Party on!

How to throw a party right: an expert guide

To celebrate Wellington on a Plate’s 10th birthday the capital’s party experts have shared their tips on how to nail your next blowout. 

Throwing a party, whether for four people around the dinner table at home or for 40,000 people at a festival, is a complicated chess game. All the different pieces have to move into the right place at the right time. Somehow you need to toast the pine nuts without burning them at the same time as topping up guests’ wine; and you need to get the big US rap star a visa and on his flight to New Zealand.

But really there are three key things you need to party right, and the rest will fall into place: food, drink and music are universal tools for celebrating. Whether it’s a birth, death or marriage, a religious holiday, or a bumper harvest, these are the three things required to throw a humdinger of a hooley. But you need to get each piece right for the requirements of the different events. Despite my own preference, not everyone wants Beyoncé played at their funeral.

With Wellington on a Plate turning 10-years-old this year the festival is having a party to celebrate. And it goes for 17 days! (General tickets to the party go on sale Thursday 21 June at 12pm). The participating chefs, bartenders, restaurants, eateries, brewers and hosts have been challenged to imagine what a party means to them, and how best to celebrate the birthday.

To celebrate the occasion The Spinoff asked some of Wellington’s most experienced party experts about how to throw the perfect celebration. What to wear, what food to serve, what beer, wine, and cocktails to drink, how to manage a playlist and how to manage an artist, and how to make it really fucking fun. 

‘Cause we like to party.

Always have more food than you think you’ll need. And no bones.

Beth Brash – programme manager Visa Wellington On a Plate

Have pun with it: When freaking out about a party theme or what to cook, a good food pun is a great place to start. Ballad Salad (karaoke and salad?), Nug Life (All you can eat chicken nuggets?), Bhaji Smugglers (filling your undies with fried onion fritters?).

Eat and greetIf you’re throwing a dinner party where everyone doesn’t know each other, then go for a big long table and family style eating. Nothing brings people together like the simple act of sharing food.

Platters are overratedThere I said it. Same goes for grazing tables. They look good at first, but quickly turn into a trough of left over dried cranberries and celery sticks.

Low brow, high browHomemade versions of nostalgic treats and fast food are a sure-fire way to win over a crowd. They’ll all be gramming your Gucci versions of fairy bread, Big Macs, Kiwi onion dip and Burger Ring crusted chicken nuggets.

Go bonelessWhile chicken wings and ribs are delicious, they’re flawed. I once went to a party with big bowls of chicken nibbles and by the end of the night after all the chicken had been nibbled, there were disgusting piles of gnawed bones strewn across the table. Not cool. The only boning going on should be later and in private.

So let’s make that two rules – when it comes to tables no bones, and no boning.

If you put it out they will eat it: Food is a good way of curating the tone of the party; always have more food than you think you’ll need. The more people eat, the less wasted they’ll be, which means less skipping songs halfway through, less spilling red wine on your curtains, and less rummaging around in your freezer for some chicken nuggets.

Try something new: It’s easy to resort to dishes you know you’ll nail, but sometimes it’s nice to try something totally out of your comfort zone. Which falls into that “under promise, over deliver” adage too – tell them you have no idea what you’re doing, that you’ve never tried it before, and it will probably be terrible, so that when you nail it you’re practically guaranteed a standing ovation.

Give the people what they want: For the last three years I’ve curated the food at Beervana, and even though we had some of NZ’s top 100 restaurants serving some high end stuff, at the end of the day, when people are drinking sometimes they just want fries or a burger. That raw fish Thai curry was easily one of the most delicious thing I’ve tasted from a biodegradable bowl, but maybe it was lost on 14,000 punters chugging beer.

Beer: start light, amp it up, and have fun.

Kerry Gray – Choice Bros Beer

Long gone are the days of slabs of cheap lager and beer bongs… well, for most of us. You only have to attend Wellingtons biggest beer party, BEERVANA, to see how far this beverage has come, and how much fun it can be! Beer in New Zealand is now as diverse as the demographics consuming it, so expect your guests to know more than you think.

I like to offer a range of beers that change and evolve as the party gets amped up. Start light with Garage Project ‘Can Lah’ or ‘Bliss’ lager before moving onto something a bit hoppier like Parrot Dog ‘Falcon’ or Heyday’s ‘Space Cadet’.  Keep it sessionable and smashable.

