How To Cook For A Way Better Cook Than You

Don't be intimidated. Extend a dinner party invitation to the cheffy people in your life.

Being considered a good cook is a blessing and a curse. Friends and family are eager to come over for dinner, but those same folks often suggest going out to a restaurant when it's their turn to host. "I'm not as good a cook as you are," they might say, or "We don't do anything fancy for dinner." I make a habit of explaining that I don't expect anything beyond good fellowship; I'm always down for a bowl of chili, some burgers, or your grandmother's old-school turkey tetrazzini casserole. Dinner at my house most nights is often a bowl of cottage cheese and an iceberg lettuce salad—I am not knocking out four courses of magic on a random Tuesday after work.


In short, we can all get a little nervous when we're cooking for someone with more culinary know-how than us. So imagine the stakes when the dinner guest is a professional chef.

I am blessed to have many terrific restaurant chefs in my circle of friends, and I make it a point to cook for them whenever they have a spare night and will let me. From the moment I send out the invite, I am fully aware that they are miles beyond me in terms of skill and talent. I am also aware that no one cooks for chefs. Which is a shame, because as a group, chefs are the least snooty about other people's cooking than anyone I've ever met.

Sure, if they go to a restaurant they may have some opinions about service, or the quality of produce, or the levels of seasoning, or the length of time the meat has been allowed to rest—because that is their business. But at your house? They will hoover the Lipton onion dip and cocktail meatballs, happily squirt the bottled ranch on their salad, have seconds of the baked chicken and rice, and go home feeling cared for and loved.


Food (any food, really) is an expression of nurturing. It is thoughtful to feed people. It can be a love language. If I invite you to dinner, I am saying that the connection is in some ways more important than the meal itself. You will have conversations around your kitchen table that you will never have in a restaurant. You will laugh louder, linger longer. You will share secrets. I love an amazing restaurant meal, but there, the focus is on the service, the theater, the experience of the food, the buzz of the room. Something hits different when you can kick off your shoes and have your after-dinner coffee on the couch.

Whether you have a pal or family member who is in the industry, or just some really good cooks in your circle who intimidate you, here are some tips and tricks I have learned cooking for chefs.

Invite them!

Don't hesitate to extend an invitation just because you're intimidated by all they know. They want to come, and they will be so appreciative of a meal they don't have to cook or have any professional opinion on.


Know which parts of the meal to outsource

Cook the parts that you are confident about and outsource the rest. No one expects you to bake the bread and churn the butter. If you have some family favorites that have always been a hit, make those! Nothing has to be overly fancy. If you are confident about preparing the main course, you can bolster it with a simple salad, some good bread from your favorite bakery, and some prepared sides from a local deli. Don't have that main dish sorted? Pick up your protein somewhere fun, like racks of ribs from your favorite BBQ joint, and prepare the apps and sides. I shouldn't have to say this, but spiral-sliced heat-and-eat glazed ham is totally welcome even when it isn't Christmas or Easter.


Never apologize for the meal

DO NOT APOLOGIZE. Not for the provenance of the wine, not for the level of culinary prowess in the dishes you cooked or bought, not for the quality of the china or the cleanliness of your home. The moment you attempt to manage other people's expectations, the implication is that you think that your guests are going to be judging you, thinking less of you. And then they might wonder if they somehow gave you the impression that this is something they'd do. Your guests are not going to post on Yelp that the soup was undersalted, but they are going to feel immediately uncomfortable if you greet them with a string of apologies.


Let's be clear: One of the best dinner parties I ever attended featured platters of Popeyes fried chicken, grocery store garlic bread, and a giant pan of lasagna. And one of the worst dinner parties had eight tortured, inedible courses adapted from restaurants and fancy chef cookbooks and required a 1 a.m. trip to a McDonald's drive-thru on the way home. Greet your guests with a smile, tamp down your nerves, and let the evening speak for itself.

Keep it simple

I follow the Nora Ephron rule for dinner parties: one protein, one carb, one vegetable, one bonus surprising dish. You get your major food groups, and something a little left of center. Preparing a buffet or family-style meal, with abundant quantities of a few delicious foods, is also easier than any dinner composed of several smaller, fussier elements.


I usually opt for some ancient family recipe, like my grandmother's baked tomato pudding or my godmother's carrot ring. Or maybe an old-school Jell-O mold, or some homemade watermelon rind pickles. It invites conversation and keeps things fun. And if you are really nervous, think one-pot meals: stews, soups, pastas, or anything else that only needs a salad and maybe some bread to be complete.

Plan a menu you can prep in advance

Lean hard on slow-cooked or braised dishes that can be made a day or two ahead and then reheated. Some dishes can be served room temperature or cold. Try to limit foods that have to be cooked or finished at the last minute, or those which require a lot of tending. Large-format cuts of meat are more forgiving than individual portions, so think about things that can be cooked whole and sliced for serving.


Dessert is the easiest item to either let someone bring or pick up locally, so if you aren't a baker, don't feel like dessert has to be homemade. A couple quarts of ice cream or sorbet and some cookies, or some bars of really good chocolate and a bowl of in-season fruit, will be a welcome end to the meal.

Make your guests comfortable

When dinner is done, I quickly pack up any leftovers that require refrigeration to keep them safe for future consumption, and then shift the party to another room to continue the fun and leave the cleanup for after my guests have gone. Everyone has impulses to help clean up, which is lovely, but industry folks especially cannot turn off their hospitality meter. I once had a friend refold my napkin and drape it over my chair when I went to the bathroom. At my house.


It is so much more fun to keep the party going, and let's be honest, only the people who live in your house know how to load the dishwasher properly. The cleanup can wait. Whatever you do, don't shoo your guests out of the kitchen and then stay behind to clean—you'll miss the good stuff, and by the time you are finished, they will all be getting ready to go.

Being a comfortable, confident host is a muscle that needs exercising. Guests often tell my husband and me that watching us host a party is like watching a choreographed dance. It wasn't always like that; it is born out of years of hosting parties together. We both know our "jobs" at a dinner party, and so there isn't a lot of running around. Being an anxious host makes for anxious guests. The more you do it, the easier it gets, no matter how accomplished the guests themselves might be. So, get the invites out there, and have some folks over.