timing...how to manage multiple courses

Have you ever gone to a restaurant, had your order taken, received your appetizer within five minutes and then waited for another 40 minutes for your main course?  Or when you finished your meal and you never receive the dessert menu or are begging for the check?

Both of these are examples of bad timing.  Timing is when the waiter, the kitchen and the managers synthesize the rhythm of service to make it flawless.  When all goes well it may not be something you consciously realize, however when it is off you definitely can be disappointed.

In the restaurant industry, the concept of timing is one of the most challenging skills to master.  It requires strong communication and balanced coordination with everyone working in the restaurant.

Entertaining at home is not as complicated as in a restaurant but the idea of timing holds true and is really important.    I have friends who say that the timing is what most frustrates them when serving multiple courses.  

To get it right, you want to be realistic about your menu and organize as much as possible before your guests arrive. If you are not a confident entertainer,  it is best to start out with menus that are not complicated.  Here are some tips:

  • Plan a menu that makes you feel comfortable and that you have tried before. 

When I first started entertaining, I often used it as a platform to try out new, exciting recipes. There were definitely a few disasters along the way. Select a menu that you have done before or are very familiar with how the final outcome should look and taste.


  • Begin with a starter that can be prepared and plated before guests arrive or is super easy to serve.

Examples:  a tossed arugula salad with pine nuts, parmesan and lemon, a beautiful plate of sliced mozzarella with tomatoes, a selection of antipasto, thinly sliced smoked salmon, or maybe a favorite soup.

  • Think through menu, prep and cook as much beforehand as possible

Have you ever watched food shows, and seen how the ingredients are measured out in bowls? The reason being that it is the easiest way to work and keeps you organized.  

I am usually busiest a couple hours before guests arrive.  All vegetables are cut, main course seasoned, pans are on stove, serving items are on counter, salt, pepper, garnishes, olive oil are within reach.  I have thought through the menu and written things down as I think of what I would like to do and when.

Set the table early, I often have table done at least 5 hours before guests arrive to just remove from the 'to do' list.

  • For food timing, decide when you want to serve the main course and work backwards, write down the menu and serving times to have a general idea in your mind.  For example:

           8.20-8.30pm   main course at 8.20-30pm

            8pm                sit down for first course

            7pm                guests arrive 

            6.30pm           appetizers out/wine opened, drinks organized

            5.30-6.30         any pre-cooking starts

            5pm                get dressed

            earlier             as much organized, cut, prepared as possible, table set etc

Set a timer on your phone and keep near you to monitor cooking times

Remember to include getting your dessert course prepared as well.  Plates out, cutlery, etc should be put on the side.