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Hosting a dinner party? Follow the experts’ advice

When it comes to planning menus (and parties), few people are as skilled or accomplished as chef Gordon Ramsay: He's constantly configuring menus, whether it's for one of his 24 restaurants, including Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York and Gordon Ramsay at The London West Hollywood; creating them in his 11 cookbooks, including the recently published "Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food"; or judging the
/ Source: Epicurious

When it comes to planning menus (and parties), few people are as skilled or accomplished as chef Gordon Ramsay: He's constantly configuring menus, whether it's for one of his 24 restaurants, including Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York and Gordon Ramsay at The London West Hollywood; creating them in his 11 cookbooks, including the recently published "Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food"; or judging them in his shows "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Hell's Kitchen." When he entertains at home, Ramsay keeps it simple but still top-notch. We spoke to Ramsay about menu planning, and he revealed the secrets to his success.

Since great food deserves great wine, we consulted sommelier and wine importer Daniel Johnnes on selecting wine for dinner parties. The Wine Director for Daniel Boulud's restaurant group, Johnnes creates the wine lists and oversees wine service at Boulud's nine restaurants, including Daniel in New York and Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas.

Chef Gordon Ramsay's menu-planning tips:

  • Start with the best ingredients: For Chef Gordon Ramsay menu planning begins at the market. Before he decides on a single dish, Ramsay thinks about what's in season and which ingredients are at their best: "There's no point in planning to make a fresh berry trifle when it's the dead of winter or if the raspberries or strawberries at the market are days old." Ramsay recommends choosing "a few top-quality ingredients and working from there." When your farmers' market is bursting with apples and pears, a rustic tart is in order. If your fish market has really fresh tiger prawns, make them the centerpiece of your menu. In summer, throw them on the grill for a fantastic — and fast — main course.

  • Keep it simple: While a party might seem like the moment to show off more complicated recipes, Ramsay believes that simplicity is essential to a successful menu. In our hectic schedules, time is often limited, but Ramsay insists, "that doesn't mean the quality of our food has to be limited too." He prefers dishes that are simple in execution and made with just a few flavorful ingredients. Plus, "the less complicated a [menu], the less likely you'll run into conflicts" like allergies or aversions.

  • Prep ahead: When cooking for a crowd, Ramsay says he usually opts for "food that can be prepared well in advance and needs little final attention." This keeps stress low and means you'll have time to enjoy your guests, which really is the point of the party. Ramsay suggests a nice, hearty casserole baked in an attractive dish that can go from oven to table, saving you clean-up time.

  • Keep a well-stocked kitchen: According to Ramsay, "The key to a successful kitchen, whether it's in a restaurant or just at home, really boils down to the planning that's done in advance." This means stocking your pantry with essentials such as good-quality olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black pepper, plus keeping eggs, milk, and in-season vegetables and herbs on hand. Also make sure you have all the necessary equipment (including tools and serving pieces) and that they are in good working condition. For instance, check that your knives are sharpened and that you have the pots and pans you need to execute your menu. This kind of preparation will save you time and ward off any last-minute headaches.

  • Finish with a strong dessert: "Dessert," Ramsay says, "is often an afterthought or left to the last minute." Since it's the last dish your guests will taste, "Make sure it's memorable!" One of Ramsay's favorite desserts is warm chocolate fondant because it's a definite "crowd-pleaser." Ramsay also likes a fresh fruit crumble, featuring whatever is in season — berries in the summer, apples in the winter. And, when it comes to dessert, all the same menu-planning guidelines apply: Start with good ingredients and keep it simple. For the crumble, this means using the best fresh fruit available, while for the fondant, good-quality chocolate is essential.

Sommelier Daniel Johnnes's wine tips:

  • Know your audience: When Sommelier Daniel Johnnes selects wines for a party, he starts by thinking about the mood and spirit of the party: Is it a special occasion, a casual dinner party, or a family barbecue? This also means thinking about your audience: If you're hosting your boss, for example, you might want to impress him or her with a special vintage, but if you're in charge of bringing wine to the neighborhood potluck, you probably want to leave that rare bottle in the cellar.

    The feel of your party and your guests will also help you determine how to serve your wine. For a more formal affair, consider pairing each course with a different bottle and setting the table with a glass for each wine. On the other hand, if you're hosting a simple gathering of friends, feel free to dispense with all the extra glassware (saving yourself a lot of washing) and pare your wine list down to a few good choices.

  • Think about preparation: When pairing wine with food, Johnnes finds many of the traditional guidelines "too general [and] too vague." Rather than focusing on main ingredients such as fish, chicken, and beef, Johnnes prefers to focus on how a dish is prepared: "Are you grilling it, poaching it, roasting it, serving it raw?" He also thinks about any sauces or garnishes. For example, poached chicken with tarragon sauce is "completely different" from grilled barbecue chicken, so you "can't just say [with] chicken I would serve a white wine or a red wine," he explains.

    If you're faced with a variety of preparation styles, sauces, and garnishes — as during a cocktail hour — Johnnes recommends Champagne or sparkling wine because "it goes with a lot of different things and it's always festive." He also suggests that a good general wine to have on hand for multiple dishes is a non-oaked white wine such as Sancerre, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, or Chablis. If you want a red option, Johnnes likes Pinot Noir because it's fairly light and pairs well with a lot of different foods.

  • Go for likeness or contrast: For Johnnes, there are two main approaches to wine pairing: likeness and contrast. Likeness, he explains, is pairing "a very rich beef dish" with "a wine that is equally rich or powerful [enough] to stand up to it." If you're serving a dish with some sweetness, such as a fish with peach or mango salsa, Johnnes recommends a wine with sweetness. And for a dish with acidity, like a salad with lemon, Johnnes says to balance it with a wine that has some acidity.

    The other pairing option is to look for a wine that creates some contrast. For example, when serving a creamy cheese, Johnnes likes to pair it with a wine that has some acid to "counter the richness" and avoid that "cloying, mouth-coating feel." Champagne is a nice choice, because the acidity and bubbles will act as a palate cleanser. Contrast also works with spicy foods, which pair well with wines that have a little fruitiness.

  • Build in intensity and specialness: "One very important way to orchestrate a meal," says Johnnes, "is to build in intensity, build in flavor, build in fireworks." In other words, start with the lightest, simplest wine and end with the richest, most special one. This typically means finishing with a really dynamite bottle of red — however, a terrific white could also be the "pièce de résistance." For example, if you're going to serve cheese at the end of a meal, Johnnes says, "A good white wine could go with a large variety of cheeses as well or better than red wines." But, he warns, "If you're serving a white wine at the end of the meal, it has to be at least as good in quality as the previous red wine."

  • Create a theme: With so many people interested in wine, Johnnes thinks it can be fun to add a wine theme to an evening. This can be as subtle as offering two wine options for a course and asking for opinions. If you're serving Chardonnay, for instance, Johnnes suggests opening an American and a French and inviting your guests to compare them. Or, have wines from one country or one winery. Even if your friends don't get into the mini-tasting, they'll still enjoy the wine.

Chocolate fondant

"Gordon Ramsay's Fast Food," Key Porter Books

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