Top Chef winner Kelsey Barnard Clark on how to host the best cocktail hour

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Kelsey Barnard Clark poses with a cake in this photo from her new cookbook, Southern Grit.

Kelsey Barnard Clark has been, for all intents and purposes, living out of a suitcase. But she still finds time to throw parties. "Last week, I flew into the airport, and then was back at the airport 8 hours later," she said. 

The Alabama-based Top Chef Season 16 winner juggles a restaurant, media appearances and writing a cookbook while also raising Monroe, 4, and Evelyn June, 1. Still, she can organize a child's birthday party in what's essentially a layover for mere mortals. 

"My mom used to love throwing parties and I have always been that person who would literally rather throw a party every time than attend one," she said. 

It follows that the central theme of Clark's latest book, Southern Grit, is how to balance lots and lots of things all at once. The key to making it all work: staying calm, Clark said. 

"Stop trying to be perfect — it's ok to give 50 percent," she said. "It's the biggest lesson I ever learned in my career, especially after having kids. You just can't be perfect once you have kids."

The best part? It's likely no one will ever notice if you're messing up. The key is to pretend like everything's going swimmingly. 

That's a trick Clark learned from catering, a career she began when she was a teenager trying to reckon with a lot of anxiety. It's a skill that keeps her calm as an adult with her own catering company.

"At the end of the day, the only way people will know if there's a big problem is if you tell them," she said. "I learned this through the wedding world. There's nothing scarier than brides — nothing scarier than their mothers, really."

Clark's secret to looking casual is mise en place, French for "everything in its place." In restaurant kitchens, the term refers to having everything you need for service properly prepared and within reach. 

That concept extends to Clark's home. Keeping the kitchen reasonably clean helps you start with a fresh slate, she writes in Southern Grit. Stocking spices, acids, cooking twine, sharp knives and other essentials helps dinner come together easier.

A well-stocked pantry — and liquor cabinet — are also behind Clark's favorite way to gather: the cocktail hour.

"It's such a Southern thing," she said. "Especially with my group of friends, we don't want to commit to a dinner party, which can be stressful and overwhelming."

Kelsey Barnard Clark favors tequila drinks during cocktail hour.

"Do you want to come over for a drink?" is a question that generates zero stress. This is especially true for Clark who is always prepared to host an inpromtu cocktail hour.

The freezer is your friend, she coaches. Frozen bread can be heated in the oven at a moment's notice. Even crackers stay fresh in the freezer. Add to that some non-perishable preserves and pickles, and you're halfway to a serviceable charcuterie plate. 

"For fall and winter, I'm the queen of cleaning out the freezer and just making soup," she said. That's a trick that works double duty, as her whole family can also grab an easy dinner, which means cocktail hour won't be disrupted with food prep.

You don't even have to get that fancy, Clark said. "Sometimes I just throw goldfish (crackers) in a bowl and I'm like 'Here,'" she said laughing. 

You can also outsource help by having chips, salsa and guacamole — or even a pizza — delivered. "I'm all about realistic expectations in every way, shape and form," she said. 

Here are some of Clark's commandments for a hostess-ready home from Southern Grit.

How to host

Keep the diffuser running and scented candles on hand. A house feels cleaner when it smells nice, and there’s just something inviting about a flickering candle, according to Clark.

Keep booze-free sippers around. Always have sparkling water or sparkling mineral water in the fridge for your non-drinkers or pregnant friends.

Think of the children. Even if you don’t have kids, keep a few juice boxes and snacks around for friends who do. It’s beneficial for everyone when children are fed and entertained.

Keep charcuterie board ingredients on hand. Clark's list of items that should always be in your pantry or fridge: cheese, olives, pickles, pepper jelly, pimiento cheese, good crackers, nuts, cheese straws (they keep in the freezer forever). 

Be flexible. "And if it all goes to hell in a handbasket, pop some corn and dump it into cute bowls," Clark writes. "If your guest doesn’t like popcorn, then why did you let this crazy person into your home?"

Buy a record player and invite guests to pick a record. "Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, James Taylor, and Van Morrison never disappoint. Bonus points? Make it a drinking game," Clark said.  

Try these recipes for a fun cocktail hour

Top Chef's Signature Sparkling Jalapeño Margaritas

Kelsey Barnard Clark's 'Bomb Nachos' and homemade salsa

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com