Image: Evan Sigmund

If you’ve been to a party catered by Michael’s on East in the past 25 years, you’ve met catering captain Tracey McCammack. With a black apron, a broad smile and her hair pulled up in a saucy topknot, McCammack estimates she’s worked some 5,000 parties for Michael’s—from cozy family gatherings to black-tie galas for 500. Planning is paramount, and she resolutely recommends hiring a professional party planner for those larger-than-life events. But for the intimate home dinner parties and milestone celebrations—anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and more (her favorites, by the way, because they’re often filled with “magic moments”)—she offers us some hard-earned advice on how to make your party magic.  

It starts at the front door. “How you’re welcomed into a party is important,” says McCammack. “It’s that old standard: how people greet their guests sets a gracious tone.”

Break it up. “Seating arrangements is a huge issue, who is going to be sitting next to whom. It can make for a great night, or a boring one. Split up that younger generation hooked to their phones. If you seat them next to people in their 40s and 50s you can get them engaged.”

Set the stage. “Make sure the party space is not too crowded by removing the right things from the room. The table settings are extremely important. Dress your table with your finest things. I catered a party where someone put Versace china on the table and I thought I was going to faint; it was so cool the guests didn’t even pay attention to what they were eating. And you just have to have gorgeous flowers. It’s the final touch that sets the table off.  Choose flowers that complement what you’re having for dinner.”

Plan the menu carefully. “Food is love; it’s the biggest gift you can give someone. Share a time-honored recipe; think through your guests’ [dietary] needs.”

Be thoughtful. “Some of the coolest recent things I’ve seen are hostesses who offer a beautifully wrapped gift for people to take home—boxes of a favorite chocolate or nice candles. Sometimes at a small party, instead of asking for a gift they have a jar and collect donations for a favorite charity.”

Keep the party energy going. “Pouring the right amount of drinks keeps the party going, of course, but so does the hostess who stays engaged and comfortable. When your guests finish dinner, that’s the time for the hostess to circulate. It’s nice, too, to have a friend as a back-up person to keep the conversation going—a lot of husbands are quiet, but if you go up and engage them, they will talk.”

My worst fear? “Micromanagers. Once the guests arrive, go with the flow. If you’re worrying about all the nitpicking details, everyone picks up on your vibe.”

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