Dirty wine glasses. Whole, raw cloves of garlic floating in a radicchio salad. A vodka-soused guest, hitting on your wife. Another guest puking quietly in the restroom after you disregard his dairy allergy and serve up butter shrimp.
What sounds like the dinner party from hell is actually the first episode of Dinner Party Wars. The new show, premiering on Food Network Canada Sept. 1, pits Toronto couples against each other in a cutthroat competition that tests their hosting and cooking skills.
Robot cameras placed around the couples' homes expose every domestic foible, as do hosts Corbin Tomaszeski, executive chef at Holt Renfrew, and Anthea Turner, an etiquette maven who doesn't mince words. (Sample: "Food is a visual thing and some of it just looks like slop.")
The hosts spoke with The Globe and Mail about the show, and why couples' dinner parties get so tense, so often.
These couples are strangers explicitly at war with each other for a $1,000 cooking set. Is competition always implicitly involved in couples' dinner parties?
Corbin Tomaszeski: When people entertain at home, there's always a sense of outdoing someone. You want to make a great impression. In this show, it's about the $1,000 cookware, but more importantly, it's those bragging rights.
Anthea Turner: Normally, you have people coming round to your house who you know, who are friends, so it's a completely different environment. However, human nature is what it is and when you invite people around, you'd be mortified if anybody said, "I really didn't like any of that."
You get the contestants to gossip about each other in "confessionals" - a time-honoured tradition in reality TV. Is that something we normally do anyway with our spouses after a dinner party, the debrief?
A.T.: What comes out is the two-facedness, where people go, "Oh yes, it's really nice," and then they get into that confessional and say the complete opposite. It's like the conversation you have with your husband in the car on the way home.
You blast the hosts quite a bit on the show. Why is it so embarrassing when you blunder through a real dinner party, the way hot-head culinary students JJ and Stephen do on the show? Is it some kind of admission of your failure as a domestic adult, maybe even as a couple?
A.T.: It's always embarrassing when you're criticized. The last time most of us were criticized, we were in school. You feel like a child with a teacher telling you, "You set the table wrong," or "You didn't welcome your guests right." Everybody wants to think that they're grown up and that they know how to do it.
Tell me about the elaborate dance of the host.
A.T.: It is a massive juggling job. Entertaining at home is not easy, if you want to do it right. It can be easy if you're organized but most people aren't. Nine times out of ten, they make life too complicated: They do a very difficult menu and forget that they won't be able to spend time with their guests or enjoy it themselves.
C.T.: People get so caught up and they're in the kitchen and their guests are left alone, judging them. Next thing you know, the hosts are running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
The first episode features badly overcooked fish and a radioactively hot peach cobbler. What has been the worst food faux pas?
C.T.: We had a couple of young gentlemen, very eager types who wanted to showcase techniques in the kitchen. They were poaching things, making things from scratch and doing the whole local-fare thing, which is great but [the guys were]filthy. It was disgusting. They were doing cross-contamination.
It was so bad that I left the curbside studio, charged into the house five minutes before the guests came, and put them in their place. I said, "You! You're filthy. Clean the floor. Stop wiping your dirty hands on your apron. Change your pants. Cover up your pâté - you've got flies buzzing around!" We're talking about health and safety now.
What about the obnoxious guest, as embodied by JJ on the show?
C.T.: When you have a guest like that, you cannot lose control. If you're hosting, you are in control. The minute you let somebody like that come in who has a really strong, overpowering personality and let them take over, you've lost your evening. You've got to put them in their place, in a nice way. If they're inappropriate, you've got to call them out. It's just like managing a dining room.
What's the worst dinner party either of you has ever been to?
C.T.: It's tough because I'm a chef. People always freak out when they invite me over - they're always on their toes. I find myself saying, "Don't worry. The best meal a chef will appreciate is one he won't have to cook himself, providing you're not going to poison me."
That said, the weirdest dinner party was probably one where we ate outside and it was late, late fall. It was freezing cold and we were basically suffering from hypothermia when we could have easily sat inside.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
From preparing a punishing meal of tofu kebabs for your vegetarian guest to Googling the placement of forks and knives, Dinner Party Wars features both culinary bungles and challenges. Hosts Anthea Turner and Corbin Tomaszeski share their tips for pulling it off better than the show's contestants.
- Dust bunnies "If you're entertaining, much less for a competition, you've got to look at everything around you," says Mr. Tomaszeski. "You've got to look at your environment, the plates you're eating off, the music you're playing. If you've got a cluttered home, if it's dusty, dirty and disorganized, if you've got no elbow room at the table and your guests are sandwiched in like little sardines in a can, they're not comfortable."
- Don't get inventive "People make massive mistakes by showing off on the food. They lose everything else," Ms. Turner says. "The easiest thing to do to have good dinner parties is do things that you know well: You know it's a dish you can do, a dish you've experimented on with your family beforehand."
- Prep time "Preparation is everything," Ms. Turner says. "If there's any table setting that you can do the day before, or anything you can cook the day before, do it."
- Me time Make sure you leave enough time to tend to yourself, whether that's a relaxing bath or pre-emptive glass of wine. "Remember yourself," Ms. Turner says.