“Plan now, so you can party later,” advises entertaining guru and hospitality expert Mark Budden, associate director of Oliver & Bonacini events. And now that hot summer celebrations are boiling over, it might be handy to know how to create an elevated event experience with ease in your own backyard.
“Planning ahead helps you achieve two party priorities. You’ll one, be able to better accommodate your guests and two, be a guest at your own event,” says Budden. The creative dynamo attributes the success of any event to organization—specifically his “barbecue building blocks.”
As a foundation, it’s important to first determine your event date and guest list. Next, start thinking about themes, but be subtle. Budden warns that a theme should simply be a delicate thread that ties event elements together. Take a Mexican motif, for example: try jalapenos, cilantro and avocados; margaritas and Latin tunes. But by all means save the sombreros and piñatas.
The next thing to consider is how to serve the eats and drinks? Budden suggests rentals: “They can unify your design, get delivered to your own backyard and, best of all, don’t require cleaning.” And rental companies offer a wide range of products, so this option is more accessible than ever before.
Also important is to explore entertainment. For most intimate garden gatherings, music from portable speakers is ideal. And there are plenty of phone apps with playlists to go with any theme or ambience you wish to create.
Now for your layout. If you decide early where you’d like people to reside and how you’d like your event to flow, you can gently guide your guests using a variety of quiet cues. Use patio carpets, furniture and planters to create “rooms” and suggest paths in your outdoor space. To avoid bottlenecking, place the food and the bar at opposite ends. “For both organization and décor, don’t be afraid to bring the inside outside,” says Budden. “You can even bring your whole dining room table out, if possible.”
Finally, mentally and physically walk through every step of the event. “This is something we at O&B do for every event we host,” says Budden. “From small corporate lunches to grand wedding receptions, that is the best way to troubleshoot.” By anticipating how guests will interact with every element, you’ll be able to identify and rectify potential issues in advance. “On one of my first walk-throughs at home, I realized there was no good place for guests to leave their drinks when heading to the restroom. Since then, I always place a small table by the entrance to the house.
DE-THIRST AND SATISFY
“The key to simple yet impressive food and drink service is to include self-serve stations,” reveals Budden. When it comes to food, make-your-own bars, like tortilla spreads, add a fun, interactive aspect to dining. Plus they limit your serving responsibilities and ensure diverse dietary preferences are accommodated.
As a general rule, offer two to three main protein options and three to five sides. Ideally, select some dishes that can be prepared in advance. Says Budden about preparation: “I make and freeze tamales a week out, then make a big batch of braised pork shoulder, as well as salads and dessert, the day before the event. It prevents both your kitchen and you from being hot messes when your guests arrive.”
Similarly, instead of baking, create assembled desserts, such as tiramisu, trifle or fruit salads to finish with. Served in individual bowls on a platter with a cup of spoons, these simple sweets are sure to wow.
In both food and drink, self-serve set-ups are most successful when laid out logically. “Quiet cues come into play again here,” says Budden. “For clarity at the bar, drinks should be grouped with their appropriate glasses and garnishes.” At an organized bar, guests will feel empowered to become their own mixologists while freeing up the host to partake in more of the party. And for a festive feel, welcome guests with a specialty cocktail that reflects the event’s theme. Next to the pre-mixed pitcher, place ice and some pre-garnished glasses to illustrate how it is intended to be enjoyed. If serving mojitos, for example, have mint and sliced limes available nearby.
In terms of glassware, stemless wine glasses are a great choice as they perform double duty. “They’re suitable for both wine and cocktails,”says Budden. “And they feel less stuffy and are more difficult to break than those with stems.”
Like a festive cocktail, sparkling wines also create a celebratory climate. “I use galvanized steel bowls to keep my bubbly and beer cool,” says Budden, “but you can get creative with your containers. Antiques add a touch of sophistication.” Budden also recommends the outdoor storage of ice and cold drinks. Next to the bins of bubbly, provide flutes and a selection of freshly squeezed juices—peach is a common favourite. The juices not only dilute the acidity of the sparkling that some dislike, but they also serve as delicious and discreet non-alcoholic options.
Mark Budden is the associate director of Oliver & Bonacini events.