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We asked some of Australia’s most renowned chefs, cooks and hosts how you can make holiday entertaining a pleasure, rather than a chore.
Debbie Elkind

6 Dec 2010 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

The festive season is unquestionably a whole lot of fun, but for some – nervous hosts, introverts and people with large families alike – it can also be a whole lot of stress.

Maggie Beer is a Barossa Valley-based cook, author, restaurateur and producer of the renowned Maggie Beer product range.

What’s the best advice you can give people about entertaining successfully?

Keep it simple – see the whole picture. It's easy to focus on one aspect, for example, to plan an outstanding menu, but neglect other aspects that are almost as important. Fresh flowers from the garden to complete the scene, a well-selected CD in the background – these things are so important to set the tone of the party and put your guests immediately at ease. And, if truly nervous, host an event on a Saturday or Sunday, so you don't have the rush of arriving home from work and getting everything organised in a mad rush.

Also, choose your guest list wisely. Either keep it small and comfortable, or be sure to invite a few people who are really good at mixing and mingling, to keep conversation flowing. Guests will take their cue from you, and more importantly, they're there to see you! So don't choose a menu that keeps you too solidly in the kitchen or running around; be free to mingle and have fun.

Karen Martini is a chef, restaurateur, writer and TV presenter. Her latest book, Feasting, is full of great party menus and entertaining advice.

What mistakes do people commonly make when entertaining?

People sometimes start cooking things too far ahead and then reheat them and are disappointed. At Christmas, you use expensive ingredients you wouldn’t normally buy, so don’t over-organise or you may lose the beauty of what you’ve bought. Buying crayfish four days in advance is not going to help your dinner. Some things do benefit from being made in advance though, such as plum pudding, spiced chicken terrine, chutney and pickles.

Would you recommend any particular menu for the nervous host?

If you’re a bit nervous, pick some dishes that you’re confident cooking already, then just add a couple of things that are new with "wow factor" and to expand your repertoire. Roasting something large, like a fish, is really quite easy and great for sharing. You can also make it seem different and celebratory just by using new and different seasonal produce and interesting herb and spice combinations.

I also think the way you present your food can really help relieve anxiety and stress. If you’ve got a very formal table setting, it can put your guests on the back-foot and make them uncomfortable. We tend to just stack up the plates, cutlery and napkins and get everyone to help plate up and pass things around. It’s much more comfortable and convivial and a good icebreaker if people don’t know each other.

Bill Granger is a chef, cookbook author, TV presenter and restaurateur.

What’s your best entertaining advice?

Get everything prepared ahead of time; you should be concentrating on your guests not the food. We are lucky in Australia because our Christmas falls in summer, so Christmas lunch can be one long lazy meal in the sun – definitely not one to spending hours in the kitchen slaving over a stove.

Any other top tips?

Pick one "wow factor" dish, whether it is a large ham or lobsters in the shell for the barbecue, and build everything around that. Christmas can become far too meat-heavy in my opinion, so use summer's glorious summer bounty of vegetables, simply chopped and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Buy some gourmet chutneys and, for pudding, nothing beats fresh mangoes, cherries and panettone.

Donna Hay is a food stylist, cookbook author and editor of Donna Hay Magazine.

What’s your favourite type of entertaining?

I love a casual approach to entertaining with lots of delicious bite-size treats and personal touches. Lately, I’ve been perfecting the pavlova; I love to serve guests their own mini pavlova. The trick to the meringue is to let it cool in the oven, preferably overnight. The end result is a pavlova that’s soft and gooey in the centre and crisp on the outside – perfect!

What do you think is the key to entertaining success?

Create a menu that can mostly be prepared ahead of time. That way, all you’ll need to do when guests arrive is a few last-minute touches, such as popping something in the oven, dressing a salad and garnishing a dessert. And don’t be afraid to take shortcuts. In my household, it’s all about celebrating the occasion with a relaxed attitude and fuss-free recipes. Choose a menu that’s achievable and allow yourself plenty of time to shop, decorate and cook. And, of course, the most important tip is to relax and enjoy yourself!