How to Be Useful in Someone Else's Kitchen
Being a good guest can be as simple as clearing out of the kitchen
It’s 1 p.m. on a Sunday. Hosts pull soaked casseroles out of ovens; partners answer doors and run coats to closets and beds; orange juice offers champagne some color and coffee brews on the counter. It’s brunch time in America. If you’re like me, once through the threshold, the handwringing begins: How I can help? Am I in the way? Does asking how to help add to a host’s mental load? How can I be useful in someone else’s kitchen? But these questions arise not only at brunch, but also at Midwestern open houses and swanky dinners.
Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert, author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, and Deb Perelman, author of the forthcoming Smitten Kitchen Every Day, set me straight.
Ask how you can help
“You’re just showing your host your gratitude. It’s just the polite thing to do. Your host may or may not accept,” Gottsman said. And whatever the host says goes. If they wave you off, return to the party and mingle. If they ask you to chop tomatoes, chop tomatoes. “A good guest makes the host comfortable,” Gottsman said.
Whether stirring timed dishes that need to sit (Gottsman’s) or throwing out stock thinking it’s dirty water (Perelman’s), well-meaning guests can make meals worse with good intentions. And as for unsolicited culinary advice? Swallow your opinion with a bite of quiche.
Make allergies or dietary needs known when you RSVP
Gottsman said to offer to bring a dish that fits your requirements to share, though many hosts may well change the menu. Perelman would. “I would definitely want to know—and uninvite you. I’m just kidding.”
Perelman said sweet or savory, most brunch foods tend toward dairy and eggs. Keeping quiet can prove costly. “If you didn’t eat dairy, you could easily show up to brunch and have nothing to eat,” Perelman said.
Clean up—namely, clearing and cleaning dishes—is a safe bet
Perelman mentioned that almost every group has that odd person who enjoys doing the dishes. She recalled a friend’s husband who doubled-down on dish duty after she declined his initial offer. Perelman acquiesced. “It was the most organized, the most beautifully-Tetrised dishwasher I had ever seen. If you are that person, be that person.”
But ask, Gottsman emphasized. For instance, a host may have heirloom dishes that aren’t dishwasher-safe. Also nice: offering to take out trash or alerting the host to spills or shortages (such as soap or toilet paper).
Should I bring anything?
Perelman said she often “outsources” fresh fruit, a simple luxury that can save the host fridge space and an errand. Gottsman said to bring a gift for the hosts—not the group—for later (read: no chilled wine). Because of this, it needn’t be brunch-specific.
Gottsman’s “rule of thumb” is not to be the first or last to leave. To exit with grace, thank the host and gather your things. For close friends, follow up with a text (“#bestbrunchever!”) and send every host a thank you note, she said.
When in doubt …
Having a good time and including everyone is the best compliment, and the biggest help, to hosts. “I feel like when you’re a guest, you should be allowed to be a guest. … So let me luxuriate when I come over and you luxuriate when you come here. To me, that’s hospitality,” Perelman said.