Gail Simmons's dinner party philosophy mirrors her thoughts on cake pops: "I could never really get into the cake pop. I get its appeal: it's fast, it's a bite, you can feel good about it and not have a whole slice of cake. . . but I say have a whole slice of cake."
We also chatted with the culinary expert and Top Chef judge about her entertaining style and one thing was clear: she's all about no guilt, no stress. So how does she pull it off? To make sure your next dinner party is a piece of cake, Simmons is divulging some of the cooking and hosting secrets that she's spent a lifetime learning.
Throw Your Party in a Suitable Space
Simmons just redid her entire home so that she could throw better parties! "It's a great house for entertaining. The main floor is completely open. Living room, family room, dining room, kitchen is sort of one giant space. You can see everywhere. So it's a great house to celebrate in."
If you can’t re-do your apartment in time for Thanksgiving, then at least make sure your guests have plenty of room to feel comfortable in—even if it means trimming the guest list. You want everyone to have a spot to lounge in. You know you’ve succeeded if guests adopt Simmons' ideal posture: "I want guests to be cross-legged on the couch with a glass of wine in their hands. At all times."
Make Sure Your Outfit Fits the Mood of the Party
According to Simmons, your party outfit should reflect the mood of your event: "My entertaining style is casual and comfortable so generally, I'm wearing my comfortable skinny jeans, I'm almost always barefoot, and wearing a top that I know I can cook in and not worry if something spills on [it]. I never want to be fussy, but still want to feel comfortable and pretty."
Simmons's beauty routine when she’s playing hostess is just as low-key. "I almost always put my hair twisted up," she says. "I wear it in ponytails all the time when I'm cooking. I want it up and out of my face when I’m in the kitchen."
Get Inspired by the Season
Where does Simmons start when she's planning her menu? With the ingredients that will be the freshest and tastiest of the moment. "In fall, I love using all those ingredients that are just ending and just starting: those last beautiful corn and peaches, stone fruit from the summer, tomatoes," she says. "All those beautiful, peppery greens are coming into play as well as pears and apples and things like acorn squash—it’s a great time of year to cook!"
One of her go-to fall dishes is a salad chock-full of wonderful, seasonal ingredients. "There's lot of ways to take inspiration from the season and do a really beautiful salad with roasted pears or roasted squash on a bed of greens with a great crumbling of goat cheese and some toasted nuts that bring it all together with an herb vingarette—something simple that you don’t have to fuss over and it can all be organized in advanced and just put together to serve."
Make Sure Your Meal Feels Cohesive
"I'm always sort of thinking of what goes together. What pairs together. So you want your meal, not only within a dish, to feel cohesive," explains the chef. "[For example,] there’s a peppery-ness to the arugula you're serving, which also goes well with hazelnuts, which goes well with the nutty flavor of the squash or roasted pears, the caramelized onions or whatever you’re making together. The course itself should have a consistency in the seasons, in geography, and in time."
If that sounds intimidating, Simmons suggests you keep the age-old, easy rule in mind when you're planning your menu: "If it grows together, then it generally goes together. So if it's all coming out this time of year, it’s generally all good to cook together."
Put in the Prep Work
Hosting, in Simmons’s opinion, should feel effortless even if it isn't. "I like to cook food that allows me to, first of all, not be fussy at the last minute so I can be with my guests. I think the most impressive thing about a great dinner party is the host or hostess is able to be present and not spend all their time with his or her face in a pot."
How to do you host a party with Gail's grace? "I always like to do this for a dinner party: make one dish that can be done in advance. Often that's dessert because desserts are the type of thing you can make in advance and then you just need to reheat and they're really simple to finish at the end. So one dish that's totally done in advance, one dish that's cold or can be done and set aside before the meal—a beautiful salad or a soup—something to start that is fresh and simple and there's definitely preparation for, but doesn't need your constant attention, especially when guests are arriving. And then, the main course can be the one that needs the most attention and timing, because then there's a little leeway at either end [of the meal]."
Enlist a Sous Chef
"[Have] a sort of partner in crime," says Simmons. Hosting duties are always easier (and more fun) with a sidekick! "Whether it's your best friend or partner or spouse to be together and share the load—be with the baby, and then trade off, and make sure the cooking gets done."
Play Great Music. Always.
Set the mood and avoid awkward lulls in conversation by creating a killer playlist. Simmons is lucky—her husband’s a pro at that, literally! "[My husband] makes mixed tapes for a living," she jokes since he programs playlists for restaurants, hotels, spas, and other commercial enterprises.
What do they play at their dinner parties? A mix that will leave guests feeling relaxed and playful. "I like to start out chill generally. Modern-chill. Our baby loves reggae because it's very happy music so sometimes we’ll do a really great reggae mix."
Skip the Complicated Cocktails
When it comes to the bar, Simmons like to simplify her parties by limiting guests' sipping options to two kinds of great wines. "When I serve a dinner party, I always like to have one red and one white—several bottles of both—so that way no one is ever wondering 'Did I pour the wrong wine into my glass?' They always know that that red that’s on the table is the one they’re drinking."
She recently partnered with her go-to brand, Estancia Wines. "I love working with Estancia so much," Simmons says. "They're crisp, they're delicious. They're handcrafted and the quality is really high… I always know that they’re going to be good and that people are going to enjoy it."
Don’t Overextend Yourself
Gail's number one rule for throwing a dinner party: make sure you’re having fun. "I’m never going to overreach and do something that isn't me. I think that everyone should do that for dinner parties," says the star. "I want entertaining to come naturally or else it's not fun and then, why do it?"