The supper class
Young New Yorkers are ditching the potluck for elaborate dinner parties
By Sara Stewart
What’s the secret to a memorable New York dinner party? For Paul Wagtouicz, 39, and his boyfriend Noah Fecks, 38, it’s carefully choosing recipes from one of the 815 issues of Gourmet magazine they’ve collected — that’s every one ever published, from 1941 to 2009 — cooking multiple courses from scratch to perfection and serving them by candlelight in their Alphabet City “micro-studio.”
“We do one issue a week,” says Wagtouicz, who works as a food photographer and estimates it will take him and Fecks more than 15 years to get through every issue.
Gone are the days when one might simply boil some pasta, whip up a basic tomato sauce, heat some bread, invite pals over and call it a feast. If you’re going to compete with the awesome, ever-multiplying culinary hot spots in New York where your friends could be eating — but aren’t because they came all the way over to your place, a major slog from the subway station on a chilly night — you’d better be prepared to dazzle them with a gourmet meal, perfectly mixed cocktails and heady themes and conceits.
“A dinner party might need to be a little bit more thoughtful than it used to,” cautions Geoff Bartakovics, founder and CEO of the daily food-and-drink-culture newsletter Tasting Table. “These days everyone is watching food television, subscribing to magazines and eating at great fancy-casual restaurants,” he says. “They simply know more. So I think you do need to try a little harder.”
Web producer Laura Ratliff, 23, certainly puts some effort into it when she and her boyfriend host dinner parties with high-end dishes, often ones they’ve had eating out.
“When my guests come over, they’ll be served what I would eat, which happens to be better than what 90 percent of people eat,” she boasts. “The last party, we did five courses — we went a little all-out with it.”
The evening started out with an appetizer of scallops in an herbed broth with baby radishes and ended with a dessert of caramelized roasted pineapple with creme fraiche. They went so far as to move their furniture out of the living room to fit a rented dinner table.
The rise of such high-maintenance dinner parties is part of a larger trend: More New Yorkers are staying in and cooking. According to the 2013 Zagat Survey, city dwellers are cooking at home (6.7 times per week on average) more than eating out (6.4 times per week) — for the first time since Zagat started tracking the data seven years ago.
Of course, that’s partly due to economics, but it also seems to reflect a desire for a more intimate dining experience, says Noah Karesh of Feastly, an online service that helps connect dinner-party experts with wannabe hosts.
“We have this whole movement away from the traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, like with pop-up [restaurants] and food trucks,” he says. “People want to feel closer to their food. And restaurants can lack a sense of dynamic-ness, a sense of authenticity.”
When Brooklynite Jess Kantor, head of marketing and content for livestream.com, has a dinner party, it’s rarely lacking in those qualities. Two years ago, she and her friends started a regular gourmet gathering they cheekily dubbed “Chez Bushwick.”
“We would get together at noon on a Saturday, cook for four or five hours, make a huge mess and then people would bring more food and booze,” Kantor, 31, recalls. “The first couple of them, we would finish with Valrhona-spiked hot chocolate and homemade marshmallows.”
“Chez Bushwick” has since expanded from intimate loft dinners to sprawling, epic meals that sometimes move outside the city.
“A big group of us recently went out to our friend’s lake house, about 25 of us, and it was like a Food Network challenge,” she says. “The fun of it is, like, this beautiful chaos. There’s no way we could do it in a restaurant.”
For another country dinner, she relays an even more idyllic scene: “We had a bunch of architects in the group, and they constructed a huge long table while we were cooking. I kneaded bread overnight and made it in the fire. We cooked fish on the fire, and did a big kale vegetable salad and roasted potatoes,” she says. “We had the most epic dinner party.”
But, as lovely as such gatherings may be, the epic dinner party “can turn into a kind of brinksmanship,” says Tasting Table’s Bartakovics, who claims his parties can intimidate guests who then won’t cook for him, fearing their kitchen skills will fail to match his.
To that end, he doesn’t consider it a victory — or a great party — when people tell him they’d never dare invite him over to their place in return. “That’s the opposite of what the dinner party is supposed to engender!”
Tips for the perfect dinner party
Tasting Table CEO and expert host Geoff Bartakovics shares his tips for hosting with elegance and ease.
* Keep calm: “Chill out,” says Bartakovics. “The intention here is not to impress anybody but to create an environment in which your guests can relax.”
* Pour generously: “You have to have a very strong cocktail ready to go . . . So within five minutes of people arriving they can take the edge off,” he says. Then, “it doesn’t matter what you’re serving.”
* Avoid the cheese plate: He advises against “plopping” a self-serve appetizer in the middle of the cocktail table. “People can have a little apprehension about grabbing stuff and not looking like a pig.”
* Embrace the one-pot meal: “Any kind of braised anything you can do . . . [so it can] sit in the oven or a Dutch oven until you serve it — those are your slam-dunks. You can prep it the night before.”
* Never leave ’em wanting more: “Don’t [let guests] go home hungry. It’s a cardinal sin if someone leaves one of my parties and stops off for a cheeseburger on the way home.”