Winning dinner party tricks from a lobbying guru
By Susan Able, Photography by Hannah Hudson
With his charming half-grin, Jim Courtovich swings open the front door of his gracious Woodley Park home and welcomes me in. It’s late morning and Courtovich is half prepped for a dinner party, the kitchen filled with the rich scent of chicken stock simmering away in a huge copper pot. Apron-clad with a phone tucked under his chin, he talks business strategy about an upcoming project while chopping vegetables for a Tuscan soup.
Founder and CEO of Sphere Consulting, a DC communications firm that just celebrated its 10th anniversary, Courtovich is one of those rare birds who entertains seemingly effortlessly, constructing an entire dinner party for eight or 18 in a day (with a little help from a cast of local college students who “house-tern” and learn to braise at his elbow.)
For this DC lobbying guru, the best way to do business in “this town” is around a dinner table chez him; good food and good wine go a long way to smoothing difficult conversations, whether it be matters of party politics or state. “People come over and get to know each other over a great dinner, and yes, we end up doing a little bit of business. I’m lucky to be able to blend my passion for cooking with my work,” says Courtovich.
Growing up in Winchester, Massachusetts, part of a large Greek family, gathering to eat was everything. Men were in the kitchen and on the grill as much as the women.
“Food was a big deal for us, and all my male relatives could spit-roast a lamb like you’ve never seen. Part of my DNA is bringing people together. In my family, we never made a meal that served fewer than 12 people. Anything else was called a snack.”
Courtovich designed his home to facilitate his passion. Two kitchens—one upstairs and one downstairs—serve as base camps for prep; he even boasts a “charcuterie” room, a marble-countered space with a commercial-style refrigerator, a serious meat slicer and shelves of copperware. There is a formal dining room, but two other large dining spaces are used for more casual affairs. Dozens of cookbooks line the bookshelves in the Courtovich kitchens. At night, he cruises through them to relax and to garner ideas: Favorites are Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza, Pasta, and More and Nancy Harmon Jenkin’s Flavors of Tuscany. The Balthazar Cookbook is a “touchstone” for him.
“Greek food inspires much of my cooking—but I also live in South Carolina part of the year, so I’m starting to merge those cuisines. Greek sausage mashes up in Southern-style gravy,” Courtovich adds. “I’m trying to write a cookbook, but work gets in the way. It will be about city cooking and entertaining with tips that show how make everything easier.”
For Courtovich, holidays mean opening his home for gatherings—from intimate dinners to his famous large parties for 50 or more, held on sequential nights with rotating guest lists. And this pro entertainer has hacks for that. As he explains, successful entertaining relies on a plan and depends on a circle of trusted vendors, reliable shortcuts and proven recipes.
This holiday dinner for eight showcases the “Courtovich” approach: a strong appetizer program, show-stopping main courses and a simply elegant layer cake from Sweet Teensy Bakery.
Jim Courtovich on Entertaining
Create a vendor triangle—mine is a florist, my butcher at Wagshal’s and Calvert Woodley for wine. My route is up Wisconsin, over to Connecticut and then home—it’s efficient; I know how much time it takes.
Place orders ahead as much as you can for things you are picking up; let them know when you are coming. Saves time.
Do a theme party. People love simple food; for the debates this fall I set up a hot dog bar. Who doesn’t like a hot dog? All the toppings, plus deep-fried tater tots. So easy and everyone was crazy about it.
Even a sit-down dinner doesn’t have to be formal. I’ve served chicken and biscuits for a business dinner.
This is important: Trade off things that are easy to buy and customize. For my crab balls, I buy pre-made crab cakes, then roll them into balls, coat them with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fry them.
For apps, keep them smallish in size and easy to pick up. If you are standing up, talking to people, how big do you really want something to go in your mouth? It should be one bite.
Filet Mignon with Herbed Butter (Caption on the filet describing prep)
Roasted Asparagus (Caption mentioning prep on asparagus)
Sweet Teensy Red Velvet Cake