culinary school teaches you a lot of things - but the surest lesson is in timing. "you need to have it all out and hot by 9 o'clock!" chef would yell across the kitchen and we scurried to stations. cutting, prepping, cooking - all hours in advance of the 9 o'clock deadline.
so how do you do it? let's take a look at this dinner party and deconstruct it. look at the menu like a prep cook and ignore the recipes. just see tasks. components. what needs to be done?
sauteed chicken with dill-mustard sauce
grilled shallots with dill
garden salad with balsamic vinegar
blueberry peach pie
for this menu, you need to saute chicken breasts. make a dill-mustard sauce. cut tomatoes. cut corn kernels. mince tarragon. shell edamame. peel shallots. grill them. cook potatoes. make a mayonnaise-based sauce. make a vinaigrette. make a dough. roll and shape a dough. cut peaches. prep the peach filling.
everything comes apart. ignore the recipes. make a task list. what can you do ahead of time? well, most of it, really. the dough does best if allowed to rest in the freezer for some time, so let's start there. make the dough. then, while it's resting, you can skip around. maybe cut your peaches for your filling. or cut the corn kernels and assemble the succotash.
this is what my task list looked like:
prepare dough. freeze.
cut corn kernels
(while potatoes are boiling)
slice cherry tomatoes
roll out dough. line pie shell.
toss peaches and blueberries with spices and lemon juice
(while pie is baking)
whisk vinegar, garlic, dijon, and oil to make balsamic vinaigrette
pull pie. rest.
whisk mustard-dill sauce
assemble salad olivier
saute chicken. brush with sauce
is it a lot? yeah, a bit. but what i want you is that you're always moving and you're ignoring following a recipe linearly. you're using time to your advantage and planning out each task, thinking about what can be done simultaneously (can you freeze the dough while you cook the succotash? sure thing. can you boil the potatoes while grilling the shallots? of course!)
but how do you keep it hot?
the realest answer is that you don't. you get it hot again. in kitchen lingo, this is called flashing. to flash something in the oven is to reheat a precooked item. trust me, it happens in even the finest of kitchens and you'll never notice a difference in the food's final quality. so here, everything was done ahead of time except the chicken, which was done right before serving. the succotash and shallots (the hot items) were flashed right before dinner. i wrapped each in foil packets and threw them in a 350 degree oven for five minutes. everything then came out hot and right on time.
this can be pared down to a normal dinner. do your prep work first. then, assemble as much as you can. fire your hot items. hold whatever finishes first by placing it in a low heat oven until dinner or by putting it in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes. serve hot and piping. is it cheating? not at all! it's thinking like a chef. rules are made for breaking.