When I have guests for dinner, the usual repas consists of four courses: entrée, plat, fromage et salade, and dessert, or appetizer, main course, cheese and salad, and dessert—a simple, relaxed four-course meal. I call it simple because most of the meal is prepared ahead of time. Long before the guests arrive, all the raw ingredients are prepped and some of the dishes are partially or completely prepared. But before I peel the first carrot or crack the first egg, I make a plan—a map of the journey that the meal will take from raw ingredients to dirty dishes.

My guests often accuse me of having worked too hard to prepare their meal, and I have a hard time convincing them that the whole process was very relaxing and not particularly difficult. Although they may want to think it, I really didn’t stress over their meal. I learned many years ago how to plan a meal from start to finish and then stick to the plan.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to shop the morning of a meal and then prepare all the dishes just before the guests arrived. As the time of their arrival grew nearer and nearer, I became more and more stressed out. And because I was stressed out, I made more mistakes. But all this started to change when I started working in restaurants in France.

When I worked at Le Château d’Amondans, a Michelin one-star restaurant in Eastern France, it was not uncommon to have a couple of banquets for one to two hundred guests during the same week. At the same time as these banquets, the main dining room of the restaurant was usually open for business. These meals were prepared by a staff of about eight cooks, a number of whom were students doing internships. Generally, everything went off like clockwork because there was always a plan.

The plan was never written in much detail. Usually, the only written notes I saw were a shopping list and a menu. Most of the plan resided in the minds of the chef and his sous-chef. They worked together for so long that each knew what needed to be prepared and when it needed to be done. The guests’ plates were always delivered to their table precisely on schedule. If there was a problem, it was often that guests arrived late, not that the food was not ready or not of the best quality.

The 200-guest banquet scenario is actually quite similar to the scenario that each of us encounters preparing a meal for only four guests. Our first task is to prepare a menu. In France, when a customer arranges a banquet, he or she requests that the chef propose a menu. The chef, after some discussion with the customer, will write up a menu including beverages and extras. The customer will either accept the menu as proposed or suggest some modifications. If the menu negotiations are performed long in advance of the meal, the chef can be quite flexible. If they are being made at the last minute, less flexibility will be possible. In planning the menu, the chef will take into account the season and its effect on the availability of some ingredients. The chef will propose a number of dishes that can be totally or mostly prepared in advance. Some parts of the meal will be prepared one or two days before the guests cross the threshold into the restaurant.

The entrée, or first course, will often be an item like a cold terrine or warm soup that can be made well ahead of time. In Amondans, terrines were prepared in ceramic pans large enough to produce 50 servings each. A few hours before service, the terrines were sliced and plated, usually with a sauce and garnish. Mobile carts that could each hold 100 plates were used to move the plates first to the walk-in refrigerator for holding and then to the service area for passing to the waiters. A fresh sprig of parsley, a sprinkling of chives, or a pinch of spices could be added to the plates as they were passed. Similarly, soups could be heated in a large pot and then plated and decorated as it was being passed to the servers.

The main course was often roast leg of lamb or duck breast. The lambs and ducks used were usually purchased whole and then butchered at the restaurant a couple of days before they were needed. The scraps and bones were immediately browned in heavy stock pots or large roasting pans and combined with some vegetables to start the preparation of the demi-glace that would be used in making the sauce to accompany the meat. The meat was roasted whole in the afternoon and held in a warming cabinet for many hours. Amazingly, the meat was always perfectly warm and delightfully pink when it was carved and served. The vegetable garnish was usually some form of gratin that could be assembled long in advance and baked at the last minute. In the case of the traditional vegetable gratin called a tian that I helped prepare and saw served many times, these were fully cooked a day in advance and reheated just before they were served. (They are better this way then when they are cooked fresh!)

Like the entrée, the cheese for the cheese course was pre-sliced, plated, and placed in the walk-in refrigerator earlier on the day of the banquet. The bread that accompanied the cheese, as well as all the preceding courses, was baked in the afternoon so it was very fresh and often still a little warm.

