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Entertaining with a Country Club Touch

Putting together a festive party with just the right food in just the right setting looks so easy when Martha Stewart does it on television.

It’s a challenge that faces many people during the busy holiday season, whether it’s a family get-together, a neighborhood open house, a party for the office gang, or a dinner on a grand scale.

The esteemed Ms. Stewart may not be around in person to share her party tips with local hosts and hostesses, but Fayetteville does have a team of pros whose business is hospitality: Highland Country Club’s chefs Wayne Lane and Russell Neff, general manager Oz Hazmah, and banquets director Cami Azinger. They offer some of the ideas and ways that they have found help them in planning events that range from small dinner parties to celebrations attended by hundreds.

It’s no surprise that they say “organization” is the first step toward a successful affair. That includes setting a budget and planning the menu well in advance. That’s especially important if the event is catered so that there’s sufficient time to order the requested food.

Be realistic in setting the budget, they say. Some people want a hundred-dollar dish at a thirteen-dollar cost, says Azinger. But, says Chef Lane, it’s possible to work some magic by taking a simple dish and dressing it up. “You make it taste good and look good.” People begin eating first with their eyes, he adds.

Consider environment, service and food, he says. “They work as a team.”

Picture the buffet table and how it is going to look to your guests. It should have “highs and lows,” with some dishes raised for interest. Consider the flow around the table so that it won’t become congested.

The menu should be varied enough to please all appetites. A thoughtful host or hostess will take into consideration that some guests are vegetarians or might have allergies to certain foods, especially shellfish and nuts, so that there are alternate selections.

One mistake hosts sometimes make is planning the wrong menu for the wrong time of day. If it’s an event between 5 and 7 p.m., your guests are going to be hungry, so no dainty refreshments, please. Instead plan on heavy hors d’oeuvres.

Some favorite selections among HCC members and guests are baby lamb chops, shrimp, and soft-shell crabs. Chef Neff says a favorite dinner selection is marinated salmon served with risotto and a vegetable medley. Another is the pecan-crusted chicken breast.

Dessert favorites include Bananas Foster, lava cakes, and a fusion of berries. The chocolate fountain has come and gone. The beverage of choice is “any kind of martini.” Wine is always enjoyed, and Neff says there are excellent wines coming out of regional wineries. The club likes to patronize area vendors when possible, especially for fresh produce.

Lane hails from upstate New York, Neff from southern Florida, and Azinger from California. Hamzah is a native of Beirut, Lebanon. They’ve had to learn to prepare some regional favorites including collards and grits. The group boasts that daytime breakfast and lunch cook Andy Florez makes the best grits around, not sparing the butter and cream in preparation. And long-time HCC cook Marilyn Baker has taught the professional chefs a thing or two about Southern cuisine, they acknowledge. Wednesday’s lunch menu featuring old favorites as chicken and pastry is a club favorite, and it’s usually Baker who makes it.

In turn, the staff has included some foods that reflect their diverse backgrounds. Neff placed second for entrees in the recent Chef’s Auction with his veal shanks braised in red wine, served with a mushroom and tomato ragout and polenta cooked in heavy cream, butter and cheese.

People sometimes bring recipes to the chefs that they have found in magazines or on the Internet, wanting it duplicated for an event. That isn’t a good idea, Lane says. Some dishes just can’t be scaled up or down. “It may be great for five people, but to duplicate it for 500 can’t be done.”