The experience of food and wine together can be a truly transcendent experience when in the right hands. Giving over the control of your meal to expert hands is an act of surrender and can lead to exciting places. The key to that sentence? Expert hands. A wine dinner is full of minute, critical details that must work together in order for an event to be a success. Anyone who has attended a dinner where something just seemed “off” can attest to the need for organization and proper planning in an almost choreographic sense. Right down to the glamorous task of counting plates, all the pieces matter.
Recently, El Gaucho Portland hosted an ambitious dinner that brought together five acclaimed winemakers who have all worked under DeLille Cellars’ Executive Winemaker and Co-Founder Chris Upchurch. A whopping 107 guests were seated. According to General Manager Corey Hightower, it had been at least 10-15 years since El Gaucho had hosted a dinner of this size. The execution, said Corey, isn’t the hard part. “It’s everything that comes beforehand.”
Watching El Gaucho's staff on the night of the dinner, it was evident that every movement, in both front and back of the house, had been practiced. Everyone moved together as if no effort were involved.
Here, we take a look at the four key elements to consider when planning a dinner of this size.
It might surprise the average diner to know that not many restaurants stock enough plates for every single seat in the house. Not every seat is occupied at all times on your average night of dinner service. The same is said for wine glasses. There are always a few stragglers that will not be drinking at all or those that will opt for a cocktail. Not so during a wine dinner. Every seat is sat and every guest needs a glass — usually more than one — at all times. Count, count, and count again.
For your average at-home cook, does walking across the room to get a plate really have much of an effect on the dinner you’re about to serve? Perhaps a minor inconvenience, nothing more. In planning the DeLille dinner, “even one movement can change the flow,” stated Corey. Does the person plating have to take a step to reach the plates he needs? Two steps? Every unnecessary movement must be eliminated.
Does each menu item arrive at the table looking the way it is intended to look? Or did those four different garnishes slide across the plate on the walk over? Skip the overly complicated, fussy menu preparations. They only look good on paper.
A few extra bodies never hurt a large event and Corey did have volunteers who caught the infectious excitement leading up to the dinner and “just wanted to be involved.” His main focus for the staff was making sure everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing at all times. There’s no wandering around. He admits to pushing the staff pretty hard in the weeks before the dinner, from knowing the tasting notes back to front, to which direction each plate should face when it is dropped at the table. By the time game night arrives, there should be no room for questions. And, daresay, it should even be a teensy bit fun.
So now you’ve done it — you’ve hosted a successful wine dinner where everyone left beaming with contentment and inspiration. What’s next? How does a restaurant push the creativity envelope with its next event? As in real estate, the answer may very well be “location, location, location.” Corey indicates he’d welcome the opportunity to take El Gaucho’s level of service beyond their four walls. Pushing the boundaries of the traditional “this goes with that” setup also intrigues.