Cakes, mousses, and ice cream served for dessert were also prepared well in advance of when they would be needed, as too were the mignardises, small sweets such as cookies, miniature tarts, and chocolates. While the rest of the meal was being served, the pastry chef and his assistants would assemble plates of the mignardises so they were ready to serve at the appropriate time. These could only be plated after the guests were seated since each plate contained just enough so each guest could have one of each item on the plate. To arrange the plates this way, the pastry chef needed to know how many people were sitting at each table.

But what does all this have to do with preparing a meal for four at home? Home chefs can learn a lot from the way restaurants plan and prepare meals. Recently, I prepared a little meal for my new neighbors. It was almost a spontaneous meal—something I rarely do. I invited them for dinner just the afternoon before. Since this was the first time I was preparing dinner for this couple, when I asked them for dinner, I also asked if there were any foods that they could or wouldn’t eat. In this case, the wife was gluten intolerant and the husband was lactose intolerant. That meant no wheat flour and no milk products could be included in the meal.

Since I happened to be on my way to the market when I ran into my neighbors and invited them for dinner, I immediately determined the menu in my head. The meal would consist of four courses: tartare de tilapia et haricots verts au sésame (hand-minced, raw tilapia seasoned with lime and ginger and served with blanched baby green beans topped with a vinaigrette made of ground, freshly roasted sesame seeds, roasted sesame oil, and lime juice), caille croustillante aux amandes et pistaches (a boneless breast of quail breaded with ground almonds, pistachios, dried orange peel, and thyme; pan-fried quail legs; and a Madeira sauce garnished with carrots and shallots) and épinards ailles (garlic-flavored, pan-fried spinach), salade de mesclun (a plain salad of mixed greens with walnut oil and honey vinegar), and soupe de fraises aux gingembre (a cold strawberry-ginger compote).

Although the meal was almost last minute, its preparation actually, in one sense, started a couple of months earlier. The quail used for the main course was purchased a number of months prior. I buy whole, boneless quail from a local commercial distributor. They are sold fresh in packages of six. I usually buy two packages and vacuum seal four quail in each bag. The sealed bags are stored in a freezer until needed. Also in the freezer was a 200-gram portion of demi-glace that I made about a month or so earlier. Both of these items were moved from the freezer to the refrigerator as soon as I returned from my shopping so they could slowly defrost in time. I also had a small portion of finely diced orange peel sitting in my cupboard that I had previously dried. In my mind, fresh herbs are a staple so these are always on hand and I would only have to purchase the main fresh ingredients.

Since I created the menu in my head on the way to the market, and since I had a pretty good idea of what items I had on hand, I was able to modify my shopping list and add the items I would need for this meal. When I returned home and checked the recipes, I found that I was only missing one small item that I could purchase quickly in the morning at a store a couple of blocks from my home.

The next morning, I prepared the tartar, blanched the green beans, prepared the strawberry soup, cleaned the greens, disjointed the quail and breaded the breasts, minced the carrots and shallots for the sauce, cleaned the spinach, and sliced the garlic. This all took a couple of hours working at a relaxed pace. Also, the plates for the cold dishes were placed in the refrigerator and my wife set the dining-room table. I then left the kitchen until a few minutes before the guests were due to arrive. In the afternoon, now that the meal was fully set, I printed a menu for the table.

About fifteen minutes before the guests’ arrival, I roasted and ground the sesame seeds and prepared the dressing for the green beans. When the guests arrived, we gathered in the kitchen for a toast. I usually welcome my guests into the kitchen immediately upon their arrival so they can observe the start of their meal being plated. In this manner, I’m not separated from them and they are better able to relax. As each course is over and done with, the guests return to the kitchen with me to finish and plate the next course.

