When I was young, we often hosted big dinner parties. My mom and I would carry these huge purple bins full of my grandmother’s silver from the basement to our dining room. We had candelabras, serving trays and all the cutlery. I would spend most of the afternoon shining each and every piece to prepare for the evening. When it came time to set the table, my mom would bring out the fine china and once again teach me how to properly set the table as though we were dining with the Queen herself. The napkins were pristinely folded, the classical jazz CD was spinning, and the candles were lit. The magic would begin.
As guests would arrive little by little, we would gather in the kitchen chatting, serving drinks and adding the last bit of seasoning to the dish. I would be the runner from the kitchen to the dining room placing the dishes around the table making sure there were not one, but two butter plates and salt and pepper at each end. The warm bread rolls topped off a well prepared evening.
The night would continue with saying grace, the sharing of the food, the comments of how scrumptious everything was, followed by laughter and quality conversation. We would eventually transition to the living room for tea and a dessert and often we would play a game of charades or Skipbo. The hectic hours and hard work leading up to the dinner was always well worth it!
I now find myself, almost 20 years later, with my own table and dishes and roommates and guests. The story looks similar, minus the silver and china, but insert wine bottles as candle holders and IKEA plates. A lot has changed, but I grew up with this instinctual family gift of hospitality that creates an atmosphere for people to be free and enjoy themselves. I have spent the last 8 years hosting hundreds of people from around the world, from New Zealand to Poland to India. My home in Spain has been an unofficial bed and breakfast since 2011!
Many of us spend hours cleaning and prepping to receive guests. I have found that the secret to hospitality is not about the stage you set or the hours of planning, instead, it is first and foremost about your genuine love for people.
The core of hospitality is and has always been about love.
It is not centered around excellence of service, atmosphere, and food (although I am passionate about these things); rather the core is the guests and your belief about people no matter their background. Our desire to care for someone will result in an expression of excellent hospitality and that is where our guests can let their hair down and lean into love. That is why I want to bring my creativity in cooking, lighting, and positioning of furniture. I want to set up an atmosphere where people can be present and for an evening, drop the baggage they have been caring at the door and rest, laugh, and walk away feeling loved.
“But entertaining isn’t a sport or a competition. It’s an act of love, if you let it be. You can twist it and turn it into anything you want—a way to show off your house, a way to compete with your friends, a way to earn love and approval. Or you can decide that every time you open your door, it’s an act of love, not performance or competition or striving. You can decide that every time people gather around your table, your goal is nourishment, not neurotic proving. You can decide.”
― Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes
I want to end with a story that took place while visiting a dear friend, chef, and all around fabulous man, Herman Hann from Holland. This time I was the guest taking notes. He prepared one the best filets of salmon I have ever tasted. Once we were finished, he started to prepare the next course…(did I mention it was a 4-course meal). I quickly jumped up to start washing the first round of dishes. He immediately stopped me and in a very blunt Dutch manner said “Tara, why would you wash the dishes while we are together? Sit! and let’s enjoy one another’s company.” Of course, I replied “Oh, no problem, I am happy to do this!” and then I quickly realized it wasn’t about efficiency or helping out. My help was actually taking away from our time together. That moment with Herman shifted something within me.
I have now learned while hosting, it is better to be present and not remain a “busy” host. This is one way for me to love the person right in front of me.
There are times when we are all in the kitchen doing dishes and having great conversations. But I learned something that day, as a guest, and it wasn’t about paying back or helping in any way, but as a host, it was about being present and waiting to do the clean-up later.
We were able to just be and not worry about the perfection of the evening. It was really just about being together and enjoying the atmosphere my friend had created. It was enough. I felt loved. I have come to realize, through everything I learned from my family and from my years of hosting and being hosted, that love is the core and then let the expression of hospitality grow from that place.
“Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love. Be ready with a meal or a bed when it’s needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it!” Hebrews 13:2 (MSG)