How to Cook a Dinner Party in Your Condo Kitchen

Condo Kitchen

One of the real joys of settling into a cozy new home?  Opening it up to your family and friends, and for those of us who like to cook, that means feeding people—all the people.

If you like to cook big (or go home), the great thing about condo kitchens is they’re usually state-of-the-art: Big fridges, solid appliances, a double sink to soak your sticky pans in while still being able to wash that extra fork.  But the less-great thing is that compact condo kitchens, not often designed with much counter space, mean using a little strategy to pull off that epic dinner.

So from someone who cooked everything for a 55-guest wedding in their condo (and cooked it well, thank you), here are some tips on how to entertain in style with your condo kitchen.

Set a smart menu, time-wise

Ask any small restaurant and you will hear this universal truth: The best way to make the most of a smaller kitchen space is to plan your timelines wisely—and that means setting your menu smart.  Think about what you’d like to whip up for your guests and then check that menu for a good balance between things you can make ahead of time and dishes you’ll have to serve right out of the oven (or steamer, or pan).

What dishes can you prep ahead?  What can you get done while that duck’s in the oven that doesn’t need the oven?  What needs which appliances or spaces when, and can you make the most of those overlaps—for example, cook everything that needs a 350-degree oven at the same time?

Yes, you can pull seven courses out of a small kitchen with two people at the stove—but only if you think smart about cooking ahead, storing well, and making the most of the resources you’ve got.

Know your workflow

How does your kitchen work?  Are there spaces you use where two people will get hopelessly tangled, or pieces of prep it’s better to do ahead of time, so you aren’t back and forth from the fridge?

Knowing your kitchen’s physical workflow helps you set up in a way that’ll make it easier to get your chopping and frying done without a side of frustration.  If you’ve got a kitchen island, section it off for prep or tasks that don’t need a stove or sink; if not, consider what you can do at the kitchen table.  Even though condo kitchens aren’t infamous for having lots of counter space, even the most compact one can have room for a few organized work stations if you look at the space you have elsewhere and pull it in.

Quality over quantity

While it’s tempting to lay out a dinner bigger than the Mandarin buffet, if you’re strapped for time or hands, it can be a better strategy to focus on a few really, really good dishes rather than a lot of dishes.  If you’re cooking solo, pressed for time, or worried a really big do is beyond what you can pull off this week, a few very simple dishes with high-quality, fresh ingredients can cut down on the time you’ll spend in the kitchen and be a feature rather than a bug.

Sometimes less is more, because it lets what you have there really shine.  A really good cheese, really fresh tomatoes, or strawberries just in season often don’t need the work to make a meal great.

Do the dishes as you go

Seriously.  It saves so much pain.  Even if you have the sink or dishwasher space to spare to let them pile up—and in many condo kitchens, it becomes obvious fast when you don’t—nothing caps off a great night with people you like better than not having to stay up another hour with the dishes.

Don’t be afraid to draft people

If you find yourself irrevocably behind schedule?  Just remember: Your friends probably don’t actually care.

Getting asked over for a home-cooked meal—especially an elaborate one—is a great, fantastic gift all by itself.  Most people won’t even bat an eyelash at being asked to pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair, and grate a little cheese for me, please, while you tell me how your day went?  Part of the fun of communal dining is making something great together, and as long as you aren’t springing an hour’s work on anyone without notice or consent, a little help here and there while you catch up on what’s up in your lives isn’t likely to be an imposition.

Five Steps to Your Perfect Condo Garden Party

Condo Party

Spring is springing in Toronto, finally.  (Finally?  And sticking?  Please?)  Now that we’re all preemptively breaking out the summer clothes, making plans with those friends we didn’t see all winter, and staring longingly at the Canadian Tire flyer and the Food and Drink Magazine, it’s a good time for the cottage-free among us to throw an outdoor shindig.  If you’re a condo-dweller looking to get some air, here’s how to make that happen without hitting a hidden snag.