For this menu, the entrée is just assembled on the plate. Both items of the main course require cooking before they can be served. A total of four frying pans on four burners are required. Although I can easily handle this by myself, if one of the guests offers to help, I’ll usually put them to work on one of the simpler tasks. The salad only required dressing with the oil and vinegar. The dessert, being completely prepared in the morning, simply had to be ladled into the chilled serving bowls.

In the end, we had a very relaxing, four-hour long meal with good food, good wine, and good conversation. One of the reasons that it went so well was that it was well planned, even if it was organized on the spur of the moment. There wasn’t a formal, written plan. In fact, the only written notes were the menu, which I printed out and hung in the kitchen as I always do, and my recipes, which I maintain in a series of binders in the kitchen. (I used to occasionally forget to prep or cook a dish so now I always attach the menu to the refrigerator door so I can double-check as I work on the meal.) But because there was not much written doesn’t mean I didn’t plan the meal.

If I was to write out a sample plan for a meal at my home, it would look something like the following.

  1. Guest details
    1. Number: The number of guests is a reflection of what dishes you can prepare from your kitchen and its equipment. The same menu that you can easily prepare for four guests with your batterie de cuisine may be impossible if the number of guests swells to eight. Plan your menu so it can be prepared within the limitations of your kitchen.
    2. Food restrictions or dislikes: Nothing is worse than putting a glorious plate of food that you’ve worked hours to prepare in front of someone only to find that they cannot enjoy it for one reason or another. Some people have medical restrictions, others have ethical restrictions, and then there are some people who just won’t eat certain foods. If someone is a vegetarian, ask what that means for them—some vegetarians will eat egg and milk products or even fish. If someone is Kosher, find out how they practice these dietary laws—there are different ways that individuals follow the Kosher dietary rules. Get specific information about what your guests can and cannot eat. If you have doubts, ask questions. You’ll find that your guests will appreciate your taking their special needs into consideration.
    3. If your guest was a previous guest, what was he/she served: I keep a simple list of everyone who comes to my house for a meal, when the meal was, and what was served. I feel that since I can prepare hundreds of different recipes, why should I serve the same dish twice to the same person? My guest list also provides a list a past meals served so I can easily serve the same menu to different guests, if that is what I wish to do. I use my guest list as part of my planning and actually build the menu for the new guests on the list as one of my first steps in the planning process. If the actual menu changes for one reason or another, I immediately update the list to accurately reflect the changes.
  2. Menu
    1. Season: Different seasons mean that different produce is at its peak so why not take advantage of this when planning your menu? For example, I love asparagus and it is available all year round in my local markets. But the asparagus is best in the early spring when it comes from nearby farms, so I only serve it then. Seasonality can also affect certain seafood, such as crab.
    2. Time of day: When is the meal to be served? Some dishes seem better in the mid-day, others in the evening. Some dishes may be great for a Sunday brunch, but out of place for Sunday dinner.
    3. Probable weather: Is the meal in the middle of the summer when the weather is hot or in the middle of winter when there’s snow on the ground? Take the weather into account in planning your dishes. A meat stew served hot with lots of root vegetables would seem heavy in the middle of summer. Likewise, a chilled salmon dish may not work well when the weather outside is cold.
    4. Level of elegance: How elegant will the meal be? Do you plan to use a formal table setting or a casual one? I usually plan to serve elegant dishes in a casual setting. While I always want to impress my guests, I also want them to feel comfortable. Do what you feel comfortable doing, but think of your guests, too. Let your menu and its presentation reflect the level of elegance you wish to impart.
    5. Equipment availability: Plan your meal around the equipment that you have available in your kitchen. In my case, that means I have only one oven to work with so I cannot be cooking two items at different temperatures at the same time. Plus, we all have a limited number of burners on our stove and a limited number of pots to place on the burners. Keep all this in mind when you plan the meal.
