PLANNING a party? Forget the food, close those expensive cookbooks. Instead, think about the important things: the guest list, the seating arrangements, the lighting, the colors, the sounds, the table setting.
Yes, these are the critical issues, says John Loring, design director at Tiffany & Co., the classy New York-based retailer. He's also the author or coauthor of six books on Tiffany and the social graces, including "The Tiffany Gourmet Cookbook," just released (Doubleday, $50).
Mr. Loring's presence at a party is considered nearly as important as New York's legendary gossip columnists. Though Loring is an American, he has managed to dine at some of Europe's most exclusive tables. On top of that, he is not afraid to express his opinion, usually with wit and self-deprecation.
Loring says it is important to serve the right food while entertaining but plays down the role of the feast. "As [former Tiffany chairman] Mr. Hoving used to say in his inimitable fashion, `You were not invited to dinner because the hostess thought you were hungry,' " says Loring. No, the host or hostess should have other things in mind.
"We go to dinner for companionship, to exercise our wit, and to listen to other people exercise theirs, to costume ourselves in a way that offers something to other people as a visual spectacle, and we expect the host or hostess to offer something of their own to the evening," Loring explains.
Instead of salivating at the grocer's, party-planners should start with the guest list. Don't just invite your six best friends, Loring says: Invite interesting and diverse people. Then, he says, give some thought to how to seat them - "who will get along with whom, and what is going to lead to the liveliest social interchange."
To determine the length of the guest list, consider the size of your space. "There is nothing worse than tables with too many people crowded around too big a table, where people can only talk to the people on the left or the right," says Loring, who considers anything more than eight people at a table "unforgivable."
Once the guest list is decided and the seating arranged, it is vital that people know where they are going to sit, he says. "You can't end up with good placement with something haphazard, because people will drift toward people they already know and break up into cliques. If they wanted to sit with their two best friends, they could have gone to the movies and had a snack afterward," says Loring. Plan on seating people next to one person they know and one person they should meet.
Loring points out, "There are a thousand ways to achieve disaster." Some ways to avoid it: Dinner should last no more than three hours; the centerpiece (yes, there should be one) should be low enough so conversation can be carried on over it; candles should be above the guests' field of vision, to avoid blinding them. Don't place lighting too low on the table, either, since "it casts a light upward on people's faces and makes them look like small children on a camping trip putting a flashlight under thei r chins to terrify their friends," he says.
Lighting should be warm and never too bright. "Just remember, the police shine bright lights in people's faces when they question them," quips Loring: "You don't want to feel like you are in a police inquisition when you are at dinner." And never place the best conversationalist in front of a window, because then everyone else at the table will be squinting into the light. Instead, put the person who is going to be the center of interest against a relaxing background.
The table itself should not have armies of silverware camped next to the plates. If the guests feel they need a Rosetta stone to unlock the secrets of the service, says Loring, then "this is not a well-thought-out setting."
According to Loring, there is a cornucopia of food that should not be served at a party. Forget about large, leafy salads, dripping with dressing. "Ladies recoil in absolute horror," says Loring.
You can also forget about large slabs of red meat, or osso buco, and other foods that are hard to. Also, "People want things that don't require balancing acts," Loring warns. "They are not professional jugglers." Asparagus is out, since it was originally supposed to be eaten with the hands. Avoid smoked salmon, since "99 out of 100 times it is not good salmon to begin with." Avoid veal, too, "since it is a very tricky thing to cook and often arrives at the table in a wooden form that is nearly inedible."
Loring's choice for a first course: a souffle. It's fresh, easy to eat, and festive.
If Loring were giving the party, he might even skip the main course, considering how often guests only nibble at it. He suggests something easy to eat: Bill Blass Meat Loaf, for example, or Acorn Squash With Seafood Ragout - both recipes in his new cookbook.
"Desserts should not be based on solid sugar, nuts, butter, and chocolate" Loring says, "but should have a fruit content to them that lightens the thing and makes it easy to eat." He dislikes chocolates or strawberries with raspberry sauce.
Instead, he says, think about a pear stuffed with nuts and caramel sauce. He also suggests avoiding anything with lots of pastry. Mom's apple pie is great for a family get-together, but not for a party.
To Loring, easy eating means a graceful meal. And if the meal is graceful, he says, the party will be a success, since "entertaining is all about doing things gracefully."