Chef Bob's tips for receiving serious-cook friends

We have friends who come over, enjoy Le Duc's exuberant, expert cooking, and then say, "We'd love to have you over, but how could we possibly cook for you?"

A few weeks back, it happened yet again, uttered by a well-meaning fellow who later said, in the same conversation, "I consider myself a pretty good cook." This is what the Brits call dropping a brick; that excuse fell flatter than a fork-pricked soufflé.

Le Duc replied affably, "Then take me out." And that's what happened; we enjoyed a leisurely, delicious bistro lunch with him and his conjointe.

But not everyone can or wishes to reciprocate with a restaurant outing, and the experience is different from convivial dining at someone's home.
Our friend Bob is an acclaimed chef. When people trot out the how-could-I-ever-cook-for-you gambit, Bob says, "Hey, I eat at MacDonald's!" Though it's been years since he took his kids for Happy Meals, he wants to put prospective hosts at ease. Chefs love to be cooked for!

When I confessed that every time I knew he was coming over, I about fainted with apprehension, Bob told me how the occasional cook can receive a chef (amateur or pro) without turning into Julia Child overnight.

1. Serve a generous platter of hors d'oeuvres, no-cook fare like olives and nuts, slices of cured sausage or cold cuts, crudités-and-dip.

Have the nibblies ready to serve as soon as the coats are off; guests will immediately enter an aura of hospitality. (Bob: "A good restaurant will immediately welcome you with something—fresh bread and olive oil, a little paté, or an amuse guele. It sets the mood.")

If willing to do basic prep, Mark Bittman's 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less is brilliant. (The host could keep those coming, renaming them "tapas" and there's dinner.)

2. For a first course, serve takeout soup or doctor one from a can, and be sure to garnish. If he can make toast, he can make real croutons, grate cheese, or chop a few scallions. As Bob says, "People eat with their eyes."

3. For the main course, serve straight-ahead comfort food.

Bob says occasional cooks over-research menu ideas and think that they can impress by making something "interesting" when a classic spaghetti supper would be so much better. The principle: familiar dishes made with quality ingredients. One difference between dedicated cooks and reluctant ones is that the latter buy things like those nasty pitted black olives packed in turgid water.

Given basic skills, it's hard to blow stewed dishes, like Rachel Ray's Sirloin Beef Burgundy, which features labour-saving moves (no peeling pesky pearl onions—this recipe uses frozen) and contains the ingredient many males will gnaw through concrete for, bacon—but can be made without it. Or they could also make pizza at home; the smell alone makes Le Duc weep with joy.

I'm linking to Rachel Ray recipes because she creates flavourful dishes with easy-to-find ingredients. No one should attempt Ottolenghi entrées if he rarely ties on an apron.

Bonnie, whose expert-cook partner was out for the evening, served me an ambrosial plate of fresh figs with curls of Parmesan; she had chosen perfectly ripe figs and Parmesan so flavourful that a small shard satisfied. We then ate a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket and a green salad—so good.

4. Let the serious-cook friend relax. And lighten up yourself!

From Bob: "If your sauce separates, do. not. apologize. I don't care; I'm there to be with you. And don't hand me the whisk and ask me to fix it."  (I actually did that, and he said, "NO. Just turn down the lights.")

Don't ask the chef friend if he knows a better version of your recipe. Don't discuss the many things you thought of making and ask if he would have liked that better. If you can help it, don't announce that you forgot to buy the ice cream—just serve the pie without it.

Occasionally, the chef friend can be asked to come early to deliver a mini-lesson, as in, "Louise, can you come early and show me how make your béchamel?" But do not ask her to do basic scut work; Chef does not peel turnips at her resto. 

The occasional cook is often desperate to avoid criticism. Good luck with that. Chefs, whether pros or amateurs, tear apart each other's cooking all the time, but are usually gentle with beginners.

If you ask for feedback and are told the harsh truth, don't take it personally. Too much nutmeg in your kale sauté: no biggie. Absolute disaster? As long as you can get takeout or delivery, no one goes hungry. I once incinerated six shriekingly expensive racks of lamb, so we ate takeout souvlaki from around the block. (I was busy piping three different purées onto the plates, and lost track of the lamb. I should have made a veggie stir-fry.)

Given the choice between fine food in a public setting and a decent meal in someone's home, I'll vote for home, though I respect a host's preferences. The main thing is taking time to enjoy one another's company.

But there is also a deep pleasure in learning to cook; Mark Bittman says the ability to serve a meal made with your own hands is a life skill everyone should have, whether essaying a simple omelette or devoting a weekend to produce a Chez Panisse Three-Day Twice-Cooked Pork Roast.

And one more terrific resource: my neighbour Kathleen MacDonald (who also rents a terrific Montréal apartment via Air BnB) has just opened Cooks from Home, a company that pairs nearby cooks with hosts who wish to order home-cooked meals or single dishes.

For example, I can order the appealing dishes above for my vegetarian—and even vegan—guests. (I, like our friend, would call myself a pretty good cook, but my vegan repertoire is limited to this easy coconut vegetable curry.)

