With dozens of relatives living in the Lower Mainland, Karen Dar Woon grew up in a family where it was normal to have 40 people gathered around the table for Christmas dinner. The enormous effort—and cost—involved in feeding so many mouths, however, didn’t turn her off the kitchen. In fact, quite the opposite happened: the Vancouver native started learning to cook by her mom’s side at the age of 10 and today works as a personal chef.
A combination of culinary talent and business savvy works wonders when it comes to holiday entertaining. The world might be bouncing back from the recent economic malaise—or so they say—but people are still feeling the pinch. And if company’s coming, festive cheer can quickly turn into financial worry. Dar Woon speaks with authority when she says it’s feasible to host on the cheap without looking cheap.
“It’s definitely possible to do gorgeous on a budget,” Dar Woon says by phone from her downtown home after finishing a pot of spicy red-pepper soup for a client. “The first rule is to plan ahead. It’s much easier to find cost-effective options when you have time to shop around”¦and make some items from scratch.”
The owner of Your Secret Chef admits that since becoming a mom—her kids are now 20 and 23—she hasn’t made Christmas dinner. (Her family has always been invited to relatives’ homes.) But every year she hosts a casual, intimate Christmas Eve gathering. The menu is soup and salad—a contrast to the big meal people gorge on the next day—and the party is a potluck.
“Asking guests to bring something is perfectly reasonable,” Dar Woon says. “It’s a great way to have a party and keep expenses down. And they don’t have to bring food: it could be beverages, décor, or dishes.”
Like her December 24 get-together, holiday functions don’t have to be the full-meal deal. The more innovative the better—and often the cheaper. Consider afternoon tea with finger food and sandwiches, Dar Woon suggests, or a French-bistro-themed fete from 5 to 7 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres. (She recommends using the Web site Evite to make the party parameters clear without looking tacky.)
If you’re bent on serving dinner, the trick to keeping costs down is being shrewd not just about the fixings themselves but about how they’re served.
“You can incorporate festive, high-end ingredients into the menu without using your whole budget,” Dar Woon explains. “Use high-end ingredients as a filling rather than as a main dish.”
Instead of crab legs and lobster tails, for instance, try an appetizer of lobster-and-crab-filled ravioli or serve a lobster bisque. Use caviar as a garnish—sprinkled on cream-cheese crostini, for example—instead of offering big spoonfuls of the stuff.
Follow those potentially pricey starters with a vegetable-based main course or a cassoulet—essentially sausage and beans with bread crumbs on top—to balance the budget, Dar Woon recommends. Serve such hearty meals in individual ramekins instead of from a large casserole dish to keep portions in check.
“You don’t need to have excess,” she says. “Guests, generally speaking, don’t want to be overserved alcohol or food. We’ve bought into this myth that more is better, that more of everything on the menu is better, or that more variety is better. I like to keep things simple.”
Vancouver native Pierre A. Lamielle agrees with the keep-it-simple credo, which he attributes to the late, great French chef Auguste Escoffier. Staying straightforward, argues Lamielle—who wrote and illustrated the new cookbook Kitchen Scraps (Whitecap, $29.95)—is good for the palate and the wallet.
“When you keep it simple, there’s no way to make mistakes,” says Lamielle in a phone interview from Calgary, where he now hangs his oven mitts. “When you nail it, you nail it. You don’t have to have 10 ingredients or imported herbs or hard-to-find leaves. Get a really good carrot and enjoy the carrotiness of it.”
For frugal festive entertaining, he suggests beet carpaccio served with horseradish, chives, and toasted hazelnuts. He’s also a fan of rutabagas. “They’re cheaper than potatoes, which are already super cheap,” he says. They’re also more forgiving, he explains—you can’t overcook them—and even tastier when mashed with butter.
Victoria’s Eric Akis, author of Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations: Seasonal Recipes for Festive Occasions (Whitecap, $24.95), also affirms that you can appeal to Champagne tastes on a beer budget.
Instead of buying a big bird for Christmas dinner, he says, consider a roast turkey loin. If you want to have a cheese board, keep portions reasonable—about 60 grams (two ounces) per person—and buy local.
“Try a Comox Camembert—it’s not as pricey as something imported, but it’s so good,” Akis says in a phone interview, adding that it’s a good idea to seek out the expert advice of specialty-shop staff and present them with your budget at the outset.
Talking to knowledgeable personnel at the liquor store is another way of avoiding overspending, Dar Woon says. If you’re too shy to tell someone your budget in person, do it over the phone.
“Alcohol seems to be where a lot of people get hung up on expense,” she notes. “A case of $20 wine is $240. A case of $15-wine is $180. That’s a difference of $60. Use that $60 for something else, like a beef tenderloin from Costco.
“There are perfectly serviceable wines in boxes,” she adds. “It works out to about $10 a bottle.”
Dar Woon also offers tips for decorating on a Scrooge-approved budget. She’s a regular at dollar, thrift, and secondhand stores. Instead of buying a bunch of flowers, she’ll pick up a used vase and fill it with clementines, limes, and cranberries, which can also be used as garnishes. Those types of shops are good for finding extra dishes as well.
“Step out of the part of your brain that says everything has to match. Get 12 or 20 different wine glasses at the thrift shop for $1 or $2 each.”
It all adds up to a gorgeously thrifty celebration.