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Expert hostess Janice O’Connor tells us how to hold an epic dinner party.
Take it from Janice O’Connor: She knows dinner parties. Her yearly Christmas soirees have grown from intimate gatherings into galas with guest lists in the hundreds, and even spawned spin offs of their own (see also: the Courts & O’Connors & Friends Charity Dinner, her ladies-only Christmas dinners at the British Club).
You’d think that having one of your dinner parties auction off for $15,000 might get to your head — but for the modest Mrs O’Connor, the greatest reward she can receive is the knowledge that she’s giving back to a good cause.
“Cooking is my only real skill,” she demurs, “So I might as well make use of it to do something good.”
When a close friend passed away due to breast cancer in 2001, O’Connor decided to turn the family’s yearly Christmas dinner party into an impromptu fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Foundation. The O’Connors and their 94 guests raised $22,000 that night.
Ever since, O’Connor has used her cooking as a force for good. Her first cookbook, Open Kitchen, sold all its 1,100 copies even before its official launch on May 17.
How does she do it? Here are four tips O’Connor uses to plan her parties.
Have Good Entertainment Options
There are only so many people that a consummate hostess can touch base with, and though O’Connor demonstrates a remarkable memory for names, birthdays, and anniversaries, having some lively entertainment options are always a great way to keep the party going.
But who wants to see a bawdy cover band when you could have a legion of strapping bodybuilders slinking through the crowd?
For O’Connor’s first ladies Christmas party in 2008, a friend floated the idea of having a male stripper perform. At $1,200 for a five minute performance, O’Connor grimly affirms that the Russian male model was an expensive overhead. Word must’ve gotten around, though, because at the next year’s fundraiser, the crowd grew — and so did their donation pot.
From 2008 to 2018, O’Connor would choose a different charity to sponsor at her yearly ladies’ Christmas party, usually women-related associations, such as womens shelters, DaySpring and Project Pari.
There’s also something that inspires guests to reach into their pockets when a shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch model presents you with a plate of hors d’oeuvres and a gleaming smile.
“Bully” Your Friends
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the stressors of planning a big gathering, there’s nothing more comforting than the support of your closest friends. The extra pairs of hands are always helpful, especially if they happen to be experts at ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement.
“Through our charity work, we’ve met so many people that offer to help — it’s amazing,” says O’Connor, who counts her friends amongst her closest supporters.
She says: “No matter what I’m coming up with for charity, my friends will go — ‘Okay, I want one’.”
‘One’ in this case can range from a wide variety of O’Connor’s charitable offerings — be it a 160ml bottle of her homemade jam (each of the two delectable flavours will set you back $68 a pop), or one of O’Connor’s highly coveted ten-course dinner parties (which have auctioned for up to $15,000 for charity in the past).
O’Connor jokingly admits to “bullying” her friends into supporting her projects, and credits them for helping Open Kitchen to sell out even before its official release — though it’s hard to imagine the genteel woman bullying anything other than a slab of pork belly.
Always Be Ready To Feed A Large Crowd
Scenario: A friend turns up to a Chinese New Year gathering with a glorious, 5-kilogram salmon—a pity to segment, but a pain to squeeze into a regular-sized oven.
When life delivered O’Connor said mammoth salmon, she decided she’d sous vide in the biggest machine she had around: Her dishwasher.
“You season it with herbs, wine, then wrap it with heavy-duty tin foil twice to make sure the water doesn’t get in. Then you set the dishwashers to two cycles and pop it in,” she says with the casual confidence of a seasoned chef.
It wasn’t always that way, though: Her mother was a prolific chef—the best chef in their village in Hong Kong—but according to her husband, O’Connor’s signature dish used to be the cryptic ‘chicken ding’.
“Its what Terry would call my microwave chicken dinners. I’d pop one in the oven and it would go, ‘ding’!” O’Connor laughs.
Above All, Do It From The Heart
What O’Connor did get from her mother was the latter’s big heart.
“I love to take care of people—I think it’s my mum’s influence,” she says.
In their village in Hong Kong, O’Connor’s mother owned a piece of land where she grew her own produce, a luxury at the time. And in the large courtyard of that seaside home, O’Connor’s mother would play host to village dinners all through summertime.
O’Connor acknowledges that she leads a charmed life in Singapore: A “big bubble”, as she calls it.
“Charity isn’t just about hosting big parties. It isn’t about taking pictures and handing over big cheques,” she says. “Helping people around you with little things, that’s doing good, too.”
O’Connor’s epiphyllum plant, the gorgeous flower featured in Crazy Rich Asians which she’s cared for with characteristic tenderness, blooms tonight. She’s having a few friends over for an intimate gathering — after all, when there’s something beautiful in her life, O’Connor just wants to share it with people.