Paula LeDuc’s Party Planning Guide
Tips for hosting the perfect holiday gathering, girls’ night in, and New Year’s Eve bash.
Paula LeDuc, the East Bay’s event planner to the stars, knows her way around a party. Here, she shares her tips and tricks for three special occasions—the family holiday party, girls night in, and New Year’s Eve—to help you throw a soiree that looks elegant yet effortless.
Some parties can only be pulled off by Paula LeDuc.
Her Emeryville-based company, Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, has hosted everything from a lavish corporate event in an NFL stadium to a U.S. Open golf tournament to star-studded Hollywood premieres.
LeDuc and her team have cooked for presidents and princes, and she is an authoritative catering voice on a nationwide scale: Her work is regularly featured in Martha Stewart Weddings, among other publications.
So what makes a LeDuc party so special? And how can you create that magic on your own? Diablo talked to LeDuc to find out.
Q: When planning a fabulous dinner party, where do you start?
A: I know we’re talking about a dinner party, but I don’t start with the menu. Sometimes, the menu is one of the last decisions I make.
Before that, I consider several factors: the season, the occasion, the focus of the event, and the food preferences of the guests or honoree, if there is one.
Then, I think about the number of guests attending and the style of the menu. If it’s a larger group, it’s often easier to do a buffet. If it’s a smaller group, it’s easier to manage a formal sit-down with a few courses.
Q: How do you decide what to serve?
A: A really critical factor is the time the host will be away from the guests. I love to cook, I love to entertain, and personally, I love to be in the kitchen cooking and serving. But that’s too much time spent away from the guests, so I plan my menus so that everything isn’t à la minute.
Other factors to consider are whether it’s inside or outside—and the whole gestalt of the menu. Then, the fun really begins. I can determine if there’s a theme and send the invitation. I think the party begins when the invitation arrives.
Q: What about beverages?
A: Classic celebrations call for bubbles. Kick things off with sparkling wine. It can be a Prosecco or something similar; it doesn’t have to be champagne.
When in doubt, follow classic pairings. If it’s a Southwest theme or Mexican-inspired [event]—with handmade tamales or something along those lines—margaritas and Mexican beer are clearly the appropriate pairing.
If you’re going to do an outdoor party, with stations of food, it’s really fun to offer a different wine at each station.
Q: What if you don’t know much about pairing wine?
A: Get the advice of a wine merchant: There are very talented people who will make suggestions for you.
If you know you’ll have a lot of wine club members coming, I would focus on something a little more esoteric—something that they may not know. When I have wine friends over, I want to do something that’s off the beaten path so that they’re having a unique experience.
And if you are doing food and wine stations, and don’t have someone at each station serving the wine, provide notes about the wine for guests.
Q: That’s a fun idea.
A: You can also send guests home with a personalized menu. More and more these days, people like to know what they’re eating. And that personalized menu can serve as a nice memory of the event.
Q: How do you gracefully respond when a guest brings an unexpected bottle of wine?
A: One response is, “How sweet of you. Now come on in, and let me get you a drink. We’re offering a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir, or a specialty cocktail, unless you prefer that we open this now for you.” It opens the door perfectly: You can tell by their response if they want you to open it because it’s what they prefer to drink.
Or maybe they brought it to be shared for the evening. In that case, I don’t always open it at dinner unless I’m doing a buffet and there are multiple options. I may put it in the cellar and offer it later. And if I do open it, I let my guests know that this bottle was provided by that guest because it’s all about the guests.
Sometimes, if the wine they bring is precious—and I know it’s an extraordinary wine that they brought from their cellar or to say thank-you in a major way—I will invite them back to dinner and put food to that wine, and serve it then.
No matter what, it’s important to show interest in the bottle and where it came from, and to ask why they like it. You’ll find out if it’s meant to be served that evening.
Q: What if the party calls for cocktails?
A: If you’re going to have cocktails, you can have the beverages and the recipe out on a table, and guests can make their own. I have no problem with people having an open bar.
But my preference is to make a specialty cocktail that I can batch in advance, and then have someone help serve it. It’s a little less complicated. I name the specialty cocktail, too, based on the people there and the occasion. It personalizes the experience.
Q: Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. What do you do the night before the party?
A: Before I go to bed, I make sure all the decor is done. The house is clean. The lighting is set. I lay the fire, if there’s going to be a fire. Beverages are in the refrigerator chilling, and the rest are selected and out, ready to be opened.
The table is always set: The plates are clean; the glasses are clean; the napkins are pressed. I do all of the place cards and make sure the seating is the way I want it, so that guests are mixing and the energy is good.
Q: Do you do any food prep?
A: The night before, I make sure all the ingredients that will not perish are prepared. I do the chopping—all of my onions, shallots, garlic. Not the herbs—because they’ll discolor—but [I prep] stocks, base sauces. Then, I can begin to cook the day of the party and not feel like I have to do all the preparation.
