Fall entertaining made easy

Nov 4, 2013 at 1:30 p.m. ET

As quickly as the leaves change colors, fall and holiday entertaining is about to kick into high gear. Why venture into the party maze alone? A leading catering pro and executive chef gives his top tips and expert advice to host a fabulous fete.

Cheese plate
A cheese plate, with a variety of artisanal cheeses, rustic bread,
dried fruits and nuts, is a foolproof crowd pleaser.

Throwing a dinner party this weekend? Getting jittery about hosting the next girlfriend get-together? Don't fret. Whatever the party theme, from gourmet dinners to cocktail parties, you're guaranteed to wow your guests with these five best tips from Shawn Doolin, the executive chef of Entertaining Company, a premier event-planning and catering business that has done parties for celebrities and politicians like Oprah Winfrey, James Taylor, Hillary Clinton and President Obama. No matter how star-studded or discerning your guests, focus on the fun factor — after all, it's a party. "Make it fun for you and your guest," Doolin says. "The more excited you are and the more fun you're having, the better the event will be."


Plan ahead

"So much time can be saved by planning and doing things ahead of time. Who wants to be cooking while you have guests and drinks at your home? Make sure all preparation is ready two hours before the party starts to allow for any last-minute snafus."


Have a theme and think about the details

"For a fall party, go outside and grab some beautiful fall leaves that have fallen from a tree and fill some vases, or make fall-inspired napkin rings. Be sure that your guests know the theme and are not trying to figure it out. The items don't need to be expensive, but go organic, and remember that it is all of the little details that will be noticed that bring the party together."


Create some unique, amazing cocktails

"Alcoholic or not, use your drinks to bring the guest into your theme. Drinks are one of the first things that come to the guests' hands, eyes and mouth. A great drink that has amazing color, taste and character can immediately make things lively and festive."


Don't forget the details

"I would suggest always getting inspired and grabbing ideas from all of the great social media resources that are available to us. Pinterest is a great way to find some ideas and make them your own. There are also great recipes and ideas all over the internet, so use all of your resources to get inspired."


Consider yoga before the party

"One thing I do not like to see is when the host is stressing, sweating and just not having fun while the event is taking place. So plan ahead and do as much as possible before the event. It should be fun and enjoyable, and all of that can be done with preplanning."

Here are a few of Doolin's favorite party recipes, all serve approximately 12 guests:

Roman gnocchi

Roman gnocchi
Mix up the menu and really impress your guests with dishes like Roman gnocchi topped with fresh tomato sauce. It sounds fancy, but is actually simple to make.


  • 1-1/2 cups semolina
  • 1 quart milk
  • 2 brimming cups grated Parmigiano
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 to 3 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup melted unsalted butter
  • Salt


  1. Bring the milk to a boil and gradually stir in the semolina, stirring constantly to prevent lumps and keep the mixture from sticking to the pot. The mixture will become quite thick; continue cooking and stirring for about 20 minutes, and remove the pot from the fire. Beat the yolks with a little more milk and add them to the semolina, together with the cheese, solid butter and a pinch of salt. Mix well and spread the mixture a little less than half an inch thick on your work surface.
  2. Let the semolina cool for two hours, and cut it into squares or diamonds. Butter a pan and layer the squares in it, spreading a little more grated cheese between the layers (there should be three to four layers). When all is used up, sprinkle the melted butter over the gnocchi, slowly, to allow it to penetrate.
  3. Bake the gnocchi 15 minutes in a hot (400 degrees F) oven, until golden, and serve at once with chopped mozzarella and drizzled warm tomato sauce on top. Garnish it with a dehydrated or oven-dried tomato and fresh basil.

Fresh tomato sauce


  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
  • 3 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 (28 ounce) can crushed red tomatoes
  • Zest of one lemon


  1. Combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt and garlic in a cold saucepan. Stir it while you heat the saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2. Saute just 45 seconds or so until everything is fragrant — you don't want the garlic to brown. Stir in the tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer. This takes just a couple of minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and carefully take a taste. If the sauce needs more salt, add it now. Stir in the lemon zest.

Cucumber basil cocktail

Cucumber Basil cocktail
Fun drinks, like this cucumber basil cocktail, help make the party festive.


  • 1-1/2 parts cucumber vodka
  • 3/4 parts simple syrup
  • 3 basil leaves
  • 1-1/2 parts club soda
  • Lime wedge


  1. Combine all ingredients, except club soda, in a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Strain into a glass filled with ice, or serve up in a martini glass.
  3. Finish with a splash of club soda and spritz of fresh lime juice.

More in entertaining

How to organize for a large party
Holiday entertaining survival guide
Holiday party planning checklist

Photo credits:  Entertaining Company