Professional chefs share their secrets.

Christmas Holiday Table
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Whether you’re new to hosting or have been doing it for years, hacks and tips are always welcomed right? You never know what might arise during the planning process, or even in the middle of the party! Someone might bring an extra guest (or two); you might not know about someone’s food allergy or preferences; a dish might be burned or messed up; you might run out of ice (or worse, beverages!)… you get the picture.

We asked professional chefs for their best holiday hosting hacks, because these people are used to being under pressure, preparing meals for hundreds of people in a given night. Keep their tips and tricks in mind as you’re hosting and planning this holiday season. They might even come in handy for last-minute tasks, too!

Overhead Food Dishes
A Southern meets SoCal holiday feast from Ari Kolender of Queen St. in Los Angeles.

Thomas J. Story

Keep It Simple

Uchi LA’s Chef de Cuisine Joel Hammond suggests keeping the menu uncomplicated, so you can concentrate on your guests, not spending a lot of time preparing the meal. “Entertaining your guests and being available to them is just as important as the food, if not more!” he says.

Choose Your Dishes Wisely

More Videos From Sunset

“Understand the limitations of your space, equipment, and time, and choose dishes that can be flawlessly executed within those constraints,” says Craig Wilmer, chef at Farmhouse Restaurant at The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, California. “There’s no substitute for good cooking, and simple and delicious always outshines a flashy misfire.”

Prep and Start Cooking Early

Almost every chef we spoke to emphasized the importance of prepping and cooking in advance. “My biggest holiday hosting hack is to prepare as much as possible in advance,” says chef-restaurateur Matt Horn of Horn BarbecueKowbird, and Matty’s Old Fashioned in Oakland. “Dishes that can be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving can significantly ease your workload on the day of the event. This allows you to be more relaxed, present, and truly enjoy the company of your guests.”

And start early the day of the gathering. “I’ve been cooking for 18 years professionally, so I have an ability to multitask and be on time. I have that, but I understand that most people don’t. The advice I can give is start earlier than you think you need to,” recommends Phillip Frankland Lee, chef/owner of Scratch Restaurants Group in Los Angeles.

Gorgonzola-stuffed beef tenderloin with port wine sauce.

Photo by Annabelle Breakey; written by Elaine Johnson

Create a Timeline

“Plan your entire event, from meal preparation to when guests arrive, and stick to a schedule. A timeline helps you stay organized and ensures everything runs smoothly,” says Massimo Falsini, chef of Caruso’s at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, California.

Use Your Grill

“If you have a grill, don’t forget about it! You can turn it on really low or build a small fire and use it like an additional oven or warming area,” adds Chef Katianna Hong of Yangban in Los Angeles.

Set a Buffet

“I know it looks nice to have the table set with everything in its place but when you are hosting more than 10 guests you avoid the constant ‘can you please pass this’ or ‘could you put this on my plate,'” The Resort at Pelican Hill’s Director of Culinary Operations Kyung Carroll says. “Use the kitchen island or get a 6-foot foldable table—make sure to use elevations so it looks nice.” It allows everyone to have a conversation with out any distractions. And if you still want to do a big carving moment, you can do it at the buffet.

Time Inc. Food Studios

Use the Power of Scent

Set the mood by enveloping your home in an inviting scent. “Put some cinnamon sticks in the bain-maries (water baths) you are using to keep the side dishes warm. Or, if you have an extra burner, boil some cinnamon sticks to give the house that holiday aroma,” recommends Charles Wiley, executive chef at Mountain Shadows Resort Scottsdale in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

You can also do a two-for-one with cider since it’s a refreshment for your guests and it makes your space smell so good. “Warm some apple cider with mulling spices on the stove so your house smells like the holidays,” says Kathy Sidell, owner of Saltie Girl (locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and London).

And the scents don’t have to be cinnamon and apples. Chef Tony Nguyen of Crustacean Beverly Hills likes to sauté garlic and onions to make the house smell delicious.

