I’m guest at the dinner table in someone’s house. I put fork to lips.
“Hey! Are you reviewing this?” someone at the table invariably jokes.
The remark was kind of funny the first 50 times I heard it, but during my 15-year stint as a restaurant reviewer, I heard it all too often in too many situations, from wedding dinners and after-funeral lunches (yes, really).
I wanted to answer: “Who do you think raised me? A pack of badgers?”
As James Beard-nominated chef Chef George Formaro says, “There is no bigger ass than a person that would criticize the food when they have been invited into one’s home!”
Truth is, in my years as a food writer, I’ve found that far from being nit-picky, food professionals—chefs, writers, critics, cookbook authors, and the like—are very often the best people to cook for.
They know where your desire to feed them comes from. And they appreciate it more than anyone.
Here are some guidelines on how to make it a great experience for you—and for them.
1. Just Do It
Would you tremble at the thought of inviting James Beard Award winner to your home for dinner? Well don’t.
Steven Raichlen, food writer, novelist, host of PBS’s Primal Grill—and five-time James Beard Award winner—says that food pros rarely get invited to people’s homes for dinner.
“This makes us ULTRA-appreciative when someone is bold enough to invite us,” he says. “We don’t come with notebooks or scorecards. We come with open hearts and hungry bellies, appreciative of the kind invitation for dinner.”
2. Cook Something Your Chef Doesn’t Normally Cook
When I became friends with David Baruthio, a French-born chef who has received the Bib Gourmand from Michelin and two James Beard nominations, I wasn’t in the least bit intimidated about cooking for him.
That’s because I wasn’t even going to try to cook the kind of highly detailed, multi-ingredient cuisine that this chef served at his acclaimed restaurant. Instead, I had a hunch that he would love a beautiful, simple, everyday French stew. And I was right.
“I love this food,” said Baruthio as he took a third helping of my blanquette of pork. “I just don’t want to cook this kind of food.”
George Formaro especially loves heirloom recipes. “Best advice I would give someone cooking for a chef is to cook a family recipe for them. Most chefs I know love that connection with food.”
“Don’t try to out-chef the chef,” says Raichlen. “I truly believe that everyone has at least one dish he/she does really well and that’s the dish you should make when you invite a culinary luminary for dinner.”
Indeed, that’s probably why I was so comfortable inviting my French chef for dinner. I’ve made blanquette scores of times in my life, and my recipe never fails me.
4. Quit apologizing
So, you cooked the chops longer than you meant to and the meringue on your pie is more browned than it should be. Make light of it and move on.
And rest assured that food pros know better than anyone how easy it is for something to go awry in the kitchen. They’ll be among your most forgiving guests.
“Don’t apologize for anything,” says Raichlen. “You’ve done something rare and wondrous—been bold enough to invite a food professional into your home. Be proud of that. And your guest will be grateful.”
5. Talk About Something Besides Food
Or at least, follow your guest’s lead. You can tell if they want to talk about food, restaurants, the industry, etc. But then again, they might just want to take a break from it all. For example, strike up a conversation with Chef George Formaro about zombie movies—one of his favorite topics in the world—and he’ll be forever grateful.