Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares-Throwing the perfect dinner party

May 26, 2011

By Nina Barrett

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(WBEZ/Nina Barrett)
The centerpiece on one of Rita's plates is a bunch of blanched string beans standing straight up and tied with a leek ribbon.

Entertaining friends and family for a big shingig can often turn into a nightmare. So in the latest installment of Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares, Nina Barrett takes on the dreaded dinner party.

Whenever I even TRY to think about the housewarming party I still haven’t given 10 months after moving into my new house, I develop a crippling case of Party Panic. In case you’ve never had it before, here’s what Party Panic sounds like:

VOICE OF MARTHA STEWART: It’s my annual Peony Party, and there’s always a LOT to do. From setting the table and making the flower arrangements, to preparing a three-course meal and hors d’oeuvres for all my guests.

No, that’s NOT the voice of Martha Stewart telling you what a beautiful party you can throw. That’s Martha telling you what a beautiful party SHE can throw, with the help of her five-star chef, her recipe developer, and the head of her Styling Department. At your party, where the napkins haven’t been stenciled to match the tablecloths, your 70 guests are going to be walking around clutching plastic glasses of box wine and nibbling on Chex mix. Unless someone performs a little Party Panic intervention.

That’s why I turned to Rita Gutekanst. She’s the co-owner of Limelight, a high-end catering company in Lincoln Park, which means party panic is her business model. It doesn’t faze her, and neither does Martha. In fact, she told me, when she moved into her own house 18 years ago, the first big party she threw was a Martha Stewart Tribute Party—on Martha Stewart’s birthday.

“For me, Martha is those little extra details,” Rita says. “We froze pansies in ice cube trays to make those ice cubes that she makes. So that when you put the ice cubes in your tall highball glass and pour sparkling water and maybe rhubarb syrup in there, you see the beautiful colors of the purple pansies, the orange pansies, the yellow pansies. And it’s just summery, and then you put a cute little straw in there, and it’s adorable, it’s just adorable!”

But my party, she assures me, doesn’t have to be adorable. I could go sophisticated, but still casual, I could go Rustic Italian Farmhouse!  I could serve Prosecco and bruschetta and put a big feasting table in the back yard!

“And all you need down the center of it,” Rita adds, “you could do mason jars of pickled vegetables, and mason jars of little cut flowers, or just-picked flowers. It’ll be real pretty, and really simple. RUSSSS-TIC!”

“I can get out my distressed tablecloths for this,” I suggest.

“Yes you can,” Rita affirms. “Absolutely!”

“My distressed, un-ironed tablecloths,” I say, hopefully.

At this, Rita balks. “Alright, we might iron them.”

Noticing that I’m still not quite on message as far as the importance of sensory details, Rita takes me into Limelight’s kitchen for a little more convincing. The staff is preparing a tasting for a late-summer wedding, and the bride is expected any moment to start making her menu choices. Visually, it’s like stepping into an artist’s workshop, where all the little still-lifes make you want to gobble them up.

The centerpiece on one big white plate is a bunch of bright green, blanched string beans standing up straight on their ends and tied together with a ribbon made of leek.  The shrimp cocktail is served in a tiny cucumber cup, and sake cups of clam chowder, which she calls “shooters,” are lined up photogenically on a wooden plank.

“It’s very rustic,” I observe. Could we borrow that plank?”

“Un-hunh,” says Rita. “Actually, one of my waiters is making me these trays. He says the wood take a year to cure and he’s been working on them for about a year now, and he said they should be ready any time now.”

A lot of this is vintage Limelight style, but Rita says they always try to personalize the details to express something unique about the client’s style and tastes. In this case, she notices a certain theme emerging from the menu, and calls over to Elias Hildebrand, who’s in charge of the account.

“Lavender crème brulee, lavender mousse…what’s with all the lavender? Hey Elias, what’s with all the lavender?”

“She’s obsessed with lavender,” Elias answers.

“The bride is?”

“The bride,” Elias confirms. “Obsessed.”

Elias has not only worked lavender into the desserts, but into a lavender-pepper crusted ahi tuna hors d’oeuvre, a lavender-lemon martini, and champagne glasses rimmed with a lavender sugar that sparkles like aromatic ice. He’s even soaked the warm towels that will be offered before the meal with lavender-scented water.

“So am I going to get truffled towels?” I wonder.

“No, probably not,” Rita says.  “I’m not sure if you want a truffle aroma. Well, YOU might.”

Okay, maybe not truffled towels. But I can definitely see now how a Rustic Italian Farmhouse party with Martha flourishes could be a lot of fun. The question is: is this a party I can pull off?

So a few days later, I took a deep breath and tried get in touch with my Inner Martha. Rita’s parting gift to me was the instructions for the pansy ice cubes and I followed them to the letter. It took hours, and even though I boiled distilled water to eliminate the impurities, the ice cubes were actually cloudier than the ones my refrigerator door spits out on its own. What would Martha do in my position, I asked myself, and I think I know: put those ice cubes in a glass, pour in some gin and some tonic, and then, call the caterer.

MUSIC BUTTON: Pink, “Get The Party Started”, from the CD Greatest Hits So Far, (La Face)