When It Comes to Food, Think Big
"Be mindful of everything. An animal gave its life to have this barbecue." —Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue, Austin, Texas
Ideally the food never stops coming. There should always be another appetizer within reach. I've had great success with classics like deviled eggs, endive leaves topped with smoked salmon, and my smoked baby back ribs with honey-mustard glaze. Says Citrin, "We always have something fun to start things off", often grilled squid or shrimp cocktail. (He once threw a Great Gatsby party that included bowls of caviar. People went crazy, Citrin recalls. "It was like cocaine in the '80s.") But you don't have to break the bank; party staples like chips and guac are fine. The idea is that guests should not grow hungry while waiting for the next round of ribs or shrimp.
Key tip: Position food and drinks widely throughout your backyard and home. Don't make people work hard to find snacks to nibble, and don't create bottlenecks, where everybody converges at one table. This point cannot be stressed enough.
Most important, a killer party has a signature, something big that requires planning and, in some cases, infrastructure. "You need to think about your legendary main thing, that spectacular something that nobody will ever forget," says Bayless. "Grilling steaks or hamburgers is a lesser barbecue because the outcome is not one that guests can salivate over ahead of time." There's a logistical advantage, too. Something that takes a dozen hours to smoke or roast gives you time to make drinks for guests, supervise the rollout of appetizers, manage the playlist, or actually hang out with your friends.
For Bayless, "spectacular" means roasting a whole animal, usually a pig, over the pit he built in his backyard. Or doing a massive paella over a wood fire. Or both. And it also means putting your guests to work. "When I do a paella, I get loads of people involved," he says. Tossing ingredients on a three-foot-wide pan requires more hands than one host can provide. "I may even ask for a whole bunch of people to come in and help me do prep work," he adds. "You aren't just feeding them. They are feeding the group, and everybody ends up with a sense of great accomplishment."
For Russell Moore, a chef who worked for 21 years at Chez Panisse before starting his own restaurant, Camino, in Oakland, California, that kind of magic happened when he spit-roasted a whole goat in his backyard. A friend brought a load of fresh fava beans, which the guests helped shell. Moore then placed the beans in pots underneath the goat to catch the drippings. "Flashy cooking," he says, "is fun for everyone."