    6. Days until the meal: Some dishes require preparation for a number of days, whereas others can be prepared at the last minute. Keep this in mind as you plan your menu so you don’t find yourself with a three-day recipe to be prepared on the same day the guests arrive. Keep in mind whether you can reasonably shop for the meal and prepare the dishes in the time you have before the guests arrive, along with the other activities you have in your life.
    7. Ingredients on hand: As you plan your meal, think about what ingredients you already have on hand—fresh, dried, and frozen. When possible work around these ingredients rather than buying all new items. Also, if you are like me and use certain ingredients all the time, keep those on hand so they don’t have to be purchased specially for the meal. This may include fresh herbs or prepared items, which in my case means demi-glace, which I always prepare in large batches and keep in the freezer.
    8. Print out menu: Once your menu is set, make a copy and keep it in your kitchen to refer to when needed. There are generally only two parts of the plan that I commit to writing, the shopping list and the menu. I print out a copy of the menu from my guest-list database and attach it to my refrigerator door with a magnet. I have the list to refer to when I’m preparing my shopping list, preparing the meal, and serving my guests. I don’t want to awake in the middle of the night and discover that I forgot to serve one dish and it’s still in the oven keeping warm (which happened to me many years ago).
  3. Shopping list
    1. Items to be ordered: Occasionally, it may be necessary to special order one or two items for the meal. Do so in plenty of time to ensure that you have them in time for preparation. In my case, this also includes items that I have to buy outside my local shopping area, like exotic poultry. Rather than buy just for one meal, I buy quail, rabbit, and duck from a specialty butcher and freeze them until needed. Some items, like fresh turkey and crayfish, have to be ordered a couple of weeks in advance of when they are needed. Items like veal tongues don’t require special ordering, but the butcher I purchase these from only has them on Fridays, so I have to take this into account when I plan a menu.
    2. Shop ahead items: I generally buy most of my ingredients for a meal the day before the guests will arrive. This allows me to start cooking the meal, first thing in the morning on the day of the meal. It also means that I don’t have to panic if the store I was planning to buy an item from is out of it or doesn’t currently have the quality or size that I need, especially since I’ll usually shop at four to six stores for one meal that I serve to guests.
    3. Same day items: Sometime on the same day of the meal, I buy items that can’t be purchased in advance. This includes any bread that I’m serving with the meal. The baguette that I prefer to serve, has to be baked and purchased the same day it’s being eaten. Most other items can be purchased at least one day in advance.
  4. Preparations
    1. Day ahead preparation: Some ingredients can be prepared a day or more in advance. Stocks can be prepared in quantity and then frozen until needed. Pickled, smoked, dried, and other preserved ingredients can be prepared well in advance of the day of the meal. Cakes, when stored properly, can be much better two or three days after they are baked. Stews and other meats cooked in a sauce definitely benefit from being made in advance and reheated just before serving.
    2. Same day preparation: Many dishes can be prepared many hours in advance of the meal. Some preparations benefit from sitting for a time before being served. Even if the whole dish cannot be completed early in the day, usually the mise en place, the preparation of the ingredients, can be. Ingredients can be cleaned, cut, blanched, and otherwise made ready for their final cooking.
    3. Last minute preparation: The only parts of the meal prepared at the last minute should be items that definitely cannot be prepared in advance. This would include the final cooking of certain meats, poultry, and fish; the dressing of salads; and the baking of flans and soufflés. Fresh herbs can be picked and cleaned in advance, but those that darken quickly when cut, such as basil and tarragon, should be cut at the last minute.
  5. Post-event evaluation
    1. What worked well and what didn’t: After your guests have left, the dishes are washed, and the table is cleared, sit down with a glass of wine—or in my case cognac—and think about the meal. What went well and what didn’t? What things could be improved? What should stay the same? Should these guests ever be invited again? I make mostly mental notes, but I do modify my written recipes based on the results of each meal.

All of this may seem way too complicated for a simple meal, and in a sense it is. I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write out a formal plan like the one above, but I do complete a mental version quickly for each meal I prepare. And I’ve done it so many times that it only takes a few moment—it has become somewhat automatic for me.

©2005, 2014 Peter Hertzmann. All rights reserved.