To attend a dinner, you'll first have to sign up and fill out a questionnaire. I start by simply asking you about your favorite foods, foods you like/dislike, and things you can't or won't eat. But then things get deeper: I ask you to share things like a cherished food memory, something you enjoy having a loved one make for you, and your most recent memorable food experience. Too often our food is thought of in as just the specific dish, when it's the people, place, and context surrounding our meals that bring us the most enjoyment!
I then invite four to six of you whose answers (and availability) inspire a potentially great dinner, and then start brainstorming. I pore over your responses and figure out what dishes to put together for the menu. I take into consideration not just the types of foods you've listed, but what combination of ingredients, preferences, and guests would make the most interesting and engaging dinner experience. I think about whether food is about trying new things or about comfort, if guests want experimental new entrees or interesting execution of classics, and what relationship people have with their food and with others.
Once my menu brainstorm is complete, I hit the books. I start reading through my shelf of cooking/gastronomy books and food blogs for ideas on variations in preparation of specific dishes, how ingredients play with each other, and what techniques would be interesting to apply to dishes. I'll sometimes go back and read one of Kenji Lopez-Alt's Food Lab pieces on Serious Eats or watch an episode of Good Eats, In Search of Perfection, or Mind of a Chef because I want to review a specific ingredient or method they used, even for otherwise unrelated dishes. This is the part where my imagination gets to do a ton of cooking before I even enter the kitchen.
Finally, the week of the dinner, I get to the core of the work: buying ingredients, preparation, and cooking. I do my best to source the best, freshest, and appropriate ingredients within the budget of the donation ability of my guests (and often go over when I just have to get quality). This means I'll end up in half a dozen grocery stores across the county, a farmer's market or two, and even my local butcher on top of that just to make sure I get the right Chinese rice wine, Thai chili paste, seasonal produce, or cut of meat. Anything that requires early preparation or practice takes up my weeknights before the dinner.
Come the day of, I am buying any last-minute ingredients, and starting cooking as early as 10 a.m. in preparation for dinner in the evening, usually starting between 5-7 p.m. Around service-time, guests are invited to arrive and BYOB(everages), I plate, serve, and we all dine together!