Indoor restaurant dining is something a lot of us have been missing during the COVID pandemic. It’s tough to recreate the exact experience at home, but there are a few things you can do to make a(nother) meal at home feel like you’re dining out.
Please observe all relevant local and university COVID guidelines on gathering when planning your meal.
Always go into cooking with a plan. Figuring it out as you go can work, but that definitely comes with practice. Preparation is key to creating a memorable meal and having your mise en place (French for “everything in its place” and an essential part of efficient cooking) ready will make for a smooth evening.
Decide if you want to serve individual plates, or go family style. I am of the belief there are two approaches to feeding a small group: making the effort to individually prep a single dish for each guest all plated in a similar way, or putting together a meal that is served family style and allows each guest to build their own plate as they choose.
Going full restaurant-style and prepping an individual plate for each guest can be a lot of fun, but takes a little experience and more attention to detail when preparing.
The family-style approach allows you to provide a bit more variety as guests build their plates. Prepping a main dish with multiple sides may seem like more work, but it helps in playing to a crowd that may have varying tastes, dietary needs, or appetites.
Either option requires some planning if you want to execute it well, though, so make your choice and stick to it.
Simple is best when setting a table. Setting and decorating your table is easy to do in advance and makes a meal feel special. Keep things relatively neutral; you want the focus on the food. If you have your choice of plates, select a color that does not appear in the dish. It will make the food stand out nicely.
You can draw décor inspiration from the menu itself or from the time of year your meal is taking place. Using natural elements you can find outside is an easy and affordable way to create a seasonal theme. Avoid anything too tall to ensure guests can see and hear each other, and remember to leave plenty of room for the actual food.
Small, hand-written name cards are a great way to add a personalized feel to the table.
Think about the composition of your meal. Creating a restaurant-like feel while cooking at home is all about composition. Composition of a dish considers both the actual components (ingredients) and how those components are prepared (cooking and plating techniques).
Building a dish, as opposed to just putting food a plate, can go a long way. Many times, home cooks will cook a few different components that all just end up on the same plate. (Example: chicken breast, rice, broccoli. We can all picture this one, and have probably made it a more than a few times ourselves.)
Think about tie-dying a t-shirt as opposed to stacking blocks. There’s interplay and overlap between the different elements of a great meal, not just isolated pieces that happen to be in close proximity.
Good ingredients speak for themselves, so always think about buying produce that is in season and proteins that present well in the store. A lot can be determined by how a cut of meat is presented; sales and advertising stickers are often used to cover up poor quality. Never hesitate to ask the butcher (or other grocery store workers) about different options if you don’t see something you like.
Variety in texture is just as important as flavor and balance in fats, acidity, and salt. Speaking of salt…
Season your food. If you remember one thing from this blog, please remember to season your food. Seasoning (and tasting for seasoning) at each step of the cooking process makes a huge difference. It is crucial to building deeper and more complex flavors. Seasoning and flavoring a dish can be as simple as adding salt and pepper when roasting a vegetable or utilizing fresh herbs and citrus juice to a sauce or dressing to amplify a dish. Seasoning can also be used as a great way to round out the palate with something a dish may lack; acid in a fatty dish or salt in a sweeter dish can help maintain balance which will ensure each component or ingredient stands alone and supports the whole dish simultaneously.
Salt is almost always the most important part of seasoning your food. Its proper use is one of biggest differences between restaurant food and home cooking. In a dish with multiple components, each component (i.e., vegetable, protein, starch) should be salted before cooking. Finishing (adding just before eating) a dish with salt can really help bring out the food’s natural flavors.
The restaurant mentality focuses on how to leverage each part of the dish to enhance and support each other. They are often brought together with a sauce or cooked in a single pan so that each component picks up nuances of the last. (Remember the tie-dye versus building block metaphor?)
Garnishes that add only visual appeal and no new flavors aren’t worth your time. However, adding a “topper” or “finisher” like herbs with salt and vinegar can still be visually appealing and bring a boring steak or chicken thigh to the next level.
Start with a snack. Dips, small hors d’oeuvres, or a charcuterie plate are simple to put together and help keep everyone’s palate busy while you finish prepping dinner. Don’t be afraid to ask your guests to bring an appetizer or dessert; taking a bit of work off of your plate always makes for an easier night.
Clean as you go. Cleaning up is the least exciting part of having guests over, but “clean as you go” is one of the first things you’re taught when working in a restaurant kitchen Using time while food is cooking to do a few dishes helps avoid the mountain of dirty ones in your sink that inevitably gets put off until the next day. Cleaning also distracts you from feeling the need to constantly flip or stir something.
Take your time, relax, and have fun. If you’re not enjoying the process, it will take away from all of the effort you’re putting into a special dinner for yourself or a small gathering with friends.
Identify things that can be prepped the day before to lighten the workload for yourself. Think through your grocery list and don’t be afraid to over prepare a bit. I always grab some extra herbs and citrus regardless of the menu; finishing a dish with either can go a long way.
Sending your guests home with something they enjoyed is an awesome gesture but there’s no shame in looking forward to leftovers for a few days. You earned it. Cheers!