Holiday Concierge

December 11, 2014
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Many people really enjoy doting on their houseguests and get special satisfaction catering to their every whim. Good for you! I, too, am always delighted to entertain and love to play “the host with the most.” But during the holidays—when there are multiple people, possibly for multiple days—I’m happier playing concierge to invited guests.  Here’s why.  

It is customary for many of us to retreat inside our homes as old man winter arrives. This yearly winter ritual is often referred to as nesting but for some it’s also whiling away the winter blues.  That said, to nest properly or to call any place “homey” one must have the key essentials—a cozy bed, comfort food, a nice big couch and plenty of entertainment. So it’s ironic that just when the weather starts to get really cold and we begin to settle-in, the hustle and bustle of the holidays arrives—and so do the guests! And at that point I’m ready for clever alternatives that allow me to spend my time with my guests rather than on hosting chores.

Being a great host does not require you to be the guests’ personal butler, valet, chambermaid, cook, or chauffeur, so it’s best that you put that idea aside and provide both short- and long-term visitors the tools and the knowledge to survive without your constant attention. Even during these hectic holidays, casual luxury can still be made simple and sMARt.

Thus my Holiday Concierge concept was born.

Let’s begin by defining it. Just like a hotel concierge, the primary responsibilities are to coordinate, make people feel comfortable and offer an array of fabulous resources.  The secret to success here is as much a state of mind (your attitude) as being prepared and organized.

Here are my Holiday Concierge sMARt tips for the season:

Truth be told, I love to schedule outings, but have always found it best to give my guests freedom during their visit by not necessarily escorting them to every place they desire to go.  If they can drive, I’ll offer the use of my car; if they want to take a walk into town I’m more than happy to allow them their “own” time.  I never insist that they do things or spend time with me.  I open my home, my heart and my refrigerator—the rest should be an organic and pleasant experience.

To give your guests the independence they deserve you must train them, not unlike children.  For example, I explain where I keep the dishwasher soap, where the trash goes, the location of the laundry room, the iron, and the medicine cabinet.  For those folks who require television, make sure to show them how to use the TV remote.  Additional information might include where they can find extra paper products, dishcloths and snacks, etc. 

Assigning jobs is always a good thing with a full house and your guests will appreciate that they can help.  Setting the table is a fun task for the children while garbage duty is better suited for the teenagers. (And both these jobs will be in abundance.) Dad is great at minding the bar, while Mother is perfect cooking, baking and creating the menus or visa versa.  Grandparents can take the responsibilities of bathing grandchildren and putting them to bed.  It takes a village to run a household and it takes true friends and family to pitch in. Empowering your guests by giving them the knowledge and permission to find things will allow them to proactively help you will make the visit all the better and pleasant for everyone. After all, isn’t that what the holidays are about?

Place a basket or tray on a kitchen island or table for the loose items that tend to collect when you have extra people: keys, sunglasses, cell phones, etc. I also love to include an on-going grocery list and pen so everyone can contribute to the list or see what needs to be picked up while they’re out.  Everyone should be encouraged to use this “household community” location.  One of the things I like to keep on hand for guests is a map of the area that is clearly marked “you are here.” Other important destinations are highlighted, such as the local grocer, the drug store, movie theaters, shopping areas, museums and any other special spots that you may want them to discover on their own. Including your favorite tavern or watering hole is also good!

In any season, whether it’s my summer home in the Hamptons or my primary residence in Westport, Connecticut, when it comes to entertaining overnight guests there is one essential and universal morning ritual that always, always comes up. Coffee!  You know what I mean. Everyone wants to know the how, the when and the where about the morning beverage ritual that tames even the wildest of beasts.