If you are cooking food, or getting yummy takeaway like Pizza Pomodoro, match some beers to the food to really impress your guests and create a thoughtful experience. Try creating some beer cocktails such as a ‘Pipe Wrench’ with a fresh local IPA with a shot of gin, or a ‘Jean Genie’ by adding a shot of gin to Choice Bros ‘Strung Out On Lasers’ Raspberry & Lime Gose.

Finish off the evening with some winter warming dark beers? Make a float! A scoop of Kapiti Vanilla Bean ice cream in a rich stout tastes amazing, is super easy to do, and a great easy dessert option for a large party.

Breweries are popping up everywhere and most have a cellar door where you can buy the freshest latest releases. Impress your guests by grabbing the latest release from your neighbourhood brewery or finding the craziest sounding beer you can find such as Choice Bros ‘On the Brain’ Peanut Butter & Raspberry Ale.

Most importantly, beer is fun. It can be a feature at a party that is discussed whilst consuming it or beautifully curated aspect that is ever present, supporting the food and aiding in the dance moves.

Crayfish and Karaoke

Samuel Flynn Scott – The Spinoff’s Wellington food expert

Karaoke Dick! Basically if you go to a party where Karaoke Dick has his karaoke machine, it will be the best party of your life.

Get Al Brown to go diving for crayfish at your party. I once arrived at a staff party on the Wairarapa coast and as the bus pulled up Al surfaced from the waves in full diving gear with a cray in each hand, which we then BBQ’d with a glass of champagne to wash it down. Every party should have a diving Al.

Sophisticated! (Image: Anna Briggs Photography.)

Hosting a show: the right act, in the right space, make sure they show up.

Martyn Pepperell is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and DJ from Wellington.

My friend Catherine calls me Party Marty, which is hilarious to me, because I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a good house party, I’m not convinced about my skills with a potluck or dinner party, and I wouldn’t call myself that fun a lot of the time. However, and the however is very real here, I’ve put together some pretty good concerts and club nights in my time, and they’ve nearly always felt like a party. So how do you put on one of those?

First off, you need talent people really want to see play, and by that I mean, whoever is performing at your show needs to be able to draw in people who aren’t your friends, and more than that, people who don’t even know you at all. At the same time, you’ve got to understand the crowd demographic. How late will they want to be out? Are they able to have fun on a weeknight, or does it have to be on a weekend? What kind of venue will they be comfortable in? Are they going to want to sit through some local bands or DJs beforehand, or do you need to get right to it?

If you’ve got the right acts, present them in the right space and in the right way, you’ve already won one-third of the battle. The extent to which people will engage when you serve up something they really want to see and hear can be pretty inspiring. I say you’ve already won one-third of the battle because now you have to promote the whole thing and make sure they all turn up on the night. That’s another story, maybe for next time. Just trust, if you get it all right, you’ll be on a natural high for a couple of days afterward, and so will most of the people who partied with you. It’s all not the best for the nerves and the bank account, but sometimes it is. It’s a funny thing.   

Music: some do’s and lots of don’ts

Henry Oliver – The Spinoff Music Editor

  1. Think about what kind of vibe you want over the night. People aren’t going to turn up and just start dancing (or are they?) so you’re probably going to want something your friends can talk over.
  2. Don’t get too loud too early.
  3. Don’t play one genre of music all night. Hearing hours of say, rap or pop or indie rock or whatever gets tired over a whole night. Give people some variation.
  4. Don’t only play music people don’t know. You’re not trying to show everyone how cool you are – people like songs they know. Give people some surprises, but save the let-me-impress-you-with-my-expertise shit for your blog.
  5. Don’t only play music people will know. So no pressing play on the Spotify top 50, that’s boring.
  6. Don’t be afraid to change it up. Is your playlist failing? Is the party moving towards a vibe you weren’t expecting? Do a quick volume fade and reset – skip a few songs or put a surefire hit on while you queue up something else.
  7. Don’t pass the aux cord. Drunk people always fuck it up.
  8. Keep people dancing. Once people are dancing, all bets are off. Do whatever it takes to keep people dancing (other than, say, playing multiple songs by the same artist, etc). But if it’s fading and you want it to keep going, don’t be afraid to cleanse the floor and build it up again.
  9. Don’t stress. It’s a party.

A political party!

