Lose your fear." "Be yourself." Sound advice for life? Sure, but who knew these were also the keys to successful entertaining and setting a great table? So says Edward Lent, visual merchandising director for Noritake China, columnist for Tableware Today, and undisputed superhero of tabletop entertaining. Batman may have crime licked on the streets of Gotham, and Aquaman may keep a close eye on the world's oceans, but if you're hoping to rescue a potentially lackluster dinner party, you'd best flash the Lent Signal.
Lent travels the globe, righting tabletop wrongs and empowering the intimidated with his presentation, "Edward's Table." His superpowers include, but aren't limited to, an almost electric enthusiasm, a superhuman sense of style, and a seemingly endless supply of cool entertaining ideas. But the main thing preventing people from enjoying themselves when they entertain, he says, is not lack of ideas but fear.
"Most people are afraid. Entertaining is either too awkward or they think it's too much work. I warn people about all those magazines about entertaining. I won't mention names, but you know who I'm talking about. There're people out there whose hands are bloody from making cranberry wreaths, whose Easter cookies didn't come out with the perfect frosting, and now they're intimidated."
The mission of "Edward's Table" is to remove that fear and give people the right to enjoy entertaining. "Whatever it is that intimidates you, find a way to get past it. Number one: Whatever makes you uptight, get over it. If you're a terrible cook, then either make what you know, or go out and find great pre-prepared food. You don't have to have a wine cellar downstairs to entertain—ask the guy at the liquor store, ask the staff in a restaurant."
And if you're worried about impressing your guests, here's a simple solution: Invite only people you like. "If the invite is an obligation—like having your boss over—then just have a cocktail party. Save dinner parties for the people you really care about."
Not sure you have all the right tableware for a great dinner party? Most people, Lent says, probably need to add only a few items, if that. "A lot of people already have beautiful sterling silverware, they own beautiful dinnerware; and they stuff it in a china cabinet, or, worse, they hide it under their bed. Don't be afraid to use your good stuff!" Lent points out that, ironically, the bone china people drag out once a year is probably much more durable than the casual earthenware they use every day.
Perhaps even more important than getting rid of the fear is taking a chance on expressing yourself. The Martha Stewarts of the world are all too ready to tell you how to be like them; Lent would rather tell you how to be like you. Style, he says, is about developing confidence, learning to be yourself. "A good setting to me is when someone puts their personality on the table. I always tell people to shop their own home."
Anything's fair game: tin watering cans, duck decoys, cool books, even voodoo dolls. "When you use personal collections, it starts conversation going; it says something about you, what you like to do. Anything you collect that's arranged well or used in combination with something else probably makes a great display." The same applies to greening the table. "Go to your backyard. You don't have to go to the florist—it's likely there are things growing wherever you are."
Like most design, setting a good table is "half common sense, half pizzazz." Think about how the person will interact with the table, how the meal will progress, and what the point of the evening is, and ideas will come to you. "If the evening's celebrating something or someone special, then start with a toast. Set a champagne flute on the top of every setting so it's the first thing a guest encounters."
Unique tableware and unusual settings can go a long way toward making an evening memorable. Oversized dinnerware enhances presentation because food can be arranged artfully. Tea lights and one-and-a-half-inch roofing nails can turn fruits and vegetables into votive holders. "I want to romanticize a dinner party and really drag it out," Lent says. "I want to have fun, and I think fun is change—exciting people by putting new things in front of them, new flavors, new colors, new textures."
Sounds easy enough. But aren't there rules to follow, positions of forks to remember, angles to align plates by? "Are there rules? Yeah, there are a ton of rules. But the important thing is not to be intimidated. It's about enjoying your dinnerware. It's about having a nice time with your friends. It's about having great food. I'd much rather see someone being creative and 'wrong' than correct and boring."
Contact Noritake (www.noritake.com) to find out about Lent's appearances.
Paul Hughes is a Seattle freelance writer who's more than a few gravy boats short of a full table.