If it’s a one-dish entrée that needs to be made ahead of time, I do it the day before and stick it in the fridge, then pop it in the oven the next day. The flavors can improve overnight.
My advice to others is to prep as many ingredients as you can the day before so that the morning of the party, your stress level is as low as possible. Then, you can really enjoy and anticipate the afternoon or evening without feeling like your guests are there, and you’re still blow-drying your hair. Nobody likes that feeling.
Q: How do you stay organized?
A: I have a punch list that is down to the item, and I look at it all day long.
No detail is too small to put on that list. I write down, Chop parsley. Zest lemon. Squeeze citrus juices. Then, I put them in containers, ready to go.
Before every party, before I retire for the evening, I sit quietly by myself and go through the entire list with a nice glass of wine, to make sure I’m setting myself up for success. If I feel it’s not going well, I stay up a little later.
Q: When do you ask for help?
A: I usually hire someone to do the dishes for a big party; for a small get together, I'll stack plates to be washed later. Even when I have friends over, and it’s fun-loving and casual, I still never let a guest do a dish at my house. It breaks the energy if you’re getting up and scraping and rinsing dishes. As a matter of fact, it’s banned: You cannot go into my kitchen to clean.
If it’s a complicated menu, I’ll hire someone to help me finish the cooking or serve courses. I don’t get up between courses anymore. I used to do that, until my husband told me it was awkward to have me away from my spot at the table so much. So I stopped doing that. I don’t want to be away from the table; the occasion is too important.
Q: What is your advice for hiring help?
A: Have them come early enough so that they understand your expectations. Set the tone, and tell them how you like it. I walk my staff through my expectations for the evening while they take notes, which they keep by their side. You can’t communicate enough if you’re hiring somebody.
Also, when they arrive is important. Get dressed before they come, or have them come early enough so that by the time you go get dressed, they’re off and running.
Q: And then it’s party time! But sometimes, gatherings are more spur of the moment. What do you always have on hand in your home?
A: I have a garden with an abundance of figs and tomatoes. I make a fig jam, a tomato jam, and a tomato sauce every season, and then I can them or put them in the freezer. I always have crackers because I usually use my jams on a beautiful cheese.
There’s also always an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden. I always have pesto on hand because I have a lot of basil. I will often quickly season raw almonds with rosemary from the garden.
Because I’m Italian, occasionally, I’ll make batches of gnocchi because they freeze beautifully. I also always have polenta, in case I need a spur-of-the-moment dinner. I always have really good Italian dried pasta.
Q: And to drink?
A: I always have wine. And I make sure there’s always ice in the freezer because it runs out quickly when making drinks.
Q: And for dessert?
A: I always have cookies in the freezer—cookies that I can slice and bake. That’s my quick dessert. I don’t freeze sweets other than a cookie that I can bake to order.
I usually have ice cream, too. My new favorite is Double 8 Dairy buffalo milk gelato. Sometimes, I do a sauté of fresh fruit. If I have a few currants or dried cranberries, I’ll make a quick simple syrup.
Q: You make it all sound so easy. What inspires you?
A: I have learned from my family that the most important thing we have is our relationships with people.
For me, it’s about creating the most heartfelt and generous expression of my soul. I put my heart into my food. It’s about the preparation of it, the anticipation of it, and how it culminates in the guests’ experiences.
When it comes down to it, it’s really about good food around a table and sharing great conversations, and allowing people to meet one another and enjoy the depth of who we are.
That’s why I do it; it’s why I live today. It fills me up.
For menus, full recipes, and other tips from LeDuc, scroll down.
“Holidays at my house are family affairs,” says LeDuc. “There’s always a conversation about what we’re grateful for and how happy we are to be around the table. It’s intimate and personal, and the evening is special.”
“I change up my holiday decor every year, and my table is an extension of that decor. Sometimes, I’ll use pomegranates, pine cones, and bay tree branches on the table.”
“It’s generally festive holiday music, with some jazz and R&B mixed in—not just Frank Sinatra.”
“It’s always about customizing the occasion to the holiday and season. I’ve shaved fresh winter truffles over pasta at the table. I do it right under guests’ noses to create a sensory memory. People still talk about it.”
2. Girls Night In
“Girls night is all about heartfelt conversation, good food, and the environment. Sometimes, I will invite old and new friends that I want to meet each other. Or if I’m having my besties over for a sleepover—which I love to do—it’s about snuggling up to a movie or talking about a book we’ve all just read.”
“I use whatever is in my garden. For six months, we’ve had roses. At nighttime, it’s candles. On the table, it’s platters of food with some bottles of wine, and some water and great bread.”
