6 step guide to perfect Christmas entertaining
PUBLISHED: 15:19 09 December 2014
Christmas gatherings should not be packed with frazzled nerves with everyone, including the host, desperate to run away. Diego Masciago, the charming 'face' of Bray's Waterside Inn, tells Jan Raycroft how to get it right
So this Christmas holiday you are expecting a houseful of guests. Family and close friends for the traditional dinner, plus neighbours, extended family, perhaps work colleagues for other days or evening parties during the festivities up to New Year.
And then there are the people bringing new ‘plus ones’, those who will stay overnight (perhaps longer), people you suspect – or even know from the family grapevine or past experience – struggle to cope with each other’s presence in the same postcode, let alone room.
It’s enough to make you look longingly at the calendar and wish for January 3 and two feet of snow. Some of you will relish this challenge, to the despairing rest we might say… well, you brought this on yourself when you posted or emailed out the invitations.
But that would hardly be in the seasonal spirit, so we went searching for the ultimate advice on how to make guests feel very special indeed, and leave your home with lasting memories to treasure. There was only one man for the job: Diego Masciago is Master of Customer Service, Restaurant Manager and Director of the three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn.
Royal guests, visiting celebrities, those at the peak of their culinary careers all sing his praises. Sir Michael Parkinson describes him as ‘forever charming without being ingratiating, attentive without being obsequious’. Entrepreneur Peter Jones CBE calls him ‘The General’ while, Sir Terry Wogan cherishes this ‘gracious, welcoming and ever-smiling host’.
Deputy Master of the Royal Household Edward Griffiths CVO is fulsome in his praise of this ‘Master in his field’, acknowledging a deep sense of caring and ‘the achievement of nothing less than perfection’.
By now you may be thinking that’s all wonderful, but hardly transferable to your home and the motley crew of guests expected over Christmas. But it is, and that becomes clear from the moment we meet Diego and he takes us into the Waterside’s private dining room, River Cottage, where the Duke of Edinburgh’s grandchildren treated him to dinner with HM the Queen to mark his 90th birthday.
Diego has had the table done up just so we can see what a beautiful Christmas display looks like. Lesson Number One is that somehow it looks ‘Christmassy’ without being deep in holly, mistletoe and tinsel themes.
Instead there’s warmth from some cream roses and the flattering lighting, tasteful red, green and gold tones, and all the sparkle is coming from the gleaming glassware and tableware – including plates decorated with 24 carat gold and shiny silver cutlery.
Diego is also something of a master of discretion, he doesn’t share thoughts on any of his guests, but seems to be revealing a lot while providing delectable titbits. So we learn that it was Princess Eugenie who popped into the Waterside to book that famous dinner for her ‘grandad’, but no more than that.
Instead the conversation turns to his obvious delight that we have spotted the ‘less is more’ approach to a beautiful table and I blurt out that our food writer Bonnie May has recommended hunting down sparkly even mismatched goblets and the like in charity shops (more of this later in the magazine!) to add a cheapie version of luxury sparkle for Christmas ‘dos’ at home. Have I committed my first Waterside ‘faux pas’? No, because Diego is applauding this – Bonnie’s approach is exactly what he’s going to talk about!
So here’s Diego’s Guide to Perfect Christmas Entertaining
1 - The seating plan
• It’s often actually easier to seat work friends and neighbours than it is family. Spend a lot of time thinking about whether it’s a good idea to seat that brother next to that particular sister. Don’t seat hosts at the head of the table – they should be in the middle, helping with the flow of conversation, looking after those most likely to feel left out.
2 - Welcoming the guests
• Every guest (and that includes the latest ‘plus one’ strangers), must have a ‘piece of red carpet that is the same size’. There are no special guests for this occasion. As host you never appear to be a step below, or above, the guest. Remember, even trillionaires are human. They crave the chance to be just that, enjoying the same experience as everyone else and able to relax during their visit. There is a Russian oligarch I once ‘treated’ to a shared lasagne in a one bedroom flat I was living in at Maidenhead, he still remembers it as a special occasion.
3 - Be a listener
• There are those people who like to talk, but don’t like to listen. Start to listen genuinely if you might be like this, you will learn a lot. Everyone appreciates being listened to. Never imply that another guest must have most of your attention, so no looking over the shoulder of the person talking to you.
4 - At the table
• Don’t try to impress people with your food and wine. They are here to have an enjoyable experience, and so are you. Stick to traditional recipes that work. When people recall a lovely time, it’s not usually a list of the food they ate, or wine vintages, but how much they enjoyed the company. So no pointing out how expensive a particular wine is, announcing ‘this is from 1994’.
And it really doesn’t matter if some things go a bit wobbly, like sauce being spilled on the table.
5 - Avoid unnecessary formality
• You will have succeeded if people feel like they are in their own homes, and are not afraid to ask if there is any chance of some French fries. Over doing it can spoil it for your guests – it’s like employing a butler for the day, it’s not natural, just a big façade. It is a sure sign that things are going wrong if gatherings start to thin out early or people are exchanging glances and looking at watches. Always remember these are people first, not just guests.
6 - No showing off
• Don’t try to demonstrate how well you are doing in a bid to impress guests. Getting out all your belongings to do this is very wrong. In the same way, if someone is talking about, let’s say wine, and you know better, don’t bother about correcting them and showing your own knowledge. Again it doesn’t matter, and nor do you want to make any guest feel small. Others will then worry about what they might say that’s ‘wrong’ in your view.