Hostess with the mostess, Kara Dykert, knows that us modern kids have a hard time slowing down. (Preach.) Her business, Kara Elise, is about curating beautiful, balanced and creative catering experiences — a personal process suffused with slow, artful intentionality and mindfulness, that’s landed her top clients across the states.
We’ve asked the dinner party pro for her most essential tips for elegant entertaining, and the insights below don’t disappoint. From how to set a killer menu, to how to set yourself up for a solid mental state, these 15 lived-and-learned bits of advice are a prefect education for any summer hosting endeavor and, let’s face it, for life in general…
I absolutely love a good dinner party. For me, the table is a sacred place. Food has always been a vehicle for something greater to me – one for connection and nourishment. I moved to LA in 2013, and on the drive out, my best friend asked what I would do with life if money didn’t matter. My answer was simple. “Have people over for dinner.”
Food, eating together, gathering around a table; these things hold so much power. They can create space for people to genuinely connect. To feel known. To share an experience with one another and dive into conversation.
I began a dinner party company in LA in 2013, and have since fallen into cooking for retreats. I’m often hosting a weekend away with Darling Magazine or other clients, cooking for over 20 people at any given time. Though this may sound daunting, it has actually become one of the most fun and enjoyable experiences for me.
I just got back from cooking for a yoga retreat in Ojai, and at the end of the retreat, the property manager pulled me aside to compliment me on my presence throughout the weekend. He said he had never seen a chef be so calm and present throughout a weekend of cooking. So often, the reputation of someone in the kitchen is high stress and high intensity. The truth is that the chef or host sets the entire energy for the evening.
Along the way of becoming a hostess, I’ve learned some crucial ways to pull off the best experience for both your guests and yourself.
Your demeanor sets the entire tone for anyone entering your kitchen. This is something I tell anyone who is going to host a dinner party. Your presence and demeanor create the night. Your attitude, stress levels and energy around the meal create the experience for the guests. I’m a massive believer in hosting yourself first – because the way that you host yourself is ultimately going to be the way you create an experience for your guests. It may sound simple, but take care of yourself first! Maybe that means sipping a glass of wine while you’re cooking. Maybe it means starting 30 minutes early to make sure you have extra time after the chaos of the cooking has ended. Whatever it may be, know what allows you to be the best version of yourself so that you’re giving that version to your guests. It ultimately will shape the feel of their evening.
Get smart about thinking ahead. Thinking ahead is crucial for any dinner party or event that you’re going to host. In fact, thinking ahead is crucial in simply cooking for yourself! Often times we are running so fast that we end up so hungry and simply don’t have the time to be mindful about what we are taking in. Practicing thinking ahead around meals is a learned skill, but one you can start doing now! I like to think in time increments (my mind likes numbers). When I cook for a group, I block out amounts of time that I know each dish will take. For example: 30 minutes for the salad, 20 minutes for the side (plus 40 for cooking time) and 45 minutes for the main. When you think ahead and have a clockwork to your meal, you’re able to set aside those hours of cooking with confidence that what needs to get done will get done.
Think in threes. At every meal I host, I’ve come up with this process of “thinking in threes.” Three dishes: a main, a salad, and a side. This simple system lets me get creative within a meal, all while having a structure that I rarely deviate from. And, if you add in a good loaf of ciabatta with some dipping oils, you’ve got a beautiful table of food that is guaranteed to satisfy all your guests. One of my favorite go-to menus is honey sesame salmon, an all-the-greens salad, a quinoa, hummus and tomato platter, and then a really good loaf of bread. It’s simple, and the entire meal only takes about an hour to do.
The importance of a good charcuterie board. It may be done often and some may say it’s overrated, but a good charcuterie board is a must in my book of hosting. First, it’s a place for guests to gather as you’re finishing up your final touches on a meal. Second, it can be a piece of art! I love taking a screen shot of a beautiful cheese board on Instagram or Pinterest to use as inspiration to build my own. And third, who doesn’t love a good picky bit as they’re mingling with new friends? Food is connective, so it’s an easy way for people to begin breaking the ice with one another.
Breathe, sip a glass of wine and know that if you’re ten minutes late, the world does not end. So often in life, we put pressures on ourselves that aren’t even there. When I first started hosting dinner parties, I remember feeling so much anxiety if I was running ten minutes late. The truth is, your guests can absolutely wait ten extra minutes. And they won’t think twice about it! First, simply communicate, “Hey everyone! Dinner will be ready in about 15 minutes, so in the interim, meet a new friend, have another bite of cheese and make sure your wine glass is full!” Then, take a deep breath, have a sip of wine and remember that your calm is much more important than an extra ten minutes of waiting.
