How to Host the Perfect Potluck

Entertaining a group for dinner can be a heavy lift for the host. What to cook? How to serve it? How to keep it warm? What dishes to use? Appetizers? Dessert?

Dana Cowin, the former Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine and current host of Speaking Broadly, answers those questions with a word that’s been around since the 1500s: potluck. Way back then it was the short-cut way to describe “food provided for an unexpected guest, the luck of the pot.” Today it is how we describe a meal rooted in two things that are fundamental to Une Femme’s Project Gather: sharing and community.

Dana recently hosted a potluck at her Upper West Side apartment to kick off our Project Gather initiative. Sixteen women. Casual and comfy setting. Diverse dishes. Sharing stories. One showstopping cake. Oh, and handmade necklaces for nametags. In our opinion, it was the perfect potluck.

Here are the tips and tricks we learned from Dana, a woman who has hosted hundreds of dinner parties (some for the world’s most amazing chefs), a master storyteller with an inimitable talent for finding and gathering people who do extraordinary things.

The Food

Dana asked everyone to bring a dish that “tells something about yourself.” Many of the dishes were foods that guests grew up eating, often cook at home, or have grown to adore. Admittedly, Dana invited a whole bunch of fabulous cooks, but there’s no pressure to cook a dish. Katherine Lewin, the founder of Big Night, brought a selection of cheeses inspired by her friend, the late Anne Saxelby who was an expert in and champion for American farmstead cheeses. Anna Polonsky brought crusty loaves of bread from ALF Bakery by Amadou Ly in Chelsea Market, a recent feature the newsletter she foundered, The Deligram (@thedeligram).  

  • Ask guests prior to coming what they’ll bring to account for oven, stove, microwave, and fridge space (and variety!)
  • Encourage a good mix of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
  • Get dishes in the mix that’ll work for vegetarians or other dietary restrictions.
  • Foods that don’t have to be served piping hot are ideal.

The Setup

Pull serving platters that’ll work for the menu and set them out in a kitchen or prep area before the evening begins. When each guest arrives, have them transfer the dish they brought into a serving dish. Keep warm or put out on the dinner table. Set out plates on a buffet for guests with silverware.

At Dana’s, guests served themselves and then found a comfy seat in the living room. Once everyone had a plate, Dana kicked off a discussion and asked everyone to share details about their dish and what it says about themselves. There was laughing. Some crying. Inspiration. Meaningful connection. Full bellies and happy hearts. The menu:

The Drinks

We, of course, served Une Femme’s The Betty and The Callie. Make sure you chill wine in the fridge at least 2 hours pre-event. Resting a bottle in a bucket of ice water is a faster way to chill. Carafes or pitchers for guests to serve themselves is the best way to do water. Dana also served non-alcoholic AVEC by the can.

Extra Special Details

  • When most guests are meeting for the first time, nametags can be helpful. Meagan Bennett (she’s designed some of our favorite children’s books) made genius nametag necklaces!
  • Real napkins always make a gathering feel extra special; Dana wrapped flatware in a cheery selection from Atelier Saucier.
  • Dana had tent cards at-the-ready to label each dish with a description and the name of who brought it.
  • Don’t forget the tunes! Background music is the best way to set the mood and tone for the evening.
  • Guests left with an Une Femme Gather Guides, an artifact to encourage them to ritualize gathering with other women

Want to host a Project Gather potluck? We’ve love to help – sign up and learn more here.