at the beginning of the evening, she says, they soon bond over chopping vegetables or simmering a soup. Within an hour or so, a beautiful meal appears on the table that everyone—now closer than when they first walked in—has played a part in. Here's how you can host a cooperative-style dinner party.
Whether your guests are friends or family, they will have varying degrees of comfort and familiarity with a kitchen, so it's up to the host to make a menu, plan the recipes, and gather the ingredients and tools beforehand so guests can jump in. Cora starts by choosing recipes that take about the same amount of time to prepare (ideally under an hour from start to finish) and that groups of two or three will find easy to make. Main dishes, such as leek and onion pizzettas and chickpea and roasted pepper soup, might take longer to prepare than salads, appetizers, and desserts, which come together quickly and often aren't cooked.
So she stays flexible: If one group finishes early, they can help whomever's handling the pizza recipe, or they can set the table, do dishes, or nosh on the popcorn, cheese and crackers, and nuts she sets out in bowls before anyone arrives. If a recipe she wants to make has a component that will take too long to put together during the party—roasted red bell peppers, for example, or pizza dough—she makes it in advance or provides a good store-bought alternative.
"Do as much or as little as you can," advises Cora, who, as a working mother with four boys, understands time limitations. "The best parties are the ones where you don't have to do too much," says Cora.
Even in a mid-size kitchen like Cora's, things can get tight when you invite a group of people over to cook. Set up workstations for each dish—close to the sink for washing salad greens, near the oven for making pizza, and on a counter or table close by for recipes that don't require a sink or stove.
Lay out the utensils, cutting boards, bowls, and ingredients for each dish on a counter or table close to the action before anyone arrives. This will help ensure you aren't missing anything you'll need, and guests won't have to rummage through your cupboards looking for a measuring cup or a missing ingredient.
When your guests arrive, give each a set of recipes to peruse. You can suggest teams, or let people form their own and choose which recipe they want to tackle. Some will gravitate toward the dishes with more steps and techniques, while others will want to stick to a no-fuss task like peeling oranges. And if some guests prefer not to take part in the cooking at all, encourage them to hang out in the kitchen and cheer the others on. "My only rule is to have fun," says Cora.
Once the cooks are relaxed and working together, don't be surprised if a creative energy takes hold and someone wants to add salad ingredients to the pizzas or otherwise improvise. "At my last party, once we sat down at the dining table to eat, all the dishes turned out differently than they do when I make them," retreat chef Meredith Klein says. "Food reflects the collective energy of the people who make it, so it makes sense that it would taste different. And it was delicious."
Cooking Party Primer
1. Choose recipes that use different appliances—for example, don't plan to use the blender for every course.
2. Print clearly written recipes for each guest to use and keep.
3. If the menu has lots of fresh produce, consider washing or chopping some of the vegetables in advance.
4. Short on equipment? Ask guests to bring extra knives, cutting boards, pans, or bowls.
5. Have plenty of clean kitchen towels on hand, and keep bowls or bags for compost readily accessible.
6. Let your guests choose their own cooking partners or pull names out of a hat. Or, if you want to assign partners, consider pairing a more experienced cook with a novice.
Get the Recipes from chef Cat Cora:
Linda Lau Anusasananan is the author of The Hakka Cookbook: Chinese Soul Food from Around the World.