Sohla El-Waylly's tips for hosting a great dinner party

Make a game plan, don’t be afraid to delegate and more advice from the Start Here author for successful entertaining.

Make a game plan, don’t be afraid to delegate and more advice from the Start Here author for entertaining

A triptych, left to right: Overhead shot of broiled oysters with tomato butter on them. Portrait of Sohla El-Waylly on a purple background. Closeup on someone scooping a cracker into a bowl of devilled egg dip.
(Photo, left and right: Laura Murray; Middle: submitted Justin J. Wee)

Coming in at over 600 pages, Sohla El-Waylly's first cookbook might seem intimidating. But looks can be deceiving, as the revered chef, restaurateur and YouTube star knows from personal experience.

In the introduction of Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook, El-Waylyy reflects on how — long before she was contributing to the New York Times and Bon Appétit, and appearing on TV shows like The Big Brunch and Ancient Recipes with Sohla — she was often mistaken for a brainiac. 

"I look like someone who would have done well in school," she writes. "I don't know if it's the glasses, sharp bob haircut [or] model minority myth ... but people assume I was that girl in the front row with my hand always up." In fact, El-Waylly notes, she almost didn't graduate high school and dropped out of college in her freshman year.

It's this struggle with traditional classroom learning that inspired Start Here, which hit shelves in October. In it, she takes a novel approach to educating readers, explaining the "why" behind all her methods. "Blindly memorizing state capitals or the steps to making rice pilaf doesn't work for me," she says. She also includes lots of easy-to-follow lessons, like Temperature Management 101 taught entirely through eggs, and hilarious anecdotes, like how, for months as a child, she baked herself a birthday cake every single day. 

Of course, El-Waylly is no stranger to challenging the status quo. She famously shone a light on the systemic inequalities at Bon Appétit, where she was among the brand's most popular (and, conversely, underpaid) on-camera staffers. 

The same blend of talent, experience, charm and no-BS personality that generated millions of views for her former employer are what instantly draws in the reader in Start Here. She is your favourite eccentric professor who refers to pieces of braising meat as "big hunks and little dudes," and who, in the same breath, can explain the protein network of gluten and extol the virtues of corn nuts. 

Similarly, El-Waylly mixes hard skills with playful experimentation, like encouraging readers to make a solid game plan when cooking for a crowd but then "get loose" with alternative approaches to personalize dishes.

With this in mind, we asked El-Waylly for her best advice on hosting a holiday dinner party. Read on for her tips on planning for a large group, delegating tasks, dealing with know-it-all aunties and making it work when things don't go according to plan.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What does your game plan look like for a dinner party?

I always work backwards: If I know I've got people coming over Saturday at 6 p.m., I think about what needs to be done by 5 p.m. and 4 p.m. I think about what needs to be done the day before. And the day before that. 

And not just the dishes, but everything that needs to be done to prepare for the party. So like, getting yourself ready, getting the house ready, cleaning, pulling out platters, decorating, setting up your beverage station, getting flowers if you want to do that. 

Then, I think about how to group stuff together in the most efficient way possible. So if you have a lot of veg prep to do, do that all together. If you have a lot of things that are going to be cooking in the oven around the same temp, bake those things consecutively. 

Try and do as much in advance as possible. And always make sure you leave time to get yourself ready … 10 minutes before people are coming, I'm [often] like, "Oh crap, I've got to take a shower."

How do you approach hosting groups of different sizes? 

If I'm just having, like, four to eight people over, we just gather around the table, and it's more loose. But if there's more than 20 people coming over, then I think about setting up different stations in my home to force people to mingle. We'll have a corner where the beverage station is set up, then we'll have the appetizers across the room, which forces people to walk through. 

When you have more folks coming over, you've just got to tweak things a bit — and also budget more time for everything. If it's a small dinner party, you might be doing a little bit of chopping, but if you're turning up the volume, all of your dishes, all of your knife work, all of your prep work is going to take a lot longer.

When it comes to a high-stakes meal, like around the holidays or when you're having people over that you aren't as comfortable with, how do you deal with that stress?