Don’t be afraid of cocktails

Ray Letoa – cocktail master

There’s a stigma that cocktails are expensive and hard to create for an ‘average person’. Some people feel they need all the complex equipment like toby tins and Boston shakers, or long stirring spoons and hawthorne strainers. I’m here to show you that even without it you can still make delicious cocktails for your party. Here’s  a couple of my go-to cocktail suggestions and tips which anyone can do and will have your guests thinking you’ve slaved away for hours preparing their drinks for them.

Sparkling Cocktails: This style of cocktail is rather relaxed and takes setting in champagne flutes which I’m sure everyone has tucked away ready for special occasions. All you need to do is add a minimum of 30 millilitres per serve (feel free to add more or less for personal taste) of one of the following ingredients and gently top up with some nice brut/prosecco and voila, you have just made delicious sparkling cocktails for your guests:

Bellini – Peach Puree

Mimosa – Orange juice

Rossini – Strawberry Puree

Kir Royale – Cassis or Blackberry Liqueur

Cocktail Punch: A punch is an effective and easy cocktail creation that anyone can do, firstly you’ll just need a large bowl (four litre bowl or larger will work) and you simple add all ingredients, some ice, a ladle and some glasses and your guests can simply help themselves. This is my simple cocktail recipe is a “Drunk Berry Punch”:

400 mL : Angostura Reserva 3 year old Rum

300 mL : Lime Juice

200 mL : Three Berry Shott Syrup

Two bags of frozen mixed berries (rather than adding ice which will dilute your punch, the frozen berries will thaw out chilling down your punch and acting as your garnish too)

One bag of fresh mint

Two litres of soda water or lemonade

Stir until all is well incorporated and mixed and ready to serve.

Hopefully now you see that cocktails are fun, approachable and not as excruciatingly difficult to create as you’ve been lead to believe, and now you’ve got the starting tools to get creating and sharing with your friends and family. Any questions or want to bounce ideas you can always swing by and find me at The Roxy. Happy Responsible Drinking everyone!

Ray Letoa at work (Image: supplied).

Fashion: it’s simple really…

Anna Ronberg – buyer for fashion boutique No.16

In response to the question ‘what to wear’ or ‘how to dress’ when you’re heading out to a party, it’s completely simple: dress to the occasion. It’s screamingly old fashioned I know, but truly, your hosts will appreciate it (remember they’ve put a lot of effort into creating a great party for you) and you’re more likely to be invited back, which really is what you’d like. 

I say this though after having a drinks party at home recently and my darling husband decided to get into his pyjamas after having red wine spilt on him whilst sitting on the sofa being sandwiched between two gorgeous, wildly gesticulating artists. He spent the rest of the evening getting lots and lots of attention. If you’re going to dress like this you need to be comfortable with that attention. He did look rather handsome in his flannelette…

Am I really the right person to be answering this question after all?

And a general tip: add to the party in positive way, don’t be a prat on purpose.

Theme: keep it as weird as possible.

Anna Dean – Party Queen, doubledenim.co.nz

I’ve done parties that range from large scale Civic-sized (30,000 souls for a red carpet film premiere) to small and intimate product launches. And the key thing I’ve learned through all of that is: keep it weird. One of the best ways to bring people together, particularly if you’re working with a crowd that doesn’t know each other, is to create some kind of happening or experience that freaks the shit out of them.

I don’t mean in a horror film blood-and-guts way, but what you want is to create an environment where strangers are asking strangers for help in understanding what they’re seeing and experiencing – ideally in an art sense. Honestly. If you want a group to gel, it’s essential.

One of the freakiest times I’ve had recently was at Dark Mofo last year at an interactive happening called ‘Welcome Stranger’. I’ve partied in all kinds of scenarios from Berlin and Colombia to Invercargill and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on in Hobart. It was such a deeply spooky yet solid community experience. For me, that’s the best kind of party.    

Punch: mix your welcome bowl in advance.

Peter Lowry – executive bar manager The Library.  

Making drinks ahead of time might be a bad idea for your margaritas but works in your favour for a punch. Everything has time to mix well – like how flavours in a soup or stew improve over time. At home everything can be done in advance, except pouring anything bubbly.

