TORONTO - Even the best-laid party plans can go awry when unexpected hiccups occur during an event.
Regardless of problems which may crop up — including unanticipated arrivals — it's crucial for the host not to show any visible signs of distress, said Charles MacPherson, a renowned authority on household management and butlering.
"The most important thing the host or the hostess can do is to stay calm and really say: 'Oh, my God, I'm so glad you came; thank you so much for coming,' and just go in the kitchen alone and figure it out," MacPherson said.
"If you stress, then everyone else will stress and become uncomfortable.
"What being a good host or hostess is about is making your guests relax and have a good time. And you know what? Somehow the parties always figure themselves out."
MacPherson has a well-entrenched history in service, acting as a major-domo (head steward or butler of the household) for prominent families around the world. In 2009, he launched what has been billed as North America's only registered school for butlers and household managers in Toronto.
In his new book, "The Butler Speaks" (Appetite by Random House), MacPherson seeks to help soothe the nerves of those frazzled by the prospect of hosting parties and maintaining their homes with tips to simplify entertaining and housekeeping.
The book also offers insight into the history of service and the roles of the domestic staff in the Edwardian and Victorian eras, and serves as a primer on etiquette, covering everything from table manners and making introductions to the do's and don'ts of handshakes.
"I think that the reality is nobody today says: 'This is how you clean; this is how you cook.' Household management is a lost art. Etiquette is a lost art. Table manners is a lost art," said MacPherson.
"It was really about trying to take all of those things and putting them into a book where what I wanted was ... you to feel as if you could go to a trusted source — the butler, a close friend — who could walk you through these things, rather than a rigid book of rules that made you feel uncomfortable."
For those holding potluck gatherings, MacPherson said the onus still lies with the host to take charge. He said the organizer should supply the protein — the main expensive portion of the meal — but divvy up the remaining dishes among guests with very specific instructions on what each person should bring to avoid multiples of the same item.
MacPherson said individuals seeking to be perfectionists when it comes to hosting are "getting the wrong part of entertaining."
"If it's more relaxed and you really focus more on making sure that everyone has a drink in their hand and someone really interesting to talk to, people really don't care if there was enough carrot salad for all 12 people. They're just having a good time."
He has a similarly relaxed attitude toward the notion of gift-giving to hosts. MacPherson said he understands that some people may feel uneasy with the idea of arriving at someone's home empty-handed — but they shouldn't. As an alternative, he suggested taking the time to send a handwritten note following the event as a way to express gratitude.
"If I invite you over to my house, it's because I want you to come to my house to be with me. It's not because I want a big gift. And I think people are becoming uncomfortable about what is appropriate and not appropriate to give as a gift," MacPherson said.
"In my job, I've seen it all. I've seen the people who bring things, the people who don't. I've seen the people who bring something very small that's very meaningful," he said.
MacPherson said there's no need to feel pressured to bring an outlandish gift, saying a framed photo would make a thoughtful present.
When it comes to tending to the home, MacPherson has devised a cleaning calendar to help ensure one area of the home gets a deep clean each month — such as washing windows and cleaning the garage in May — rather than completing such tasks several times a year.
As for more regular cleaning duties, MacPherson writes that a good rule of thumb is to clean a room form top to bottom (so that dirt or dust that falls can be picked up), and from left to right (to keep track of what's been done).
Devoting each week to one area of the home — like cleaning the fridge, counters and stove in the kitchen — can also help reduce the stress of housekeeping, MacPherson noted.
"If you're going to dust, then let's dust the house properly. If you're going to wash floors, let's wash the floors properly. But if you do everything just half-done, you'll never feel like you've accomplished anything," he said.
"I think that the mistake that we (make) is we try to look at the whole house and we think, 'Oh, my God, where am I going to start; how am I going to get this all done?' And I think, 'Let's break it down into small bites.'"