Lately, I have attended two surprise birthday parties. At both, neither birthday girls’ caught on, there were many squeals of excitement at the final revelation, and I have shouted “surprise!” in a dark room twice, in one month. But surprise parties are one of those great little joys of life, and though I’ve never had one thrown for me, I’ve been part of the planning for several. At one disastrous attempt 10 years ago, the birthday boy’s 13-year-old dog died in his arms at 7 pm, a serious mood killer. Despite the hosts’ best efforts to swear everyone to secrecy, the person who’s supposed to be surprised usually knows, but plays along so as not to disappoint those involved in such a thoughtful and painstaking effort.
However, both the recent surprises were extremely successful and one of these parties introduced me to a whole new way of entertaining. The host — a gregarious, well-travelled and enthusiastic foodie — took over a friend’s garden, and with the help of a professional dinner designer (yes, that’s actually a career), organised a spectacular long table for 30 people, decorated with fresh flowers and huge candle stands dangling with dainty, shimmering crystals. There were printed place cards for seating with curious guests animatedly discussing who’s seated next to whom. By the time we yelled “surprise”, we were ready to sit down to a divine five-course-meal where Ritu Dalmia’s chefs put together combinations of different species of seafood with other delicacies. It was a dinner party a la Gatsby, just a slightly casual version of a black-tie evening. While it sounds incredibly pretentious and contrived, it actually was not; the sheer novelty of actually sitting down to dinner wasn’t horribly stuffy as I predicted it to be. In fact, it turned out to be a loud, raucous evening with copious amounts of wine consumed, and most guests tottering home only at 4 am.
Just last week, the famous DJ Guetta and Edward Maya of that fabulous track Stereo Love were in Delhi to perform at a weekend long bacchanal for a 40th birthday bash. By all accounts, it was a great party but there is a small, growing number of people who have evolved to hosting small-yet-splashy and lavish dinners, restricted to a group of immediate friends, for special occasions. This kind of intimacy you don’t get by hiring a private dining room in a restaurant or hotel; it needs a home where the focus is on great food, great wine and conversation. Of course, parties like this require a lot of attention to details. The seating has to be planned in a way that different circles of people have a go at getting along. The party will backfire completely in case you dislike whoever you’re seated next to or you’re forced to eat five courses when you’re on a diet. Most of us only organise informal gatherings of friends and family and a buffet style of serving food, with, more often than not, guests contributing a dish. But the ceremony of the five-course-meal is undoubtedly special, likely to turn the most committed dieter to reckless feasting.
What’s trendy abroad are cooking parties — with friends getting together, planning a menu, and dividing the courses to cook among themselves. This, I’m convinced, is the Masterchef effect, that has made cooking seem so fascinating. In the West, dinner parties with a carefully planned menu, a dress code for dinner and a baffling amount of cutlery on the table are completely dying out, with people favouring a more relaxed form of entertaining, while here, those in the catering business acknowledge fancy five-course-meal parties are just taking off. It’s time to brush up on our table manners.