Some people have a gift for entertaining, others do not and choose to outsource that help (moi!). Fortunately, I have a talented friend who both has the eye for design and wants to help people like me. Ajiri Aki’s new company Madame de la Maison is an online home for beautiful linens and antique French tableware and accessories to buy or rent. She sources her pieces at flea markets and sidewalk sales across France and has styled events small (intimate dinner parties) and large (photo shoots, weddings, and more). Accessories may not replace the beauty of a shared moment but they go a long way in enhancing the experience. Here, she offers a few tips for hosting à la française, whether you have a robust collection of antique pieces, are in the market for them, or are prepared to get creative!
As a Nigerian girl raised in Texas, a love of celebration and gathering has been in my blood since birth. I have always enjoyed entertaining but prior to living in Paris, my hosting skills were often sloppy or stressed. As an adopted Parisian, entertaining has become a way for me to meet and connect with people so I do it as often as I can. After many (and I mean many) disastrous dinners, I started to find entertaining easier thanks to a few tips I picked up from my French friends. While I don’t subscribe to the French-do-everything-better business, I do prefer decorating and entertaining à la Française. Here are five tips for the next time you want to give your gathering a chill and chic French edge:
1/ Keep the menu simple. I can’t tell you how many times I went completely over the top preparing insanely complex meals and ended up spending half of the dinner in the kitchen, frantic and missing out on the fun. A French girlfriend once waltzed into the kitchen where I was meticulously plating my dish to resemble something I saw on Pinterest. She was entirely unimpressed and asked me what all the fuss was about, handed me a glass and insisted I just flop the food down and come hang out. I was a bit disappointed after I had gone bananas to make elaborate dishes. When I was invited to the same girlfriend’s apartment for dinner, she served a blanquette de veau with white rice. It was damn delicious and she was so right!
Your guests are there to spend time with you. Keep your menu simple. You don’t need a zillion sides or extravagant dishes. Serve something you can prepare the day before like a coq au vin or a boeuf bourguignon. Or go to the market, buy fresh vegetables to roast or sauté and serve with something you can throw in the oven. And don’t be afraid to buy the starter and/or dessert.
2/ Keep the decor chic. I love how most French hosts will serve you a simple meal, but the table is nicely set with linens and objects they picked up while strolling through a flea market or that were handed down from their grand-mère. They aren’t going to overdo the decoration or at least, it won’t look like too much effort went into it. You don’t even have to do too much to give your table a stylish setup. Cover your table with a tablecloth or a runner, if you want to show off a wood table, and use fabric napkins. Never even dream of using paper napkins if you are hosting a seated dinner. Light some candles and buy fresh flowers. Like the French, bust out your grandma’s china or pick up some cheap and chic antiques. If you don’t want to do a full antique place setting, add little additions to the table such as candelabras, salt cellars, crystal wine glasses or silverware. And if you can’t get to a flea market, visit the Madame de la Maison shop online for a selection of treasures from across France. When your guests ask where your unique pieces came from you can say, “oh just something I found at the flea market in Paris.” And if you’re pressed for time, as I often am, set the table the evening before.
3/ Mix and match. If you are into antique plates, boldly mix different floral patterns together, or serve on a collection of different blue and white plates. You can even collect different little gold and white salad plates to serve with your blue or floral themes. If your style highlights modern pottery, you can mix in little French antique details like a copper oil can with flowers, silver tumblers on the table with flowers, or engraved crystal glasses.
4/ Whet the appetite, don’t kill it with hors d’oeuvres. I used to set out trays full of charcuterie, cheese, crackers, smoked salmon, spinach dips, and crudité for my dinner guests. A spread like this is wonderful if that is all you plan on serving and you’re gathering to graze and drink. However, if you’re entertaining for lunch or dinner, the French would be utterly confused as to why you put out so much food that would ruin one’s appetite before dinner is even served. In France it’s standard to set out 3 to 4 bowls with simple nibbles like nuts, olives, or little crackers.
5/ Bookend with booze. A French dinner always starts with an apéritif, traditionally designed to open up the appetite, and ends with a digestif, to aid digestion. An apéro also serves as a pre-game way to loosen people up and allow your guests time to arrive. In France, it’s often considered rude to be on time, so while your friends stroll in, serve champagne or kir. And if you really want a Provençal vibe, serve anise-flavored French specialties from the South such as Pernod or Pastis. After hors d’oeuvres, dinner, cheese, dessert, and coffee, your guests might appreciate a digestive like a port, calvados, or cognac. But of course they can also just keep drinking wine.
Et voila! If you want to entertain and decorate with a little French flair, keep the food simple, the drinks flowing, and think about the little details that will make your table look effortlessly stylish. Don’t be fussy, don’t apologize for anything, don’t overdo it and remember to keep the emphasis on gathering together at the table and making your guests happy and comfortable. People remember moments and feelings you create for them.
Browse Madame de la Maison, follow Ajiri’s antique finds and decorating tips at @MadamedelaMaison and pick up a copy of the fabulous New York Times bestseller she co-authored, Where’s Karl!
Ps. That last photo was taken in my apartment by “The New Paris” photographer Charissa Fay! – Lindsey