The Australian culinary writer and masterful entertainer shares her secrets for the perfect dinner party.
Words by Dijana Kumurdian.
A love of French culture led Jane Webster to a life of simple flavours and foreign customs. After their first trip to France, Webster and her husband, Peter, returned year after year, eventually buying a chateau in the village of Bosgouet in Normandy, where they now reside six months of the year. Webster has since published two food memoirs, runs culinary tours of the region and conducts cooking classes. Their magnificent chateau is perfect for receiving guests in the French fashion, an art Webster has perfected.
Prepare the day before
“I always try to plan a menu that can be started a couple of days in advance. Once I was getting into bed after a dinner party and my husband said, ‘What about when someone said about blah blah blah?’ and [I realised] I’d missed whole conversations because I was stuck in the kitchen. So, I decided that wasn’t going to happen again. I have dishes that are prepared in advance so I can be with my guests.”
Keep plates and silverware to a minimum
“One of the things that I’ve learned from the French is to set the entire table and then use the same cutlery and plates right through the dinner service. I went to a dinner party once, and [the hostess] set the table, and had the entrée plate on top of the main, and used the main as the charger. For the dessert, everyone flipped their plates, then we all had dessert on the back of the plate. She did not leave the table once for the entire dinner party.”
Make time for your family
“I’ve taken some of the French etiquette and injected it into our lifestyle… My husband and I and our kids would have an apéritif every night – on a normal school night – as well as when we have people for dinner, just because it brings the family together and starts the conversation flowing.”
Don’t bring wine
“At a French dinner party they’ve taken a lot of time to match their wines to their food, and they’d almost see it as an insult to their choice.”
Don’t drink too much
“Make sure you’ve been to the bathroom [beforehand], because you just don’t ask to use the facilities… I never drink too much water at a French dinner party. They sincerely have not prepared the bathroom for visitors.”
Setting the scene
“I like to use a lot of crisp, white linen. But then I’ve got a beautiful oak table as well, so I’ll often just set straight onto the oak. I love to use what I’ve got in the forest. I’ll go in with a basket, and I might get pine cones and branches and leaves.”
Know when it’s over
“I’ve been to parties where the alcohol has stopped and trays of soup have been served at 11 o’clock… That’s the end of the evening!”