Entertaining dinner guests - how to stop food faux pas

PUBLISHED: 20:58 14 May 2012 | UPDATED: 14:57 20 February 2013

Surrey Life celebrity chef Tony Tobin

Surrey Life celebrity chef Tony Tobin

Entertaining guests can be an absolute minefield when it comes to food faux pas. This month, our resident celebrity chef, Tony Tobin, explains how to avoid the pitfalls in the latest installment of his Kitchen Diaries

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2007

Entertaining guests can be an absolute minefield when it comes to food faux pas. This month, our resident celebrity chef, Tony Tobin, explains how to avoid the pitfalls in the latest installment of his Kitchen Diaries

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This month, I start with a joke. One day, a pupil at the school for young balloons is caught waving a pin around. He is marched to the Headmaster Balloon who scolds him seriously saying: "Son, you may have thought it was just high spirits but your actions could have let the whole school down."

I use this particular quip because it always reminds me that something very similar applies to your cooking and entertaining decisions. The legendary chef Nico Ladenis, who I worked with for many years, believed that there are food and wine decisions made in heaven and others that might seem innocuous but are best left in culinary hell - and, if you want the dinner party invitations to keep coming in, it's best to avoid them. Let's look at both sides.

The greatest meals are those where the courses, the main ingredients, the side dishes, the wine and even the crockery, cutlery and napkins all complement each other perfectly. The mantra you will spot me returning to time and again is that simplicity is the key - avoid fuss and avoid over-egging your pudding in every possible sense.

There are only a few real howlers that you should avoid: the worst that any chef can make by far is to poison his or her guests. So my first two tips are simply this: cook meat well and avoid shellfish and molluscs. Oysters and mussels can be wonderful but if a few bad ones sneak through, you can ruin your guests' lives (and your own) for a whole week. And with your meat, remember that only whole single cuts of quality beef and lamb can ever be cooked rare. Never cook burgers pink, no matter how expensive they are. In fact, never cook anything pink if it has been through a mincing process (the one exception being steak tartare, which must be minced by hand from a single piece of fillet).

Fish is more forgiving but there are still some classic booboos. You might think that serving a light red wine with meaty tuna steak is fine. However, if you then squeeze lemon juice over the fish to add some piquancy, it will make any red wine taste... well... horrid. Wine can also suffer if it is served too cold. The key is in the tannins. Heavy, dark, dry reds are rich in tannins, which will jar in the mouth if served cold. With the exception of Gamays and light Beaujolais, which can be served chilled with baked fish or a cold beef salad, red wine should be at room temperature at least and perhaps even a degree or two higher.

Another faux pas is serving fancy dishes on fancy plates. A plate is like a frame and your food should be the art, so always choose white crockery or you risk your signature dish looking like a Jackson Pollock creation when you serve it. In a similar vein, also remember to check your cutlery carefully before you lay the table. I have seen people lift a knife and find a sliver of onion stuck to the underside of the blade because the dishwasher has baked it on rather than washing it off.

There are also seasonal errors of judgement to avoid. The classic is strawberries on a winter menu - something that discerning guests will tut at under their breath. In my view, strawberries should be banned after summer. If you serve them up in November, you may as well show their airline ticket at the same time. We have beautiful fruit and veg in England, so use it when it is at its best and not when the supermarket decides to fly it in from thousands of miles away. Great chefs make it their job to know what is good when. English asparagus in May and June, apple pies at the beginning of autumn, beetroot and sprouts in November and December.

Finally, I will bring the sermon to a close with my best tip of all. The greatest faux pas when entertaining is losing control of time. A great meal has timing at its very heart, so my closing tip: if you're entertaining, always drink less than your guests!

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