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David Burtka on Entertaining

Image of David Burtka outside with a table

You’re probably thinking you’ve seen this handsome face before—and you’re right. David Burtka is a successful actor who’s appeared on TV shows including The West Wing and How I Met Your Mother, and in Broadway productions such as Gypsy and It Shoulda Been You. Then again, you might have seen him in a celebrity magazine like People, alongside his spouse, actor Neil Patrick Harris, and their twins, Gideon Scott and Harper Grace. Now, the spotlight is shining on David—who is also a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and former caterer—for a whole different reason: his first-ever cookbook, Life is a Party, has just been published. Organized by seasons, it’s full of step-by-step plans for hosting bashes at any time of year, for any crowd. As he explains, throwing a party isn’t as intimidating as it seems, and you’ll get even more out of it than you put in.

You could have written almost any kind of cookbook. What inspired you to write this particular one, about parties?

I just always love entertaining. I also feel like these days, with what’s going on in the world, with politics and the earth, and with the way people are acting, we have an obligation to get together with our loved ones, our friends and our families. Put down your phone. Get off social media and really spend some quality time together, some togetherness time. Because that’s all that life is about—spending it with family and friends and really celebrating the loved ones you have around you.

Why do you think people often don’t throw as many parties as they should?

I think people get intimidated. They feel like in order to throw a party, they have to do it all themselves—they have to make everything and spend a lot of money. But in the book I’m telling you that’s not the case. You could take a relaxed approach and source materials so you’re not having to do it all yourself. 

And you’re a fan of getting guests to help out, right?

One of the first things people do when they come over to someone’s house is they say, “What can I do?” I really think people love to be included. That way, they feel like they’re a part of something as opposed to just having someone wait on them hand and foot. I always feel bad when the host is running around and sweating and telling me not to do anything. I always feel like it’s better to say, “Hey, can you shake some cocktails?” or “Why don’t you fold those napkins?” or “Why don’t you help me in the kitchen? I need some herbs to be picked, or slice those carrots.” Everyone just ends up in the kitchen anyway!

How do you think your acting experience helped you be a better chef and host?

I really think that acting and being a chef are very much alike. With acting, you have to know your lines, you have to know your spaces, you have to know your dance steps, and then it’s show time and you let it all go. That’s the same with throwing a party. You need to know your recipes and you’ve got to be prepared the night before and know what you’re doing. And then once the party’s happening you kind of let it go and you have to have a good time too. I think we see so many people just running around and not having a good time at their party. Why even throw a party, why even have your friends over if you’re just going to be stressed and not have a good time?

You also ran your own catering company in LA for a time. How did your experience as a caterer inform your recipes and help shape your approach to parties?

I ended up seeing what people liked and responded to. I also found out what were easy recipes I could do that had a wow factor to them. So I was able to test things out. Having my catering company was a nice preview to what I’d like to do to show people how to throw parties.

What is your definition of a successful party?

Oh, I think it’s a couple of Fs: Food, Friends and Fun. Also, I think if you put a little bit of an extra touch to your party, if you make your guests feel extra special, then I think, in turn, they will have a better time. They’ll feel that extra specialness that you put into making them feel good. It doesn’t matter what it is, just in the little specificity. If there’s a little handcrafted thing on your table setting or a table topic on your table—I talk about these in the book—these little touches sort of elevate a party to a much greater party.

Has having children changed the way you throw parties?

Yes, in many ways. I have less time to put things together. [But] they can also help me get things ready and they love it. They really love to entertain, to help set the table or help me with dinner or decorating or time management. My son loves to be the errand boy. It’s also not so late of a night anymore. We’re not going until three o’clock in the morning, and then you’ve got to get up early. I do have adult parties and dinners and other things, but I do try to include the kids as much as I can. A lot of people just feel like, ‘”oh, there’s a kids’ table,” and they put out a crappy kids’ buffet where they’re just eating not-great food, but I don’t do that. I put the kids on a pedestal still.

What are your rules for planning seating arrangements?

Image of David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris

If you sleep together, you don’t sit together. I think it’s great because people get to know each other more. When you’re with your spouse or date, you tend to feel like you’re just talking to them the whole time. But I think it’s really important to get out there and talk to other people and get to know them. I also like to put the more interesting, more outgoing people in the middle because they draw the attention in, and then put the people who are more shy, or take a little bit more time to open up, on the sides or next to the host so they can feel safe.

What is Neil Patrick Harris’ favorite dish that you make?

There’s a lot of them. I think he really loves my bolognese, and he also likes my porcini-rubbed ribeye [page 83].  He also loves anything that has to do with green chile—he loves green chile nachos and green chile enchiladas. 

What might a typical family dinner be in your home?

It always seems to be different, whether it’s poultry, meat or fish. I sous vide things, meaning I cook them in a water bath, and freeze them. After this I’m actually figuring out what we’re going to have for dinner tonight. I tend to do meatless Mondays, so maybe we’ll do some sort of Moroccan rice thing with chickpeas because I have these chickpeas soaking right now. 

Why is summertime the best party-throwing season of all?

Oh my gosh, it’s because you get to go outside! So go out there, take along a picnic—there’s a whole summer picnic guide in my book that helps you learn what to bring and how to bring it. I think it’s really fun not to take the outside for granted and to enjoy this awesome weather that we’re having.  

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