I've done this giant dinner now for a number of years and I thought I would just quickly jot down a few tips for pulling off an event like this. So here are my ideas, for what it's worth:
1. White Christmas lights can make any event feel magical
2. Candles are cheap and have large visual effect so use a ton of them for evening events
3. If you use candles in jars and also use coffee beans, use tall candles. Coffee beans are visually pleasing and have a nice aroma but they hold heat really well. If you have short candles (like I did last year) it will melt the candle in about 3 seconds flat. Use tall candles and have the heat at the top of the lid and your lovely candle display will last much longer.
4. Glass with lights is also visually catching. Jam jars are your cheapest so if you want to use glass and also not worry about if it breaks in the hubbub of the evening, use different heights of jars with candles in them.
5. When feeding a huge group, really really plan the menu. Turkey, for example, is one giant piece of meat that you stick in the oven and virtually forget about. This will make life easier. Trust.
6. And about turkey - use a brine and a bag. It makes all the difference. Essentially you lock in a fabulous flavor with perfect moisture with a brine. By cooking the turkey in a bag you don't have to baste it every 30 min. You just put it in the bag and forget about it in the oven. The turkey turns out perfect and you free yourself up to do other stuff in the kitchen.
7. Chutney with meat is a great way to go. Gravy feels too Thanksgivingish and chutney sounds fancy. It can also be served at room temperature so you can make it in advance.
8. Try to plan something from each food group but also try to cook as little as possible. Autumn greens. Butter Rolls. These things I purchase. I get the rolls from a bakery because they are just as good as anything I can make by hand. And salad is salad. It doesn't taste any better if you buy it in a bag or if you chop all the lettuce by hand (in my opinion). Save yourself some time and just buy these low impact plate fillers.
9. The Power of Marketing. Describe your food with finesse if you're going to have a menu.
10. Visual impact with food is also key. Try to make it look as appealing as possible. Garnish? Sure. Lovely dishes? Yeah. Space a placement on the table? Yup. Sometimes the yummiest food doesn't look awesome and will never get eaten. If you're cooking for that many people, you want every last morsel to be devoured so take the time to make it look as good as it tastes.
11. If you're going to have people help you (and you should) give them the fun stuff to do but give them guidance. For example, I had my friend Kelsee do the honey butter favors. I had Doug do the lights and set up stuff (tables and chairs and lights - all perfect for the husband to work on). I drew up a little plan of what I wanted and Doug put it together perfectly. This allowed me to not have to think about what was going on outside so I could focus on food and other details.
12. Fabric. Fabric can have a big impact. Toole over the lights helps keep bugs out, has visual impact, and is cheap. It is about the consistency of gauze. Burlap on the table is also pretty cheap for fabric and makes for a lovely fall runner. White table cloths are classic and you can often find bulk table cloths for fairly inexpensive (and these get used ALL the time so its worth the investment if you host things often). These table cloths were actually round ones but when they are layered, it makes for a scalloped edge effect and still looks nice.
13. Music. Its important to have something in the background playing. No one notices it until there are those few awkward little pauses in conversations. Its nice to break up silence. I always go with something like the Frank Sinatra station on Pandora. Classic and pleasant.
14. BORROW EVERYTHING. For this event I borrowed silverware, white plates, chairs, tables and so on. If you belong to a church, they will often let you borrow things or rent for pennies. Loads of people have white plates and silverware so you can create a cohesive look without spending money. The pears were provided by my boss. He brought some pears in one day and I asked him if he had a tree. When he said he did I immediately jumped on the idea of free pears! The more free things you can get the better. But you have to think out things in advance so you can be keeping your eyes and ears open for opportunities when they come along.
15. Know when to hire someone. I have the desserts done by a friend of mine who does desserts professionally. Dessert is an important icing on the cake of the event. It's important to have something that leaves a lasting impression since its likely the last food impression you'll leave. Because of this, I hire someone who is better than me at desserts. Then I also get to enjoy them because it's a treat for me as well. I can do desserts but this lady can DO desserts, so I kick it up a notch and have her do them. (plus - trust me, you'll have enough to worry about without adding desserts to your list).
16. Have fun. You are the host and if you're stressed then it immediately changes the mood of stuff. I read years ago in a Martha Stewart magazine that she purposefully doesn't have everything in place when people arrive. She enlists people to help finish things like setting the table because it helps people not feel awkward, gives them something to do, and gets them invested in the meal right off the bat. I do the same thing (though not always intentionally- sometimes I'm just running a few minutes behind). Learning how to delegate will help you to be in a better mood and will help others enjoy the meal as well. Things I delegate are things like, 1. lighting candles 2. filling water pitchers 3. filling glasses with water and/or ice 4. setting the table 5. placing food/butter dish/salt and pepper/etc on the table 6. getting music set up and finding right volume 7. any dishes that could be quickly washed or placed in the dishwasher
and so on
(oh and another tip - IKEA. I get so much stuff from there for cheap. Goblets are cheaper to buy there then rent anywhere - though you should borrow if you can. And they have a fabulous napkin selection...)
Anyway, this was a long wordy post and probably doesn't even apply to many people but I wish I would've known some of these things a few years ago when I began. I did individual chicken breasts and had to use 3 different ovens. Ugh! Or last year I had candles on candle sticks and the wax dripped all over the burlap. Getting wax out of burlap took FOREVER! Putting candles in jars was much cleaner and still looked just as fabulous.
Hopefully these are helpful things to know for any of you who might put on a big event like this in the future.