One of the first things I learned in catering is that good organization is invaluable. I knew that I could make spectacular food, but if the rental company forgot to send forks, the whole evening was a disaster. It was my responsibility to be sure that every detail was perfect and that the flow of the party was seamless. Inevitably, there is always something to deal with -- the electricity goes out in the house, the band gets stuck in traffic -- but if you're organized you'll be able to deal with it and the guests will never know there was a crisis.
When I have parties at home, I literally take a page from my catering experience to organize everything. As a caterer, I had a notebook of blank forms where I would write all the information I needed for each party on one page. At home, I have a similar form with the date of the party, the hours, the guest list, the menu, the liquor and mixers, the service (if any), the table settings, plus any rentals I'll need.
A week before the party, I try out the table settings to be sure I have enough plates for everyone and the silver is polished, the napkins are pressed, and the glasses are sparkling clean. I'm more creative when I'm relaxed, so that's when I decide what flowers or fruit I want to order to make the table look gorgeous. Then I plan what platters I need for each dish on the menu, and I stick a Post-it note on each one. When dinner is hot and friends are coming to the table is not the time to come up one platter short.
My ultimate goal in planning is to be a guest at my own party. Even if the party is a summer picnic in canoes around the pond and it looks very informal, having a good plan can make the difference between total fun and total chaos. In the end, I keep these notebook pages as a record of parties I've given, not just for future reference but as a memory book of great times I've had with my friends.
Excerpted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! by Ina Garten Copyright 2001 by Ina Garten. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.