And when we’re talking ice for your punch, it’s easy. Bigger is better, so fill an ice cream tub with water and freeze it into a solid block. Given someone will be fashionably late to your party, you don’t want to water down their drinks before they arrive. Instead make a block of ice that can sit in there for the evening. Bartenders will go to great lengths to get the clearest ice, but just go for big and your consummation will be immaculate. Be creative and throw flowers, or fruits into the block if you wish.

This year for Wellington on a Plate we wanted to give our customers the tools to create exciting, complex, balanced and – most importantly – easy to make punches in their own home. We wanted to reinvigorate the party Welcome Drink. We also wanted to the ability to glug whole bottles into a bowl at work and so the plan of bespoke punch syrups was launched.

Jo Slater is the man behind Six Barrel Soda Co. and their soda syrup provides the perfect accessible foil upon which to create. Jo will also be the “syrup tutor” on the night teaching us how to tailor syrups. If you want to know more, you can buy a ticket, or come into Forrester’s Lane and chat to the bartender.

Otherwise, here’s a recipe for Pisco Punch to get you by until August:

Strong: a bottle of pisco

Sour: a bottle of Six Barrel Lemonade Syrup

Sweet: a bottle of Six Barrel ume plum syrup (not commercially available – swap for another fruit)

Spice: some dashes of sarsaparilla syrup (till it tastes good)

Mix them all together, add in an ice block and something to make it look pretty – lemon slices, mint sprigs. And top with two or three bottles of prosecco.

Platters for days

Kate Marinkovich – Tom Boy catering and cakes

The last thing anyone wants to be doing pre party is spending hours in the kitchen. So to impress your friends and also provide a variety of foods they can enjoy, make a nice big grazing platter. I’m not talking make a platter with bliss balls, shitty salami and dry crackers. Try and make sure all your ingredients complement one another. Big fat Sicilian olives with freshly sliced prosciutto from your local deli, gorgonzola dolce, warm grilled peppers drizzled in olive oil and a creamy cannellini bean hummus. And don’t be stingy. Leftovers make for a great hungover breakfast omelette. Drink Billecart Salmon Champagne or Hendricks on ice with a little cracked black pepper.

Never be stingy (Image: supplied).

Wine: Always start with French bubbles.

Joelle Thomson – Regional Wines, Beers & Spirits

If you’re looking for liquid lusciousness for the perfect party, we’ve got the right people for you, because it’s the talent behind this trio of wines that makes them so tasty. The best French bubbly often comes from those who make a tasty little drop that’s called grower champagne. This means the people who grow the grapes also make the wine and Gatinois Champagne is an outstanding example. Even if you very rarely drink bubbly, it’s hard not to be impressed by this stunner of a wine. It’s made by a father-son team who grow 7 hectares of grapes in the village of Ay and then sell half their grapes to Bollinger and turn the rest of them into their own wines. It’s awesome stuff.

Champagne Gatinois Ay Grand Cru

To say I love this bubbly is a wild understatement. It’s made from Pinot Noir grapes grown in the village of Ay in Champagne and it’s crazy good value for money. The wine spent no time on its skins so it is white but the Pinot grapes (a traditional key ingredient in top bubbly) add a real sense of body, weight and toasty rich flavours. 

The other two wines below speak for themselves. Or rather, they will, when you pour them at that next party.

2013 The Crater Rim North Canterbury Riesling

When it comes to over performers, Riesling and North Canterbury are a match made you know where – and this wine is heavenly. It’s crisp, fresh, light bodied, intensely lime zesty and apply in taste – super concentrated, off  ry, but only just since it finishes on a taste note that reminds me of a fresh Vietnamese and Thai food.

2014 Paya de Millaman Cabernet Sauvignon

The name alone sounds sexy and the wine is even more so, thanks to being made from grapes grown in Chile’s Curico Valley, where they developed big dark ripe black fruit flavours, 14.5% alcohol and a smooth velvety mouthfeel. It’s not often that our store manager Matt King reaches for a big dark Cabernet so his recommendation speaks volumes when it comes to this wine – the winery, by the way, is Hacienda el Condor.

How’s that for a recommendation (all of which are available at Regional Wines, Beers & Spirits).


This content is brought to you by wellingtonnz.com. Home to NZ’s most epic food festival, Visa Wellington On a Plate is 17 days of lunches with wine, burgers with beer, workshops with cocktails and parties with cheese fondue. Come and experience our culinary capital this winter to fill your belly, mind and heart.

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