Here’s how to accommodate the need for many people to have morning coffee without permanently turning your kitchen into a coffeehouse: Use a large tray capable of housing all the necessary accoutrements, for easy relocation during the day. Include a good medium roast coffee, filters, a variety of sweetening options, spoons, napkins and mugs. Having all the necessaries on one tray allows you to quickly move the entire tray to free up counter space for any later-in-the-day food prep.  Coffee makers come with timers now and that’s all the better for you as host. You can prepare it and set it out the night before making your morning more relaxing. Because I’m extra organized (some would say compulsive!!), I love to assign special mugs to each of my overnight guests. I use my travel mugs: my brother gets his California mug, mostly in part because he lives there; my NY City friends get Empire State Building mugs—you get the point.  This concept serves two important functions:  one, it allows the host to know who to look for when that mug has been left unused; and two, it creates accountability for the user ensuring that it will get cleaned.  You can see that there is a method to my madness. 

One entertaining throwback to my childhood that I love to bring out at holiday time is a large punch bowl. It’s an easy and efficient way to serve lots of people and it’s fun for kids. You can find lots of different recipes online—both alcoholic and non—some made with sherbet or sorbet. You could even serve sangria in it with lots of fresh fruit floating around.

When it comes to mixed drinks there are several ways to go. You can ask your guests in advance what type of liquor they prefer or if they have a favorite brand. Or, you can simply have a variety of different spirits on hand and mark a spot on your map for your favorite liquor store in case there is someone who simply must have a certain brand of vodka or scotch. You should not feel obligated to have on hand some obscure, difficult-to-find brands. That said, if you’ve been friends for thirty years, you should know the drinking preferences of your family and close friends and do your best to keep their favorite on hand. They will be happy and feel special. A concierge is not a bartender. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to make the first round.  After that, I’ll show you the stash.

If your décor allows, you can install some extra hooks behind the front door for the extra coats and scarves. If not, consider a nice antique or brass coat rack that can be placed at either the front or back door. This simple solution allows you to control the clutter and—poof!—you can store it away you store along with your holiday décor.

For small or even larger groups, here is really great idea to make your guests feel special. Get a monogrammed bath towel for each person visiting. Place it on their bed as a take away. I did this last year for the holidays, and used them for gifts and convenience. Not one towel was left on the bathroom floor and people were less wasteful. They used their bath towel with pride and cherished it. This year I’m sure they will be expecting another, but I’m moving on to robes!

Here’s a nifty idea to keep the bathrooms neat and orderly. Provide each guest with a plastic tray onto which they can unpack their toiletries and bath essentials. Make room under the sink or in the closet so that the trays can be stored out of sight between uses. This way your guests’ personal articles are tucked away, freeing up much needed counter space and keeping the room tidy and ready for the next guest. 

Feeding large groups come with its own set of sMARt tips. A big hit is “Make Your Own Pizza Night”—it can accommodate a wide variety of dietary restrictions, is fun for all ages, allows kids and adults to eat in shifts if you wish, can be used for lunches or dinners, permits seconds to be freshly made if folks are still hungry, and because of its flexible nature is the perfect “arrival day” dinner if your guests will be showing up sporadically throughout the dinner hour. Simply set up the ingredients buffet style and allow each guest to make their own pizza, then bake them in the oven on cookie sheets (or pizza racks.) You can do so much of this in advance, too. Here are my three tips to making it uniquely easy and delicious:

  1. Use tortillas or flatbread instead of dough for the individual servings. Precooked, they are easy to handle by your guests, and can also reduce the amount of carbs. Plus unused portions can be easily stored.
  2. Buy jars of good pasta sauce to use as pizza sauce rather than “pizza sauce;” often less sodium, and will add depth of flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients.
  3. Pre-cook any vegetable ingredients (peppers, mushrooms, onions, etc.) by quickly sautéing them before you put them in the ingredient buffet. This reduces the pizza’s cooking time by making sure no-one’s veggies end up too crunchy.

The cook time and temperature that works best in my kitchen is 10 minutes at 350F, but of course you’ll keep an eye on them.

Once you’ve set this up you can pretty much leave guests to themselves. Not only does this free you up in the kitchen a lot but it’s almost critic-proof, too: if they don’t like it they only have themselves to blame.

So, overbook; but stay relaxed and confident because as the Holiday Concierge of your home you’re ready for anything.   

And there you have it. 

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