Clinton Kelly's Party-Planning Secrets

Style and entertaining guru Clinton Kelly of ABC's The Chew serves up advice on throwing a swell soirée.

Interview by Phillip Rhodes

COOKING LIGHT: It's the 21st century. How do you invite guests in a cordial way that doesn't require a printing press?
CLINTON KELLY:
I love a written invite—I will always be a fan. It's so special now to receive one. But it's completely appropriate to send an e-mail. I do not like the electronic invite—the "e-vite"—though. If you're inviting 12 to 20 people, you can send each person an e-mail with their actual name in the body, saying, "RSVP if you can." That's not too much to ask.

CL: Tell us about your party-prep game plan.
CK: Do as much as you possibly can before guests arrive. Take care of the busywork ahead of time so you can enjoy your friends. One other thing I do is designate a number two who's going to help. With my husband, I say, "Look, this is our party. I've done the food. I need a wingman." If you're single, ask a friend. People don't mind helping.

CL: What should be happening 10 minutes before the party begins?
CK: I'm having a glass of wine! You need that deep-breath moment. Another thing: I always leave a little bit of something to do just before the party begins. When the first person comes in the door, it can feel awkward. Well, give them a little job. Ask, "Would you help me cut some lemons?" Then they don't feel so bad about being the first person there.

CL: Is there a good ratio for cold or room-temp apps to hot ones?
CK: Let's say you're putting out six appetizers. Have maybe one or two that are hot, and have one of those be something hearty, and that will suffice. One hot dish is more than enough.

CL: Should everything on the menu be finger food?
CK: If you can't pick it up with your fingers or a tooth-pick, you probably shouldn't be serving it. I don't mind little cocktail plates, though. Buy a stack of porcelain ones for $20—you can find them anywhere. They actually help alleviate the mess. People tend to bunch up cocktail napkins and leave them all over the place.

CL: Do you have to make all of the food, or is it OK to have some purchased options?
CK: It would be fine if you bought marinated olives, cheeses, meats, or salumi. It's even OK to buy something like a really good guacamole from your favorite market or restaurant.

CL: Any ideas for upping the cheese-board game?
CK: I'm a big fan of labeling things. It's a conversation starter. Use place cards and write a little info on them. Organize the cheese by country or by the kind of milk. Or buy three different cheeses from France. It's almost like a flight of wine, except it's a flight of cheese.

CL: What's a good strategy for cocktails?
CK:
I put out one kind of beer, one white wine—something like a sauvignon blanc or Sancerre. For red, I do pinot noir. Then I do a signature cocktail. In winter, I might do a Manhattan or a kir royale punch. Oh, and put out club soda—it does nonalcoholic drink duty.

CL: How do you avoid running around keeping glasses full?
CK: I use a beverage server. You can find some that have ice canisters that keep everything cold. If you have the time when people first come in, it's nice to help them make their first drink. After that, say, "There's the bar—go help yourself." You're dealing with adults here.

CL: Let's talk about ice. How does the host avoid having a plastic cooler sitting in the middle of the kitchen?
CK: First, buy plenty of ice and keep it in the freezer. It's a disaster to run out. You can even keep ice outside—in the garage or on the deck—if it's cold out. For the bar, I set a mesh strainer inside a big mixing bowl. Keep the ice in the strainer so it's not all watered down. You do have to keep one eye on the food, and one eye on the ice bucket, and if it's getting low, you'll have to refill it. So it's helpful to set the bar up close to the kitchen.

CL: What if you don't have 25 matching highball glasses?
CK:
The more you mix and match, the chicer and cooler your party can be. Every time you go to a garage sale, a thrift store, or a flea market, keep your eye out for glasses. It's nice to have different glasses so your guests can keep track of whose drink is whose. Plus, it cuts down on plasticware—it's better for the environment.

CL: Where do you set things up? Food in one room, drinks in another?
CK: Separate the bar from the food area. If it's all in one place, it becomes too cluttered and crowded. Drinkers are going to hover around the bar; eaters are going to hover around the food. I put them on opposite ends. Of course, you want the bar fairly close to the freezer. I like people in my kitchen. There's something so nice about that, actually.

CL: So it's OK if everyone winds up in the kitchen?
CK: Sure! In the beginning, if you don't want people in the kitchen because you've got some work to do, then move some of the food that's ready out to the living room. But if you're the host, people want to be near you, and if you're in the kitchen, that's where they will be.

CL: What about music?
CK: I like to keep it lively. I'll have a mix of classical or jazz to start; then usually toward the end—if I want the party to keep going—I transition to Top 40 or pop. The music you play at the beginning is much different than what you play at the end. Jazz feels civilized at 7. By 9, start switching.

CL: Let's talk lighting.
CK: Candles, candles, candles! You have to have candles. Nobody looks great in overhead lighting. Especially after age 40, you're thinking, "Please, turn the lights down!" But not scented candles; sometimes the scent is too much. Except in the bathroom—that's essential.

CL: Where should the guests' coats go?
CK: If you can clear out a coat or hall closet, that's important. Sometimes putting coats on a bed works for close family, but ... boundaries! Also, you might want to keep people out of your bedroom. People snoop.

CL: Is there ever a time when the host can ask guests to remove their shoes?
CK: Absolutely not. If you tell people on the invitation that your house is a shoe-free home, then they have the option. Or they can prepare. But you cannot surprise somebody by saying, "Please remove your shoes." Shoes are part of a woman's outfit—if you ask her to take them off, the outfit becomes incomplete. If you can't deal with the fact that people are going to be walking inside your home, maybe you should not be entertaining.

CL: Where does the urn with Grandma's ashes go?
CK: Realize that accidents happen, but remove anything you would be devastated to lose if it broke. You should probably not be using your great-grandmother's china that she carried on her back from Poland. And if something breaks, be a good host about it.

CL: Any creative ideas for parting gifts?
CK: Take artisanal soaps and tie a little ribbon around each one. Then put them in a bowl on your entry table, and say to guests, "Please take one on your way out." It's a little thank-you for coming. Or you could bake scones and put them in little cellophane bags. Say, "Thanks so much for coming. Here's a little something for breakfast tomorrow."