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How to Host a Large Dinner Party the Way a Chef Would

Eater Young Gun Maya Lovelace (’16) reveals her strategies for cooking for large groups

Maya Lovelace is queen of the pop-up. For the past four years, she’s been running Mae, a deeply personal, deeply delicious prix-fixe dinner event that reflects both her Southern Appalachian roots and Mae’s Portland setting. Named for Lovelace’s grandmother, Mae won a fan base with dishes like buttermilk-brined fried chicken and roasted zucchini with tomato cornmeal gravy — and earned Lovelace the title of Eater Young Gun in 2016. Mae also made Lovelace an expert at hosting large groups. That’s why we’ve tapped her to share her best tips for Thanksgiving, the biggest family-style dinner of all, for this as-told-to guide.

When we started Mae in 2015, we didn’t really know what we were getting into. It was supposed to be a one-off thing, but people really liked it, so we kept doing it more and more frequently. Six months ago, we opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Yonder, where we re-opened Mae in a back room for three nights per week. Over the years, running the pop-up has given me a lot of practice hosting large-scale dinners. I’ve learned tricks that ensure a smooth execution when cooking for a big group, all of which can be seriously helpful for Thanksgiving.

Organization Is Key

The most important part of hosting a big dinner, like Thanksgiving, is being really organized. Making lists can be boring, but they’re crucial. Make a shopping list, an equipment list, and a prep list just as you would in a restaurant so that you know what needs to happen and when.

Opt for Multiple Make-Ahead Casseroles

The best dishes to make for big groups are things that you can make ahead, which is why casseroles are such a Thanksgiving icon. Mac and cheese, green bean casserole, stuffing or dressing (whichever name you call it), and baked yams can all be finished in advance and put into the oven while your turkey is resting.

Distract With Snacks

Putting out some snacks is helpful because people tend to poke into the kitchen and get in your way. I like dips like pimento cheese or baked chipped beef with cream cheese and scallions, along with celery sticks and Ritz crackers for dipping. Or you can go really Southern and do a cheese ball. The cool thing about Thanksgiving is that it doesn’t have to be fancy — it should be homey.

Ask Guests to Bring Their Own Wine

You could provide drinks that you know will go well with your food, but you can also let people do their own thing. BYOB is a great idea for Thanksgiving because people always ask what they can bring. Having each person bring a fun bottle of wine to share is really smart.

Make Punch

Punch is super easy to make ahead of time, especially if you keep a punch bowl at home for special occasions. I love the old-school method of freezing a bunch of fruit and using it as ice cubes, like a totally grandma-style punch. Mix one that’s on the light and bright side and another that’s a little bit richer.

Maya Lovelace looks through cookbooks.
Maya Lovelace looks through cookbooks, researching for her pop up, Mae, in 2016.
Dina Avila

Bake Desserts Two Days Early

Thanksgiving desserts can be done two days in advance. A cake is not going to be any worse for wear two days later; neither are pies that you keep in the fridge. For more of a showstopper, I like a big, family-style cobbler. Apple dumplings are another good option; they’re easy to serve individually, but also beautiful, and they can be prepared ahead of time.

Attitude Is Everything

Remember to breathe. The most important things when you’re hosting an event are confidence and grace. If you’re having a good time, the people around you are going to be having a good time, too. They’re not going to care if you burn something or if it’s not quite like what they had growing up.

Talk About the Food

Talking about the food [how you cooked it, the recipe’s history] builds the conversation; people feel more comfortable sharing what’s going on with them. It’s a safe topic. Trying to keep the peace in these trying times is smart.

Let People Help You Clean

It’s really normal for people to ask to help with the dishes, and for the host to say, “Oh, no, I got it. Thanks.” Don’t do that. Let people help you, because you’re continuing the party in the kitchen — especially if everybody has a drink in hand while they clean.

Provide Containers and Force Guests to Take Leftovers

One of the worst parts of hosting Thanksgiving is being left with too much. So buy a pack of Tupperware and hand it out when you’re near the end of the meal. You have to be a little bit pushy sometimes, which is fine, because people try to be all cute and pretend they don’t want to take anything, but they do; you just need to convince them to do it.