How To Gather: The Art of Hosting Great Gatherings

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In this interview we speak with Sarah DeNardi about her insights and tips on hosting great gatherings based on the principles of Priya Parker's book, 'The Art of Gathering'. 

We sat down with the stylist, chef, and long lunch aficionado behind our Mango Pale Ale photoshoot, Sarah DeNardi

Sarah has worked with many of the cuisine brands you know and love, frequents our beautiful Northern Rivers area, and to put it simply, she's a flat out epic chef.

In this interview we speak with Sarah about her insights and tips on hosting great gatherings based on the principles of Priya Parker's book, 'The Art of Gathering'. 

In, 'The Art of Gathering,' Priya Parker delves into the transformative power of purposeful gatherings, offering ideas on being a good host to elevate both individuals and communities. According to Parker, the crux of any successful gathering lies in articulating its purpose, the 'Why' behind the meeting. She emphasizes that the purpose is not merely an inspirational concept but a practical tool, a filter, guiding decisions, both significant and minute. In Parker's words, "The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial." She likens the purpose to a "bouncer," a discerning guide ensuring decisions align with the event's essence. With a clear purpose, gatherings transform from mundane to meaningful, providing a sense of direction and aiding in achieving the ultimate goal, whether it's fostering quality time with friends or pursuing a specific objective.

Alright, let's get into how to be a good host!

How To Host A Great Gathering – Stone & Wood Mango Pale Ale

Sarah, how do you define the purpose of a long summer lunch, and how does that guide your decisions in terms of styling, menu, and overall ambiance?

For me a long summer lunch immediately evokes two things – a sense of occasion and leisure – while those two things don’t always go hand in hand, in this context they’re a perfect fit.

I agree with Priya on defining the ‘why’- the purpose becomes my blueprint – a narrative, it helps guide my decisions and in a world of endless inspiration, helps me focus on the goal.

Often my starting point is the simplest desire to explore a specific recipe or ingredient and that is enough to define the purpose.

I look at each gathering in layers (menu, guests, styling, ambience, and environment) to be considered separately but experienced together, and I always plan with a mindset to not put on a show but create a shared experience.

I recommend a three-word approach to keep you grounded. Mine are Simplicity. Connection. Deliciousness. I use them like a mantra, they underscore my ‘why’ and keep me on task.

In your experience, what elements contribute to creating meaningful connections among guests during a gathering, particularly in an outdoor setting?

In an outdoor setting, comfort is paramount. Consider elements like sun, wind, temperature, and unwelcome guests (hopefully only insects), making sure everyone is physically comfortable lays the foundation for meaningful interactions.

Next on the comfort scale is who sits with who. The benefits of employing a strategic seating plan, unless among a close-knit group, cannot be overstated. My goal is always to create an environment where guests feel at ease to connect. Creating a diverse yet harmonious mix of guests can be as simple as grouping those guests with a shared interest, a love of reading, film, sport, travel, food- whatever.

Prawns and Stone & Wood Mango Pale Ale, Summer Long Lunch Essentials

How do you approach invitations to ensure inclusivity and diverse perspectives, fostering a richer experience for everyone at the table?

I think the key to inclusive invitations is focusing not on sameness, but again touching on shared qualities or interests. Inviting guests with a shared passion provides the safe harbour of common ground but within that there exists opinion and personal experience, which creates diversity and that can take the conversation in interesting directions. I also love including a range of ages which almost automatically adds dynamism and instantly diversifies perspectives.

It's not unlike casting a movie — distinct characters make for contrast, which creates a rich and entertaining storyline.

What strategies do you employ to encourage engaging conversations and meaningful interactions among guests throughout the long lunch?

I’m keen on the organic nature of things and have no desire to overly orchestrate occasions. Encouraging engaging conversations involves creating an environment that facilitates interaction. Thoughtful seating arrangements, a mix of familiar faces and newcomers, and even strategic icebreakers, like simple games (there are some hilarious at the table card games, or conversation cards, that contribute to a lively environment – great to deploy later in the afternoon – maybe before dessert) that can serve as catalysts for dynamic discussions and upbeat banter.

How To Host The Perfect Summer Long Lunch

How do you tailor the gathering experience to reflect the unique personalities and preferences of the guests, ensuring they feel seen and appreciated?

I pay attention to the little details. What are their interests? What makes them tick? It could be anything from a favourite colour to their most loved destination.
Incorporating those elements that resonate with their personalities—maybe it's a certain type of music playing, or a themed decoration that reflects their style. Small, thoughtful touches go a long way to making each guest feel acknowledged and valued.

Personalising the gathering experience is like producing a great playlist—it's all about curating a vibe that resonates with each guest, incorporating something familiar and something new.

The menu is another canvas. If I know someone is a foodie, I make sure to include a variety of flavours and maybe even throw in a surprise dish related to their favourite cuisine. And, of course, I keep an eye out for dietary preferences or restrictions to ensure everyone has something delightful on their plate.

During the afternoon, I keep an eye on dynamics. If someone loves to be in the centre of the action, I make sure they're part of the lively conversations. On the flip side, if someone enjoys quieter moments, I create spaces for them to retreat and relax.

In essence, it's about weaving together an experience that feels tailor-made for each person. When guests leave feeling not just attended to but genuinely understood, that's when I know I've hit the sweet spot of personalised perfection.

Are there specific rituals or traditions you incorporate into your long summer lunches to create a sense of continuity and connection among guests?

I don't have specific rituals as each gathering is unique, but one thing I will often do is delegate some last-minute prep. It’s a great ice breaker and lets guests contribute and feel part of the experience. I keep it simple and align tasks with individual strengths.

Tips For Hosting A Great Long Lunch with Stone & Wood Mango Pale Ale

What is your approach to balancing a structured agenda with moments of spontaneity to keep the gathering dynamic and engaging?

Balancing a structured agenda with spontaneity involves treating it like acts in a play. Each act has a different objective, but the overarching story—the essence of the gathering—remains constant. Having a plan but allowing it to unfold organically and set its own momentum is key.

Ultimately, it's a dance between planning and intuition, ensuring that each guest leaves not just satisfied but with a sense that their unique presence added something special to the day.

Group of three women admiring their pavlova

Looking back at your experiences, can you share a specific instance where you felt a gathering was particularly successful, and what insights or lessons did you gain from that experience?

No one occasion stands out – I take mental notes and have a quick post gathering debrief with myself, harvesting the bits of each event that resonate- and store them away until required.

Ultimately, successful events, like so many things in life rely on some sort of magical alchemy – a cosmic balancing act between spontaneity and planning.

It’s good to understand you can contribute to the magic but not necessarily predetermine the outcome.

I guess the repeat take-aways are;

  • Don’t be ridged
  • Be clever about your guest list
  • But don’t be too clever about the food
  • Embrace the interplay between structure and spontaneity

And remember...

Simplicity. Connection. Deliciousness.


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