Top brass coming to dinner? Today's style is modest menu in comfortable surroundings


March 03, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

FORGET THE BLACK TIE. Don't worry about polishin Grandma's silver candelabra. Nix the caviar, the filet mignon and the baby veggies.

This is the Down-to-Earth Decade. And, in case you forgot, there's a recession going on here, folks. Suddenly, what was good taste in the '80s is bad taste in the '90s. Marie Antoinette doesn't live here anymore.

But what if the guest of honor is the boss? Doesn't the brass still deserve high-gloss treatment?

These days even the boss would appreciate an evening out when the table looks inviting, not intimidating, where the food is simply good and the mood is relaxed.

"Prior to the 1990s, I think we would have tried to do a meal that was classical French, or we might think we had to do a beef Wellington," says Marion Cunningham, author of the revised version of "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf, $24.95).

"But today something like poached salmon with asparagus would be perfectly acceptable. You don't have to feel the need to impress by fancy food as much as making the boss feel comfortable and pleasantly fed. You should try to make dinner less a duplication of a restaurant experience and more an eating-at-home experience."

One of the first steps in making the boss or any guest feel `D comfortable is to do some research before the menu is planned.

"Very often when people cook for someone else they want to show off what they know and what they like the best," adds Jacques Pepin, well-known cookbook author and TV cooking show host. "That's the wrong approach. If I had to impress someone I would try to find out what that person likes to eat. If the person adores roast of veal, that's what you should make."

Jane Fallon of Jane Fallon Catering in Kingsville agrees that it's important to find out not only what the boss likes to eat but what he or she is allowed to eat. These days, so many people are on low-fat and low-cholesterol diets that making a specialty laced with cream could be as embarrassing as dropping the main course on the carpet.

If you get tense just thinking about having the boss over for dinner, try to look at the experience as a gift you are giving rather than a chore that has been inflicted upon you. If it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for your guest.

Ms. Fallon tells of a client who was doing a dinner party and became totally obsessed because she felt she couldn't fit entertaining into her hectic schedule.

"I told her to change her attitude and look at it like she was giving a gift," Ms. Fallon says. "She decided to wrap all of her food in a package of some kind -- filo dough, parchment paper, romaine lettuce. She had a wonderful time and entertaining became much more creative. If you are doing something for your boss, you need to change the stress to something creative."

One good way to reduce the stress, those interviewed agreed, is to make the event as informal as possible. Tell your guests to wear casual clothing. Serve a buffet or change seats after each course so everyone gets to mix. And make the food casual, like a bowl of steamed shrimp, a pan of paella or a fondue where people gather around the pot to dip and chat.

"I think people are generally more relaxed these days," says Julia Child, a culinary icon who taught Americans the art of French cooking. "People today don't live with a lot of crystal and silver unless they live in a chateau and have maids and butlers. . . .

"If your boss is secure, you don't need to worry," she adds. "If he or she is insecure and needs stroking, you might have to put on the dog. But, in that case, I would change jobs. Do the best you can and don't overdo. And don't do things that you don't know how to do or don't do well."

But what if you follow all this advice and the souffle falls or you drop the salad in your boss's lap? How do you recover?

When something goes wrong, laugh at yourself, says Letitia Baldrige, a Washington etiquette expert and author of "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s" (Rawson Associates, $24.95).

Culinary disasters happen to the best of us, including pros like Ms. Baldrige. About 15 minutes before her guests were scheduled to arrive for a large dinner party, she opened the oven to check on the 15-pound roast. Instead of a nicely browned roast, she had a lump of raw meat that had been sitting in a cold oven for five hours. Her solution: She sent out for cheeseburgers and paraded the raw beef in front of her guests to share the disaster (and the joke) with them.

"You have to laugh at yourself," she advises, "because everyone is agonizing for you. Say something like, 'You know I did this just so I could write down your reaction,' or 'I dropped the serving platter on the floor because I felt there wasn't enough pattern in the rug.'

"Everyone will start laughing with you and the joking can save the party."

And, Ms. Baldrige says, a disaster can even give a boost to your career.

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