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Throwing a Large Dinner Party

You've mastered the art of hosting a dozen friends for dinner, and you're getting ambitious. How hard will it be to ramp up to throwing a large dinner party for 18 or more?
Not too hard, says chef Michael Mina—with careful planning. Mr. Mina, no stranger to feeding large parties at his 19 U.S. restaurants, stays organized to ensuring that dinner parties at his home unfold smoothly.
"You want 'wow' factor but you also have to be realistic—the majority of the work has to be done ahead of time," says Mr. Mina, who co-hosts large dinner parties with his wife Diane at least 12 times a year at their Nicasio, Calif., home.
Mr. Mina likes dishes he can slow-cook the day before and simply reheat and assemble. "Once you have 18 people in your house, you have to create food and menus that are very versatile and give you a lot of cushion," says the chef, who recently opened Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore.
For example, he tosses tomatoes in olive oil and roasts them with herbs at 250 degrees in the oven for four to six hours. The tomatoes look attractive and work as a flavorful side for dishes such as braised short ribs, which can also be made ahead. For more casual dinners, he likes to make a one-dish meal such as lobster or chicken pot pie, which can be baked just before guests arrive.
Mr. Mina avoids dishes that will take his focus off his guests, such as whole roasted chicken. "With 16 people or more, I've got to carve four chickens, and that's not easy," he says. Instead, he makes simple skin-on roasted chicken breasts, keeping them warm in a warming drawer or a 300-degree oven until dinner.
The chef believes in simple accompaniments, too, such as a fennel salad or olive oil-poached potatoes. He takes pains to buy high-quality ingredients so the intense flavor of the sides impresses guests.
Mr. Mina likes 50% of his hors d'oeuvres to be "things people can just grab," such as nuts, prosciutto, ham and olives. He supplements these with things like a homemade roasted garlic spread. "If you do passed canapés, people sometimes get uncomfortable," he says. "I want them to get settled in right away."
To keep himself organized, Mr. Mina has three lists. His prep list notes in great detail everything that he has to do before guests arrive, from putting the tomatoes in a certain pan to finishing the sauces. This list details every ingredient and piece of equipment he needs to prep his dinner.
The moment he's done prepping, he cleans and puts everything away and pulls out his second list, which details what he needs to do and have at hand for plating and serving food. He usually designates a "staging area" where he has all his equipment ready to go.
The third list is his cleanup list, which has "everything I need to clean the area, from rubber gloves to cleaning towels."
r. Mina believes a clean kitchen is key for the host. "If your kitchen is a mess, you're going to be stressed out and you're not going to enjoy yourself," he says. He hires a dishwasher or has one of his two sons (ages 10 and 14) clean up behind him as he cooks.
Mr. Mina typically doesn't hire a bartender because his wife "is an amazing bartender." But when he does, he chooses someone "who's really fun and who's really going to get the party going, perhaps someone who has names for all the drinks and tries to get everyone to try one."
Dessert should be pre-made and mostly assembled ahead of time. Mr. Mina often makes a cobbler or a goat-cheese cheesecake, cuts it up, and put the pieces in martini glasses or rocks glasses (short glasses meant for iced drinks). The portions look dramatic but are easy to serve, says Mr. Mina, who sometimes pours rhubarb or other syrup into the glass right before serving.
No matter how stressful the evening gets, Mr. Mina never enlists his guests' help, because he wants them to relax. "It takes away from our whole intention of throwing a party."
Write to Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan at - Fly at a Smile-Price