Hosting a dinner party for our visiting speaker was no piece of cake—but it was worth it


When my Ph.D. adviser recommended that I organize the dinner for a visiting speaker, I enthusiastically agreed. I was thinking of asking this scientist to be my postdoc adviser, and hosting would be a good way to get to know him. But restaurant dinners—the norm for visiting speakers—had always felt stuffy and overly formal to me. I couldn’t hear beyond my immediate neighbors, I couldn’t mingle, and I couldn’t linger for postdinner discussion. So I proposed an alternative: hosting dinner at my home. I reasoned that I could do the cooking and accommodate a larger group. Best of all, we would not have to worry about restaurant constraints. I had a month to prepare. Easy peasy.

But as the day approached, I worried that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. In addition to cleaning my house, grocery shopping, and preparing the meal, I was surprised to find that this simple but unconventional event required approval from 11 different university offices and departments. If I light candles, will I need to rent a fire extinguisher from the university’s environmental health and safety department? If I serve alcohol, will I check IDs at the door or in my living room? Will my minispeaker count as amplified sound? Our brilliant departmental administrator guided me through the paperwork. As for the rest of it, I was pretty much on my own.

After the speaker gave his seminar—an inspiring talk delivered to a packed house, laden with impressive data and visuals—I was convinced that his lab would be good for me academically. I rushed home to prepare dinner, eager to figure out whether he was someone I could work with and to make an impression as both a scientist and a host.

As the guests arrived, I was prepared with light snacks and drinks. But as I zipped between the living room and the kitchen—checking on the main dish, adjusting the music, and making sure that everyone had what they needed—I grew concerned that my hosting duties were keeping me from participating fully in the conversation. Would the speaker remember me in a positive light if I contacted him months later? Would my occasional comments be enough to leave an impression? If not, maybe he would notice that the flan had the perfect consistency, because I pressure cooked it for exactly 6 minutes in my flanera. That’s the sort of attention to detail that you want in a postdoc.

Hosting at home had indeed beaten the restaurant experience.

As the night went on long after restaurant staff would have booted us out, I became convinced that—despite the complications and stress—hosting at home had indeed beaten the restaurant experience. Yes, I may have slightly burned the bottom of the enchiladas, but no one seemed to mind. And if anyone didn’t like my heavy use of cilantro, well, they kept it to themselves.

Most important, it was a lively evening with people mingling informally, unrestricted by set seating. Everyone got a chance to chat with the speaker, which gave me the opportunity to see how he interacted with other students, his perspective on their research, and his general gestalt. Hosting a dinner party might not be for everyone. But in my case, getting to know this person was a top priority, and the effort was worth it.

Could I have had my cake and eaten it, too, hosting at home without having to scramble between hosting duties? I should have listened to my roommate’s advice: KISS, for “Keep it simple, stupid.” That means preparing the entire meal beforehand so that it requires only reheating before eating. For drinks, stick to beer and wine, not cocktails. As for ambiance, set it and forget it: Just put a playlist on low in the background.

And what ever happened with that visiting speaker? I’ve just started a postdoc in his lab, so he must have liked something about that evening. Maybe it was my savvy discussion of science. More likely, it was the flan, because I just found out that he hates cilantro.

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