The O'Toole Method For Perfect Parties

Melinda and Dennis O'Toole make entertaining special with good friends, unique touches and, of course, good food.


Recipe For Successful Entertaining

The perfect party is not just about amazing food served to contented guests in a comfortable atmosphere; it’s about all those components wrapped up in one package. Done well, it feels like a gift to everyone invited, crafted exclusively for their enjoyment. As a checklist, the O’Tooles consider each of the five senses in planning a memorable evening for their guests.

Great-tasting food is important. Unusual or rare ingredients says this is a dinner for special guests.Smell The kitchen aromas are primary, but don’t forget about secondary aromas such as fresh flowers or a fire burning in the fireplace.

When your home is in order, the candles lit, the lights dimmed, and the table beautifully set, it looks inviting and creates the promise of a wonderful evening.

Music in the background and sounds of conversation flowing as people move about keeps the evening lively and interesting.

A warm hug or handshake at the door can’t be replaced by anything else, but don’t underestimate how the weight of the crystal glasses or the softness of linens impact the mood.

Aromas drift from the kitchen, welcoming guests at the door with the smell of earthy herbs, roasting meat, heady spice blends brought to life over an open flame, and a wickedly rich chocolate-something fresh from the oven.

Dennis and Melinda O’Toole know that nothing heightens anticipation, or appetites, for dinner guests better than the promise of great food.

When friends are invited for dinner at the O’Tooles’ lovely, English Tudor-style Vermilion home, it’s always an experience carefully planned to stir all five senses. And the couple pulls it off with skill, style and surprisingly little stress.

For these two, the work of entertaining is a pleasurable chore that leads to an even greater pleasure.

“The whole point of entertaining is to be with your guests,” said Melinda, a warm and convivial personality. “As a host, you need to be able to enjoy your efforts, too.”

To put this into practice, they rely on techniques that quickly bring dinner to the table without taking a toll on the cook. The secret’s in the prep. The menu, whether it’s just appetizers and cocktails or a polished multicourse dinner, plays to the palate of the guests as well as how much time it demands from the host.

A senior partner in a busy Lorain County law practice, Dennis is the primary cook when company’s coming. And he operates with one objective: Keep it relaxed.

Rather than plan a menu days in advance, Dennis concentrates on finding guest-worthy choices among the freshest vegetables, meats or seafood on the day of the dinner. “Then it’s just a matter of letting my creative juices flow,” he says.

Beef tenderloin is a frequent selection for the main course. Dennis has mastered a high heat roasting method that yields reliable — and delicious — results. He enhances this rich cut of meat with unusual ingredients such as sweet vermouth.

When you’re invited to dinner at the O’Tooles, the menu moves with the venue. In the summer, appetizers and drinks are offered on the deck overlooking the Vermilion River bordering their property. Then it’s indoors for the main course, and out again after dinner to the fire pit for a glass of port and a sliver of Melinda’s dense chocolate truffle cake.

“Keeping the party moving gives guests something different to look at throughout the evening and helps feed the conversation,” says Melinda.

Melinda handles shopping and baking. But her strongest suit is orchestrating the little extras that round out the evening: table settings, music and seating arrangements. Her affection for the art of entertaining is expressed in her meticulous attention to detail.

“I love the fuss,” she says.

One charming example would be her “signature” linens. First-time guests are asked to sign their linen napkins before dinner. Later, Melinda embroiders the penciled signatures. At the next gathering, the napkins dress the table, announcing who has sat at this table before. It’s a clever “who’s who” of guests at the O’Toole home as well as a unique conversation starter.

Together, the O’Tooles have pulled off many seamless nights of entertaining, but admit to less-than-stellar moments. There’s the time Dennis told Melinda he planned to invite 25 guests over after a day of sailing. He promised that he would make all the food arrangements.

That day, the race died along with the wind and Dennis relayed this message to Melinda: “Coming home early. Pick up the food.”

No problem, but from where? Melinda’s frantic calls to several grocery stores eventually paid off. But when what seemed like a ton of uncooked chicken and sweet corn was wheeled out on a dolly, Melinda guessed that Dennis had forgotten to mention that the guest list had expanded. Seventy-five hungry visitors later, Melinda knew that the watermelon boat she prepared the day before would only stretch so far. So she fired up the grill, emptied the cupboards of anything that would fill a bowl, and smiled — a lot.

Luckily she’s the type who has her linens ironed and silver polished at-the-ready for moments like these.

Composed by nature and with a sharp and ready wit, Melinda’s able to field the curveballs that come a host’s way.

“The real sport of entertaining,” says the unflappable woman, “is not letting anyone know how much planning has been put into a party.”|!|

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