  1) Book the space—and find out the rules

Lots of new condos have outdoor common areas that sit on green roofs, terraces, or courtyards, making the building’s rental ads shine—and otherwise getting absolutely no love.  Those views, plants, and benches are part of your rent as a condominium tenant, and instead of culling down your guest list to the handful who can fit on your balcony, take that party upstairs to the garden, spread out, and enjoy.

The first thing to find out is what the building’s expectations are for having a do in a common area.  You’ll likely have to book the space with your building’s property manager, and there are some important questions to ask: Is there a damage deposit like there can be with an elevator?  Can you decorate the space for the day?  How many people can occupy the space at one time?  Most importantly, can you have and serve alcohol in a common area of your building?  If not, it’s best to make that lemonade plain and take a little punch out of the punchbowl.

  2) Get the lay of the land

Outdoor entertaining always has its unique needs.  If you’re in Muskoka, bring the bug spray; if you’re hanging out in Bellwoods, get there early before the whole neighbourhood snags the shade.  And if you’re in a condo outdoor area, it’s a good idea to see how that space interacts with the elements.  Head outside before writing your invites and check out what the space does in terms of wind, shade, and the local Toronto wildlife.

All that will let you know if you’re going to be telling your guests to bring a sunhat to your afternoon do, if the money’s being spent on light paper cups or heavier plastic or glass ones that won’t blow away, and whether you’ll need to be on the lookout for pigeons or gulls, or setting up some citronella candles as it gets into the evening.  Anything planned for is a feature; it’s only the problems nobody anticipated that can sour a good party.

  3) Design your good time with the space in mind

A good party takes advantage of the environment, so now that you know what you’re working with, think in terms of creatively using that space to your advantage.

If the space is smaller, bring an iPod dock upstairs and use those walls to give yourself a little bit of (reasonable) background music.  If there aren’t many surfaces to set things down, grab a few small folding tables, drop light tablecloths on top, and revel in your sudden, affordable classiness.  If you’re serving snacks that’ll leave a bit of waste, like chicken or bocconcini-tomato skewers, make sure there are a few visible garbage cans for everyone to use, or set out a clearly marked jar to collect them.

More to the point, invite with an eye to comfortable capacity.  The rule of thumb wedding planners use is that you’ll probably get 85% of invitees showing up, and that’s for your wedding; for an average party fit in among everyone’s busy Toronto schedules, it’s probably more like 65%.  But if you’re working in a space with a set capacity, it’s better to aim conservatively.  If your guest list gets a little low, there’s no harm in telling someone a few days before, “Hey, I’m doing a thing this weekend.  Want to come by?”

  4) Drop your neighbours a courtesy note

The City of Toronto gets, every weekend, about ten party noise complaints per hour after the 11:00pm bylaw cutoff.  It’s good to not be that guy.  So if you’re hosting in a common area, or think the party might drift back to your unit after hours, it’s good courtesy to drop a note or a knock to your neighbours and any neighbours of the common space, letting them know you’ll have guests over that night, and inviting them to tell you if there’s too much noise.

Most arguments about noise in condominiums are really arguments about consideration: It’s easy to transform people not knowing how noise travels into not caring.  Preemptively showing that yes, you do care, will probably help your neighbours be a little more tolerant on the night of, keep the cops out of it, and raise the likelihood that if you’re bothering them, they’ll just come and let you know.

The important thing, though: If someone does knock on the night of, you have to back up your good word.  Turn the party down, and you’ll be the great, reasonable neighbour, not “the intolerant” next door.

  5) Leave it better than you found it

The end of a party is when you want to wander into bed, go face down, and sort it all out tomorrow.  But when you’re throwing a party in a common area, being considerate of your neighbours isn’t just a matter of noise levels (although, hey, be considerate about those too, or at least observe the rule that anyone who can hear the party is invited).  If you’ve got a common area for the day, cleanup’s part of the job, and it’s neighbourly to be thorough about your cleanup.  Make sure the plants are pristine, garbage is bagged and down the chute, anything you brought out has gone back home, and nothing’s sticky.  Sticky is unkind.

Enjoy your springtime!