Healthy not Hungry: a crash-course in planning a global dinner

The call came in mid-September and at the time, it seemed a reasonable request.  Wouldn’t it be great, the caller from Rome said, if the World Food Programme team in London could organise a dinner that brought together some leading chefs, with a guest list of movers and shakers in the food, nutrition and humanitarian world, to discuss how we get to SDG2 by 2030? 

Zero hunger board at healthy no thungry dinner

There was just one catch: we would have to pull it off at no cost to WFP – a kind of Zero Hunger dinner on a Zero budget.  This felt like a bit of a stretch, but the caller cheerily intimated that doing it with no money was all part of the fun of it, and she was sure that with all the chefs and interest in food in London, that it would be a breeze to pull it off.

We discussed it as a team – all five of us – and decided that as the call had come from the Office of the Executive Director, we had to give it our best shot as it would be short sighted to throw in the towel without trying.  So, starting in September 2016 we began to plan for a dinner that eventually brought around 90 people to a banqueting hall on the banks of the Thames for an evening of engaging discussion in January 2017 on what it would take to inject new momentum into the push for SDG 2:

Here are 10 things we learnt about how to plan a fancy dinner on the fly:

1. Location, Location, Location.  It goes without saying that if you can’t secure the right kind of venue, you can’t host an event, so get the location pinned down first as it is the foundation of everything that follows.  If you’re planning an event in a big city, don’t expect any favours from location management companies and don’t imagine that there are down times of the year when event spaces are there for the picking – even in the depths of winter, most are fully booked.

2. Make friends with your chef.  There is a reason he or she is called a chef and you need one who can demand respect, loyalty and fear in equal measure.  We were blessed with Arthur Potts Dawson, who hustled, harried and cajoled a volunteer team of 40 people to sign up to cater for this event for free, volunteering their time and expertise for nothing but a willingness to support a good cause.  I am still eternally grateful to each and every one of them.

Arthur Potts Dawson

3. The importance of a maître d’.  After the chef, the most important person on the night is the front of house manager.  As we had never planned an event like this, we did not even think this role would need to be filled.  In the end it was essential.  Our maître d’ was Bassam El Jundi, a friend of Arthur’s from the River Café and he was the conductor to Arthur’s orchestra of chefs.  Without him there would have been no gastronomic symphony.

4. Manage the guestlist.  This was probably the most complex part of the event and involved identifying the right spread of guests, sending the invitations out, chasing confirmations and planning table settings.  Early on in the process we spoke to a professional planner who advised: “Invite double the amount of people you want to attend and anticipate that less than half of those invited will come.  Then plan on how to deal with no-shows on the day.”  We invited 220 people, 90 confirmed they would come, 12 pulled out on the day, and 5 then announced they were still coming after all just hours before the dinner started.  It’s all part of the fun.

5. Choreography is everything.  For a set-piece event with so many different moving parts: the timing of the arrival of food courses, the role of guest speakers and the need to start and finish at a set time,  it is essential to plan in microscopic detail.  On the night of the dinner, we knew what should have been happening to the minute during the three hour window between 7 pm and 10 pm we knew when we were ahead of time and when we were behind and it gave us the flexibility to slow down or catch up.

Healthy not hungry dinner

6. Bring a moderator on board.  If you are hosting an event, don’t imagine you will be able to moderate it as well.  Good moderators are worth their weight in gold as they will keep things ticking along, amuse the guests and make sure everything runs to time.  Good moderators are also much better if they have been briefed well in advance and know what to expect.  They need to know everything.

7. Identify an outcome.  It is no longer good enough to invite guests to a nice dinner that will mark or celebrate a particular theme or initiative.  Be prepared for guests to want to know what the outcome is.  If you are going to invite high-level guests – MPs, CEOs and celebrities – you are competing for their time and they want it to be worth their while.  Good food, fine wines and genial company is not enough on its own to convince someone to come.

8. Expect the unexpected.  Unexpected guests will turn up at the last moment, expected guests will suddenly drop out.  Speakers will suddenly tell you they have to leave early to catch a train and technology can always let you down.  Most of your guests won’t notice, so just roll with it and adapt as you go along.  A steady supply of wine can help paper over the cracks.  The worst that can happen is that you reveal your sense of panic.

Partners at HNH dinner

9. Keep a pocket full of cash on the day.  Even a Zero Hunger dinner for Zero Cash is going to cost something at some point.  You don’t want to be caught out when the kitchen team finds it needs more lemons or garlic, and remember that even though they are surrounded by food, the cooks can get hungry, so be ready to pop out to the local supermarket for a bag of baguettes, ham and cheese.  See this as your charitable contribution to the night.

10. Follow up.  When the dinner is over be sure to re-connect with your guests, summarising the outcome and thanking them for the participation.  A dinner is a massive networking opportunity and the real value comes in the follow up after they have all gone home for the night.  This is when you start planning for next year.

Written by Greg Barrow - Head of the World Food Programme's London Office