Look for a similar service where you live; it's a recent addition to the "sharing" model of community businesses, and just might save your bacon,  regardless of your love of cooking.


Susan B said…
Great advice here! And yes, a good rotisserie chicken can be a life saver.
Madame Là-bas said…
What great ideas! It is the hospitality not the cuisine that counts.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: We live near an excellent Italian specialty store, their lasagna has become my "rotisserie chicken"!
Mme: Yes, and why some people figure they need not reciprocate in •any• manner, and use the "how can we..." excuse floors me. The friends mentioned are not like that, but they are still intimidated by the idea of cooking for the appreciative and non-competitive Le Duc.
I totally get what chef John is saying... We hosted our caterer friend Julie and her husband here with another couple and I was somewhat apprehensive having dined at her home where she served a six course gourmet meal. All made by hand! I served a simple pasta dish with an arugula salad and chocolate mousse for dessert. She enjoyed being a guest and said people rarely invite her to their homes for a meal...your advice is spot on Duchesse.
Susan said…
I think the idea of serving comfort food to great cooks/chefs is a great suggestion. I prefer winter meals when I can make great stews, chilis, etc. Its hard to go wrong with a good recipe!
Not fair linking to Ottolenghi's site! I'm really trying not to waste too much time on the internet, and Ottolenghi is basically food pron for me... Even here in Montréal with the benefit of a large Levantine population, it is hard to find everything in his recipes.

Yes, those are great ideas. For vegans, if there are no nut allergies, I'd make sautéed tempeh with an Indonesian/Malaysian spicy peanut sauce, and vegetables of course.
Duchesse said…
hostess: I had to laugh, Julie sounds like Le Duc, who at one time cured his own olives and made his own ice cream. He's cut back now.

Susan: The problem with occasional cooks is that they do not have "great recipes". They then have a crisis of confidence and second-guess every step. Once, I arrived to find a novice cook incapacitated on the wine she had originally planned to cook with... we hugged her and took her out for sushi.

lagatta: Tempeh has never made it through our door, nor is it likely to. Coconut curry into eternity, I suspect :)

Mme: I have to wonder why some people thought they had a free pass on any kind of reciprocity, when a hot dog and deli potato salad will be perfectly fine.
Sue said…
Good advice indeed.

I also like to cook with friends,for instance,a younger male friend who enjoys cooking suggested trying different recipes at my place (I have a bigger kitchen and gas cooktop). We go to the markets and then cook together. Droppers-in are very welcome as are lunch or dinner guests.

We have cooked lamb shanks, Asian style pork belly, curries, fish, barbecues ... it has been great fun. My step son bought a truffle a couple of months ago and we tried various recipes using truffles.

There are other ways to return hospitality or entertain. An elderly friend no longer has dinner parties owing to physical frailty, but she has lovely afternoon teas - cheese, biscuits, chocolate, maybe a slice, some macaroons (all can be bought from a super market) it's the company, always the company.
Duchesse said…
Sue: What fun you're having. I had posted before on options for reciprocating another's hospitality, here:

There are many ways to reciprocate: taking someone to the theatre or a sporting event, for example, or the tea your which friend hosts. The gracious host pays attention to what the guest would enjoy. An old friend of mine who says she hates to cook took me to her daughter's flamenco performance; I loved it!
Susan said…
My suggestion to occasional cooks is to try any Ina Garten recipe. I would suggest trying it out BEFORE serving to guests. But, most of them are stellar. Also, if anyone needs a great beef stew or chili recipe--just email me!
Duchesse said…
Susan: Yes, thanks for adding that tip about not making anything new; I have done that with mixed results, even now. Ina Garten is another great source.

My sister had a friend who disliked cooking but mastered one complete dinner party menu. Everyone knew what they would be served and in fact looked forward to it.
Duchesse, I discovered tempeh in Amsterdam, as it is of a staple of Indonesian cuisine - usually prepared with shrimp or crap pastes or fish sauce, of course. Not at all in the contexte of "hippie" vegetarian cooking.

Of course even some of the professed vegans wound up eating the seafood dishes as well.

Another site with very well-explained recipes is

Saveur can be more challenging but here is a collection of one-pot chicken recipes:

Jane in London said…
I think one can also elevate the meal by taking care over the selection of wines (plus providing something delicious that is non-alcoholic) and the environment. A lovely table, flowers and candles in the room, all work to create a sense of wellbeing and occasion that can make even standard fare seem special. And I absolutely agree that only tried and trusted recipes should be employed!

materfamilias said…
I'm tardy or absent from commenting but I really loved this post. My dad cooked professionally (in a large institution, so def. not fine dining but he cooked at home as well and could be more creative there). He always insisted that he was just happy to be cooked for, and although he might have constructive suggestions, he would generally try to save them until his appreciation had been firmly registered.
And one of our friends cut through the courting crowd to win the hand of a stunningly gorgeous, vivacious woman who was once singled out by The Globe as a young chef to watch, because he was confident enough to offer to cook for her--and yes, he chose a simple but delicious menu he knew he had mastered.

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