“It depends on the gals and the focus of the evening. If I have a really spiritual group, I will put on music that I collect for when I’m practicing yoga. Generally, I prefer music that is energizing but not wild, and that builds from more energetic to less. Or it could go the other way; it depends on how much we’re drinking.”
“I might send them home with something to remember the night: sachets I made with lavender from my garden or a bottle of homemade balsamic vinegar.”
3. New Year’s Eve
“In our family, New Year’s Eve is collaborative. We rent cabins and prepare food at our houses, then gather at one house to finish cooking together. We always take time to talk about what we’re grateful for from the year past, not what we’re looking forward to. It’s heartfelt and reminds us of what we all are.”
“Because we’re candle nuts, everybody brings candles or something sparkly for the table. Sometimes, we bring our own china or napkins. Each person brings what’s important to
him or her.”
“People bring their own music, so everyone’s music is on the playlist. We also sometimes do a hidden-talent show. It could be a poetry reading, music performance, or skit that the kids put on. It’s really wacky and very fun.”
“It’s fun to allow people to make their own little something, like a certain cocktail. Put all the ingredients out with menus. It’s playful and creative.”
Roasted beef tenderloin with roasted vegetables, parsley butter and horseradish
1 4lb tenderloin tied (your butcher will be happy to helpJ) seasoned with salt, pepper
4 Tbs grapeseed oil
Horseradish crème fraîche
1cup crème fraîche
2 Tbs horseradish (more or less depending on your sense of adventure)
½ cup parsley juice
½ cup clarified butter
- Combine parsley juice and warm clarified butter in a blender and process for 1 minute.
- Pour into a small pot and bring up to the boil.
- Refrigerate until butter separates from the juice and becomes solid.
- Remove the butter ‘disc’ and reserve.
¼ cup parsley butter
5 carrots – cut in thick rings (cooked in salted water and chilled)
1lb purple Peruvian potatoes (cooked in salted water and chilled)
1lb creamer potatoes (cooked in salted water and chilled)
1lb crimini mushrooms (some whole some halved some quartered)
1lb cippolini onions (peeled, roasted and cooled)
2 sprigs tarragon (leaves only)
- Preheat oven to 425° and place empty casserole dish in the oven. You will end up putting the beef and veggies in this later.
- You want to get a nice sear all around your tenderloin. This can create a good amount of smoke. I like to do this on my grill. I have a cast iron griddle pan that I heat up on my grill for such preparations.
- Once you have achieved a deep brown (not black) sear on your beef set it aside for a moment.
- Drizzle about 2 tbs of the parsley butter in the hot casserole dish. Immediately add the tenderloin. Add the prepped vegetables around the beef and place everything in the oven.
- Roast until a meat thermometer reads 125°.
- Carefully remove casserole dish and place on a trivet to allow the meat to rest for 10 minutes.
- Once rested, remove the tenderloin to a cutting board.
- Meanwhile toss the vegetables in the remaining parsley butter and herbs and season with salt and pepper.
- Slice the tenderloin and arrange the vegetables around it and top with dollops of horseradish crème fraîche or serve on the side.
Chocolate Pine Cone
Yield: approximately 10 ea 4 oz cakes
First bake the chocolate cakes and allow to cool. Trim the cakes to be a pine cone shape.
Then glaze the cakes and allow glaze to set at room temperature.
Then apply the pine cone petals, dust with chocolate and garnish with candied cranberries, herbs.
1 ½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup and 1tablespoon cocoa powder
1 ½ cup water
2 large eggs
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ¾ cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
- Bring water to a boil. Mix in baking soda. Set aside.
- Combine cocoa and sugar in electric mixing bowl. Add boiling water. Mix thoroughly.
- Add oil, eggs, and vanilla. Whip to thoroughly incorporate.
- Sift dry ingredients together. Add half at a time until incorporated. Scrape down and whip 30 seconds.
- Pour into oval or round 4 oz molds and bake immediately at 325 degree oven for approximately 15 minutes.
- Test with pick.
4 oz Heavy cream
4 oz Chocolate
- Bring cream to simmer. Stir in chocolate.
- Remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature before using.
Melt and temper chocolate. The use a spoon to make petals on a sheet of acetate. Hold in the refrigerator to make handling easier.
Autumn Old Fashioned
Glass - double old fashioned, with a 2x2 ice cube Method - stir & strain Garnish - amarena cherry
1 oz. Applejack
1 oz. Bourbon
.5 oz. Maple-Apple Syrup*
2 healthy dashes Five Spice Bitters**
*cover 2 cups of apple peels with water
Bring to a boil
Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes
Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste, stir to incorporate Strain through a fine mesh strainer, pushing down on the peels to extract as much liquid (and flavor) as possible Mix with an equal amount of Grade B Maple Syrup for a 1:1 syrup
**We love to use a local product called BitterQueens Chinese Five Spice bitters
Girls glitz marinated Dungeness crab, butternut coulis, pickled apple, pepper-jelly, red oak and frisée
1lb marinated crab
1cup butternut coulis
¼ cup pepper-jelly (available in specialty food stores)
32 slices pickled apple
¼ lb red oak
1 head frisee
1lb picked crab meat
1 lemon zested
1Tbs lemon-thyme leaves
2Tbs orange oil
2Tbs chopped chervil
- Combine all and season with salt and pepper.
