Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hosting With The

Come Dine With Me Canada is both gross and grossly addictive. Five strangers throw dinner parties for each other, vying for a thousand bucks in cash and the title of best host. The entrants come from all walks of life, ranging from strippers to florists and from PR professionals and coffee shop owners, and their homes range from designer condos to fake-English cottages. They start as strangers, getting to know each other over the course of the five dinner parties, which comes with its own pitfalls. As we all know from watching other reality programming, the kind of personality that signs up for reality television can be sort of tough to handle, and Come Dine With Me Canada is no exception.

The combination of food, competition and bitchy strangers is kind of perfect. The talking-heads sections, when they interview the contestants individually, are contrasted with the group dynamic. Dishes that are praised to the host's face are trashed in private, and at the end of the night, each contestant rates the host on a scale of one to ten, taking into account the host's entertainments (one woman played the tuba for her guests, leading to barely-contained laughing fits at her expense), cooking chops, and all-over style. The host with the high peer-given marks takes home the cash and the bragging rights.

It's gross – all the disgusting behind-the-scenes mistakes are captured on camera, including entrees that make a pitstop on the kitchen floor and cat hair that gets mixed into the crab cakes. Hosts strive for originality in their presentation, so veal, lamb, and foie gras are prepared, testing guest's ethical commitments. Some folks refuse the dishes, leaving the hosts stranded with hungry, annoyed guests. The flip side is that some guests swallow their morals/taste buds along with the milk-fed veal, leaving them resentful and their hosts blissfully unaware...until the score comes in.

The W Network runs marathons on the weekend, subjecting viewers to the kind of television experience that sort of leaves you pinned to the couch. It's fun, because the contestants are Canadian and the houses that host the parties are scattered throughout the country's cities. It's low-impact reality TV: nobody is bouncing off padded piglets into chocolate "mud" water...although some of the desserts might be described as such.

it's fun to see all the different takes on what "a perfect dinner party" means. For some, the flavour of the evening comes not from what's on the plate, but what's in the mouth: a pithy bon mot is worth its weight in truffle oil. Promptness is key, with many hosts losing points for failing to bring out main courses before midnight. And homemade dishes are essential: cheating with store-bought or pre-mixed is deeply frowned upon. But it also comes from being a gracious host. People fail to engage with their guests, telling "jokes" that aren't funny and guzzling too much booze. And guests behave badly, storming off to smoke snooty cigarettes while the hosts fumble in the kitchen. The show doesn't have an element of sabotage, and guests rate their hosts with an degree of good humour, so rewards often are well-deserved and the host who places last has usually screwed up his evening to a monumental degree.

In a world where the old-fashioned dinner party is sort of on the wane - when's the last time you got invited for a formal sit-down occasion? - it's refreshing to see. Maybe I'm too young to really get invited to all these fancy dinner parties, because the ones I attend are usually some variation on the BYOB vegan potluck. While that's not a bad thing, there are only so many forkfuls of soy cheeze I can muster before I crave a hot dog. Maybe when I get older, my friends and I will start making enough money to be able to afford to dole out the cost of a dinner party - pour the wine, roast the beef, scoop the ice cream, and host the hell out of an evening.

Until then, I'll be taking pointers from these poor unfortunate souls: make sure to serve your guests in a timely fashion, make sure you don't get too drunk while you braise the carrots, and consider food allergies and preferences before you serve up the peanut-encrusted lamb. Moreover, a little graciousness goes a long way. Even if you're a prim-and-proper kind of fella, keeping a game face on when your guests start working blue is hosting with the most. Every dinner party has the element of surprise, be it the roast plopped unceremoniously on the floor or the guest who drinks too much shiraz and vomits in the credenza. Dealing with both with style and aplomb is the mark of a great host, and worth more than a stack of twenties any day of the week.

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