I think the main thing is having the game plan and being organized, having lots of lists and trying not to keep things for the last minute. Make sure you do all your shopping in advance. Call your guests and confirm that they're coming. Confirm any dietary restrictions. 

The last thing you want to do is scramble, because that's when you make mistakes. And maybe take some of the pressure off of yourself and reach for some store-bought ingredients or ask some folks to bring things. Desserts and apps are great things to have your guests bring.

Should we be doing a test run on some of the dishes that we plan to serve to guests?

I think it kind of depends on your guests, right? If it's just a small group, and it's like, you know, family, I don't stress out too much about it. But if it's a big group of people you're trying to impress, like your in-laws or friends you don't know, it is kind of worth it to do some practice. But you don't have to actually practise the exact dish you're going to make.

[For instance,] you don't have to make a whole big mac-and-cheese casserole. Just make a mini one so you can kind of get a grasp on the basic techniques. And then when it's time for the big party, you'll be much more confident.

When it comes to food prep and becoming more comfortable in the kitchen, what sort of sensory cues should people be relying on?

There's a lot of auditory cues that I think we don't think about. You can actually get a good vibe of what's happening in your pan by listening to it. Like when you're sweating veggies, there's kind of a wet, raindrop sound, versus when you switch to sautéing or searing, it's more of a sharp hail. 

People have asked if I listen to music or a podcast when I cook, but it's actually total silence, because I want to listen to everything that's happening in the kitchen, almost as if the food talks to me. We're always going to be looking at stuff and we're going to be tasting stuff, but you want to listen too.

What about when things go wrong? Like if you've left meat in the oven for too long or you've overcooked your veggies. Is there any way to resurrect those things? 

Well, I think that's where having a really good gravy comes in handy. And the great thing about gravy is you can make it a couple of days before and really take your time. Make sure it's super flavourful and the right consistency, and it'll save everything.

Are there recipes in the book that are your dinner party go-tos?

There are a lot of good apps in there, and one is the Cheese Twists, which is like everybody's mom's favourite appetizer. But to level it up here, you're gonna make it with your own homemade rough puff pastry. 

It's one of those things that's very simple, but when you make it from scratch, it's super delicious. And I've never not seen people get excited about it. 

There's also a devilled egg dip, which I think is better than devilled eggs, because the ratios are a little bit better. You know, with a devilled egg, you always end up with a bite that's just white, but with the dip, every bite is delicious.

OK, so let's imagine it's the day of the party. You've made a game plan, picked some great recipes and maybe practised a bit. Is it good to appoint a sous chef? Or should you just go it alone?

Absolutely get all the help you can possibly get. You know your friends. Everyone has a couple of those friends who would much rather be in the kitchen helping than mingling. Have them come early and give you a hand. 

Are there any other specific jobs that you recommend delegating?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I like to have someone in charge of drinks. And I always like to have someone, especially for bigger parties, that is in charge of refilling appetizers so that you can do more hosting. And I always give those jobs to my more introverted friends who wouldn't want to be talking to anyone anyway. It keeps them busy and they have a better time. 

When I hosted my first holiday dinner, I definitely had some aunties in the kitchen questioning my every move. How do you deal with those people?

Oh, I have a plan for those people. And I know exactly who those people are. I give them a task that's not very important just to get them out of my hair. I ask them to cut some crudités or polish some glasses. You have to keep those folks busy so they're not all up on you, you know what I mean?

And what if you're questioning yourself? How do you recommend people build their confidence in the kitchen?

You can't just mess up a pie once and then decide you're never going to make pie again. You never get better that way. So you have to go into it knowing, "I will probably mess something up." And you need to be OK with that. And then you need to continue cooking. So just keep going … confidence just keeps building the more you mess up and get back up. 

Make a couple of recipes from Start Here this season — or any season. We've got Sohla El-Waylly's recipe for her dinner party go-to, Deviled Egg Dip, and her recipe for Broiler Popped Oysters with Tomato Butter.


Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Instagram @thejenobrien.

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