6oz butternut squash (peeled, steamed, cooled and pureed)
6oz julienne yellow onion
½ cup carrot juice
2Tbs lemon juice
- Caramelize onion in butter.
- Add butternut puree and carrot juice.
- Bring to a boil.
- Remove from heat, strain and add lemon juice and salt to taste.
14oz apple cider vinegar (good stuff!)
2oz granulated sugar
1tsp kosher salt
1tsp black peppercorns
1tsp coriander seeds
1-2 granny smith apples
- Combine first 6 ingredients in a small pot. Bring to a boil. Cool.
- Cut apples in half and remove core. Slice thin.
- Place in small container, cover with pickling liquid and place lid on tightly.
- Give a little shake and place in the refrigerator overnight. Make sure the apples are submerged.
- Drizzle butternut coulis and pepper-jelly around plate.
- Lightly dress the greens with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and add to plate.
- Place pickled apple about.
- Top with marinated crab.
Saffron Poached Pear and Cranberry Trifle
Yield: 8 2 oz shot glasses
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
½ cup orange juice
½ cup white wine
A pinch of saffron
Put all ingredients, except the pears into a pot and bring to simmer. Peel, core and cut the pears in quarters. Place them into the poaching liquid and keep them just below simmer until tender. Cool them in the liquid for at least 4 hours, or overnight to get the best color. Drain the pears and cut into small dice.
½ cup fresh cranberries
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
Zest of half a lemon
Put all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat when you cranberries start popping. Chill before using.
1 cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ tablespoon confectioner’s sugar
Whipped to soft peak
½ cup purchased graham cracker crumbs
Layer into glass: vanilla whipped cream, poached pear, cranberry compote, graham cracker crumbs, and top with more whipped cream. Garnish with lime segments
Il Nostro Sour
glass - small coupe
method - dry shake without ice to froth; add ice, shake and fine-strain
garnish – angostura bitters design in foam (using eye droppers); multi-colored edible flower petals
1.5 oz. Pisco
.5 oz. Slivovitz
.5 oz. Apricot Liqueur
.75 oz. fresh Lime Juice
.75 oz. bar syrup
.5 oz. fresh egg white
New Year’s Eve sunny side quail egg, caviar, brioche, basil butter
16 quail eggs
1oz caviar (choose according to your budgetJ)
4Tbs basil butter
16 brioche crostini
(it’s hard to make a little so make a lot and freeze what you do not use)
1lb unsalted butter
2 bunch basil
- Cut butter into small pieces and bring to room temperature.
- Bring water to the boil. Submerge 1 bunch basil for 7 seconds and immediately transfer to ice water to cool.
- Squeeze water from basil and rough chop.
- Add to mortar and pestle with the other bunch of chopped, raw basil.
- Process into a paste.
- Transfer paste and butter to a mixer with a paddle attachment and whip until well combined.
- Using a metal ring cutter, cut 4 circles out of each slice of bread.
- Place on a sheet tray and toast in 350° oven until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
- In a nonstick pan with a little butter, crack a few quail eggs being careful not to break the yolk.
- Once the white is cooked and the yolk barely set, remove from pan and season with salt and pepper.
- Using a metal ring cutter, cut the eggs to the same size as the crostini.
- Spread basil butter on crostini, top with egg and caviar.
Blackberries in Sauternes Gelee with Lemon Panna Cotta
Lemon Panna Cotta
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin bloomed in 2 tablespoons cold water
- Combine all ingredients except the bloomed gelatin in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Remove from heat and add the bloomed gelatin to the saucepan. Stir to melt gelatin.
- Strain liquid and allow to cool to room temperature.
- Pour divide this mixture evenly amongst the glasses. Refrigerate until almost all set, about one hour.
- Keep the balance at room temperature.
- While panna cotta is setting prepare sauternes gelee below.
1 cup sauternes
¼ cup granulated sugar
Juice of half of a lemon
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin bloomed in 2 tablespoons of cold water
8 to 10 fresh blackberries
- Combine the sauternes, sugar and lemon juice, bring to a simmer.
- Remove from heat and add bloomed gelatin to the saucepan. Stir to melt gelatin.
0.75 oz Pavan Liquor
.25 oz. fresh lemon juice
6 oz sparkling wine
splash of hibiscus liquor
rim half of a coupe glass with gold sugar.
add ingredients into a mixing glass and lightly stir.
pour into rimmed glass.