Use short cuts when they’re worth it. I love a good shortcut. There are times when I love making my own pizza dough, or spending hours making a gnocchi, but, for a dinner party, I always suggest taking the “worth it” short cuts. If there are items in your menu that come pre-cooked or pre-chopped and that removes a layer of stress for you, then use them! I love pre-peeled garlic and pre-made doughs. Prioritize using the best ingredients possible but making wiggle room for shortcuts when worth it.
Make written checklists. I function much better with a hand-written checklist. There is something satisfying about making a list of all the things that need to happen within a meal, and then checking them off as I go along. It helps my brain make sense of the tasks that need to happen, and I feel a sense of accomplishment as I work down the list. I even include “set the table” as an action item. Plus, if someone offers to help you, you instantly have a task list that you can hand off and delegate.
Clean while you go. Cleaning along the way is such a freeing thing in the kitchen. It keeps the stress level down because your environment is not littered with chaos. Keep a bowl next to your chopping station and fill it with your compost. Wash a dish right after you use it. Have different stations in the kitchen that are delegated to different tasks, i.e., chopping, assembling, etc. This sense of keeping your space clean gives you the option to move more freely throughout the cooking process and to maintain a sense of collectedness as you prepare a meal.
Allow people to help you if they offer! It took me a long time to learn this one (in fact, still learning!). Often times as women we take on a serving role and forget that people actually want to help! If a friend offers to come early and assist, take her up on that! I recently had a girlfriend join me an hour early before a dinner party. We had a glass of rosé, she did a ton of chopping for me, and our conversation during that prep time was one of my favorite parts of the evening. You are not alone and you don’t have to do it all, so make it a practice to accept help!
Sometimes simple really does win. We live in the most glamorous time of food porn possible. We are inundated with beautiful dishes on the daily through Instagram, Pinterest and every social outlet. While so much of this is fun and can be inspirational, it can also be overwhelming and daunting, because we think, “I could never make that!” But here is the truth: Simple, beautiful food wins. We eat with our eyes, so when something looks beautiful, it matters – but that beauty can be so simple. Add berries to various salads to bring in pops of color, find edible flowers to fancy up a simple dish or use a bunch of fresh herbs to bring flavor and color to a store-bought loaf of ciabatta.
Condiments, condiments, condiments. I think that condiments make a meal. I was the child who ate sticks of butter plain, and to this day I generally use food as a vehicle for a good sauce. You can keep a couple store-bought sauces on hand for any meal, or you can experiment with making your own. Serve your meal with four little bowls of condiments and you’ve just upped the entire professionalism of your cooking. One of my go-to condiments is one cup greek yogurt, two cloves garlic, a dash of salt, juice of half a lemon, a handful of parsley and a handful of cilantro. I throw all of it in a food processor and it becomes a magical dipping sauce for sweet potatoes, any starchy side dish and even meat or fish.
Table questions – always table questions. When you’re welcoming someone into your space and cooking for them, you’re creating an experience. You’re setting a tone, creating an environment and inviting someone in for nourishment. Often, the most nourishing evening goes beyond the food and into the conversation. This is why I love the dinner table – it is a place for people to slow down, to indulge and to get connected. I always have a handful of table questions on hand at any dinner. Asking a communal question allows guests an equal playing field of conversation time, regardless of whether they are introverted or extroverted. When everyone answers the same question (even if it’s silly!) it creates a bonding experience among all of the guests. Have a handful of go tos, and take inventory of the emotional temperature of the room! Are your guests needing to laugh? Do they need to have an intellectual discussion? Do they need to talk about something that deeply affected them?
Go easy on salt and pepper. When cooking, I like to err on the side of not adding too much salt, but having small jars of salt and pepper on the table. This way guests can salt to their liking and the small jars become darling ornaments for the table.
Simple desserts made fancy. Unless dessert is your forte, I suggest buying a pre-made dessert and then doing a little magic work to fancy it up. I like to buy a small cake from a local bakery, cut it into small squares, and then serve with fresh berries, vanilla-bean ice cream and a mint sprig.
Enjoy the meal with your guests. Always sit down. I’m bringing this one full circle, but your presence is the most important thing you can give your guests. So sit down. Eat together. Answer the table question. Engage with your guests and enjoy the experience that you’ve created.