Set the Table Early

Meg Walker, founder, CEO, and executive chef of Made by Meg, MBM Hospitality, recommends setting the table the day before—it helps her feel calm that at least one thing is done.

And Russell LaCasce, executive chef at Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, Arizona, advises keeping all the utensils close by so no one has to get up to grab a spoon or tongs.

Have Enough Supplies

“Ensure you have enough essentials like ice, disposable plates and utensils, and trash bags. Having extra on hand can save you from last-minute store runs,” says Massimo.

Tequila is the star ingredient in this cranberry punch.

Thomas J. Story

Batch Cocktails

This was another popular tip from the chefs. “When I’m hosting, I like to have a batched cocktail ready to go for when guests arrive,” says Top Chef alum Brooke Williamson, owner and executive chef of Playa Provisions in Playa del Rey, California. “When people walk in and you offer them a drink, most people don’t know what they want right away. A pitcher full of a strong cocktail that can just be poured over ice makes it so easy, and it’s a great way to get the party started. A Negroni is a great one to prebatch!

James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef Suzanne Goin of Caldo Verde in downtown Los Angeles also recommends batching out two different cocktails and setting them on the bar with glasses, an ice bucket, and plenty of garnishes so guests can serve themselves.

Put out Snacks and Apps

“Always have hors d’oeuvres or finger foods to keep everyone from becoming ‘hangry,’ and that will let you finish everything properly and without a rush,” says Hernan Melendez, executive chef of Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel, California.

To make things even easier for yourself when it comes to prepping and cooking, consider serving cold appetizers, which you can make and set up right before guests arrive, adds Ashley Robertson, executive chef at FIRE Restaurant at The ART Hotel Denver.

Tinned Fish Board with Wine
Instead of a cheese board, try a tinned fish board.

Thomas J. Story

Chill Wine Fast

If you forgot to chill the wine, Jeremy Shigekane, executive chef at 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar at Prince Waikiki in Honolulu, has a quick hack: “Wrap the bottle in a damp paper towel or cloth and place in the freezer for 15 minutes—like magic, chilled wine!”

Opt for Store-Bought Finds

“You don’t have to make everything,” says Jeffrey Chen, executive chef at San Laurel at Conrad Los Angeles. “Your guests will not have more or less fun if the dessert came from your favorite bakery, or your appetizers/charcuterie board came from your favorite deli.”

Add some garnishes or a little flourish to store-bought finds to make them seem more special. “My stepmom used to ‘fancy up’ store-bought tomato sauce for pasta and it was perfectly fine,” says Dave Beran, chef at Pasjoli in Santa Monica. “Figure out what you’re good at—the hero dish. Maybe it’s your apple pie, maybe it’s the turkey. Spend your time making those so mind-blowing that no one notices you just added a little salt and parsley to the tub of Costco potato salad. Frankly, with enough wine, no one will notice.”

Warming Trick

“Use an ice chest to keep things warm by preheating it with hot (not boiling, but close) water for about 20-30 minutes before placing your warm food inside to maintain its temperature,” says Jesse Mallgren, executive chef at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California.

Chocolate Gingerbread Snowflakes

Thomas J. Story

Asks Guests to Bring Something

Get your guests involved! “Ask guests to bring the best cookies they made this year and as the host, prepare the dipping sauce to dunk the cookies,” adds Heena Patel, chef/co-owner of Besharam in San Francisco.

Have to-Go Containers

“Always have disposable/to-go containers ready so your guests can pack up some leftovers to take home. It’s nice that they get to take something to-go, but it’s also nice that they unknowingly help you scrape out and bus your dishes,” says Katianna.

Offer a Pick-Me-Up

“My friends know this as one of my more notorious moves. I always offer espresso at the end of the night. It’s a nice touch, and gives people a second wind to, if they want to, stay a little longer and keep the party going,” Brad Wise, chef/owner at Trust Restaurant Group in San Diego, says.