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My mom knows how obsessed I am with Ina Garten, so she bought me one of her cookbooks, Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties That Are Really Fun, (buy it: $18 on Amazon), for Christmas. I was recently leafing through the cookbook and discovered a page titled "My First Party," where Ina talks about the first (and worst) party she ever hosted.
Garten says, "I'll never forget the worst party I ever gave. It was 1969, my husband and I had just gotten married, and we were living in North Carolina. I decided to have a big Sunday brunch, and I wanted it to be fabulous." (Spoiler alert: It was not fabulous.)
She says her first mistake was inviting 20 people she "hardly knew," and her second mistake was spending an entire week preparing everything. Garten says, "I was exhausted before the first guest arrived." But perhaps her biggest mistake, she admits, was her menu selection. "I decided to make a fresh omelet for each guest. Was I crazy? As each person arrived, I had to run to the kitchen to fix a drink. Then everyone sat in a big circle in the living room while I spent what seemed to be hours at the stove making omelets, one at a time," she says. (Sounds like she could've used one of our sheet-pan egg recipes, which are perfect for serving a crowd.)
Garten admits that she was stuck in the kitchen making brunch, so her guests were left to entertain themselves. "There wasn't a sound in the living room—no talking, no laughter. But how could there be? I was the hostess but I was in the kitchen!"
But even though she was embarrassed and "it took [her] a year to build up the courage to give another party," Garten says she knew exactly where she went wrong. She says, "A good party is not about the food, it's about the people."
You won't find Ina whipping up individual omelets at her parties anymore. Over the years, she's perfected the formula for a simple-but-elegant gathering that allows her to focus on her guests.
For starters, she likes to set the mood so guests can relax when they arrive. Garten says, "I make sure the music is fun, to get things going." (By the way, she has some awesome playlists on Spotify if you want to copy her dinner party vibe for yourself.) She'll also make a big batch of cocktails for guests to serve themselves (think: big-batch margaritas or coffee in a large thermos).
Lastly, Garten says, "I plan a menu that is more about assembling food than cooking. And I make sure everything is ready before my friends arrive so I can be a guest, too." Ina is a big fan of serving easy apps like a bowl of mixed nuts, warm dates and blue cheese, crudités or baked ricotta. Once again, the Barefoot Contessa has taught us some valuable lessons: Don't overcomplicate things, and place your focus on your friends instead of the food. As the queen would say, "How easy is that?"