How To Be A Host: Creating A Menu

Creating a memorable menu
Dishes from Orso Pasta, one of Max Block's clients

Culinary expert Max Block teaches us how to create a memorable menu.

With potlucks and buffet-style presentations currently off the table (quite literally), navigating the smart way to host a house party, while creating a memorable menu, can be a tricky feat. After all, food is not only there to sustain guests; it’s a tool for creating social connection and upgrading an event from a simple gathering to an elevated experience.

“Food and drink are things that people inherently come to an event looking for,” says Max Block, president of Carving Block, a creative agency focused on food and entertainment. “Having drinks and food that are memorable can be everything from how it’s served to the garnish to the flavor profiles connecting back to the theme of the event.”

Block, who is also the co-host of a talk show on Tastemade called “Table Setting,” and the culinary curator of the Los Angeles Times’ annual The Taste food festival, let us in on a few industry trends, trade secrets and hosting hacks that will help you put on an unforgettable foodie fête.

Creating a memorable menu
Max Block, president of Carving Block

What are the current challenges hosts face when creating a memorable menu?

There are a couple different aspects that are difficult. I think especially when you look at house parties, having food safety training is not something everyone does, so there are issues of cross contamination. A potluck is sort of out the window right now because you can’t trust that food coming from multiple sources is being treated in the way that it has to for a health conscious mentality.

How can hosts rise above these circumstances?

I think we are seeing a return to smaller, intimate, in-person events, and I think the key to those is really creating environments in which people can feel safe, but also feel they’re at a real party. You want to still have that tactile feeling, so creating the right setting, making sure it’s a place people would want to come to, it has amazing views of the city, it’s socially distanced how everything is set up and it’s outside so people can enjoy themselves.  

What makes a menu memorable?

Obviously we’re seeing a little bit less of platters and typical buffet-style plating, which feels natural. I personally love a small bite, so I think having a plethora of individually plated small bites works well for an event right now, and you can do individually pre-plated dinners, where it can be something that has a chef’s attention to it and allows them to connect a little bit further to what the event is.

How should you adapt your mindset to accept that an event might not be what it could have been pre-pandemic?

Any event, you have to anticipate something might go wrong, and going into that understanding you have to be flexible and malleable to what the scenario might offer, or what might have been forgotten, or what needs to be replaced, is paramount to the success of any event.

Beyond that, because of what we’re dealing with right now, I think that for the first bit it was certainly a hindrance to thinking logically and successfully about how these events could be pulled off, but I think now it actually is a great creative exercise for those of us in the event space to think about what we can do and have some fun with it.

Can you recommend a sure-fire dish that always plays well?

Right now in Los Angeles the pandemic has encouraged a whole new crop of amazing young makers, everything from Orso Pasta to Bridgetown Roti, to really get into the game and to create some really fantastic food that wasn’t available before because the confines of a restaurant are no longer what they were before. You don’t really have to have an indoor kitchen, a whole team, to execute what can be a really fantastic meal.

I think there’s so many things to enjoy that, rather than choose one, I would pick a bunch of different things from around the city and support local makers and have the guests of the event be able to tap into this amazing culinary space that we’re very much growing in Los Angeles.

How important is presentation?

Presentation is timeless. I think at the end of the day we’ve seen a strip back of a lot of flourishes; simple I think is always classic. I think when you go to a party now, at least for me personally, a martini moment is more impactful than some crazy multi-liquor, fruit-laden cocktail, and I think right now people are clamoring for the classics and for comfort, and some of those things don’t require reinventing the wheel. I think a great roast chicken is always going to be a great idea; I think a perfectly cooked steak always has its place; a great bolognese, a lasagna; things people inherently have a connection to because it’s something they know is what I think people are really enjoying—the small comforts we can have because this year in particular has been so unexpected.

Related | How To Be A Host: House Party Etiquette

How should you approach beverage selection?

A signature cocktail always plays well. Another thing we’ve been encouraging for small dinner parties and events is to allow your friends and guests to get in on the fun; we’ve seen a huge explosion in the past few years of these fantastic natural wine labels, and it’s fun to pick a region or say we’re going to do orange wine and have every person bring a bottle and then be able to taste what your guests are loving right now, and not making it so closed door.

Beyond that, me personally, I love a martini. Setting up a martini bar whether it’s vodka, gin, different types of olives or cocktail onions, vermouth; even though it feels like it’s just one cocktail, it can really be personalized from guest to guest. And besides that, you can’t really go wrong with Champagne.

Any other details that are important?

Glassware is pretty important because you don’t want to serve a martini in a highball glass, you don’t want to serve Champagne in a tumbler, so having the right glassware definitely makes an impact. When it comes to food you can be a little more creative. If you’re cooking steak, leave it on the chopping board and let it be a little primal. It depends on what the ultimate goal of the evening is and allowing yourself to have some fun along the way, and not feeling confined to the rules of what an event might be.

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