Do's and Don'ts of the Potluck Picnic

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There are few rituals of summer that convey a sense of community like a potluck picnic. Potluck is a lesson in culinary cooperation, with aspects of the meal open to the interpretation of everyone invited. While the heart of the picnic is often the grill, guests fill the remainder of the menu with their favorite summer sides, salads and desserts.

Still, even a lazy summer picnic has pitfalls. According to some notable chefs, too many people rely on traditional dishes when they should aspire to variety. They say a potluck picnic should be filled with original food, and little or nothing from a store. While a bag of chips or store-bought salsa may fit the basic theme, a potluck meal should be a celebration of the tastes and heritage of the guests—not an example of what's available at the grocery store.

You have to think outside the picnic basket. A bag of chips or some potato salad from the deli will never make a good party, but with a little bit of effort you can create something from a family or favorite recipe that's both simple and spectacular.

Wade Williams, celebrity chef and owner of Picnic Catering

The Proof Isn't Always in the Potato Salad

The very foundation of potluck is variety. Following the well-worn path of some unwritten pot luck playbook is not a recipe for success.

"So many people are making the same old things, and not even trying to add a twist to even those dishes," said celebrity chef Wade Williams, owner of Picnic Inc., a Los Angeles-based picnic catering service. "And the result is a spread that's unimaginative and uninspiring to everyone but the ants."

Even worse, if they're not making it, they're buying it.

"I just feel that you can't go to a store to get a potato salad or a macaroni salad that you can make on your own," said Mette Williams, executive chef of Lexington Social House in Hollywood, California. "They all have that metallic vinegar taste to it because most stores use a lot of vinegar, and it's most likely been sitting in it for so long so that's the only flavor you're getting."

You may find that going fresh and adding even the slightest twist to a classic summer recipe is even easier than standing in the deli line on a weekend.

"You have to think outside the picnic basket," Wade Williams said. "A bag of chips or some potato salad from the deli will never make a good party. But with a little bit of effort, you can create something from a family or favorite recipe that's both simple and spectacular."

More often than not, inspiration is right underneath your nose, and the personal twist you add to a recipe is what will separate you and your offering from the rest.

"As far as picnics go, I always like to bring really good food, but I'm also a traditionalist," Mette Williams said. "Salsa is a great addition, but I like to roast my own tomatoes and make a homemade version, and if I have the time I'll even make my own chips."

You do need to show a little restraint. On the other side of the preparation spectrum is that would-be chef who intends to make a potluck picnic his culinary coming out party. Wade Williams said you have to remember the picnic food should be simple and fun.

"You have those people that try to overachieve with their food goals," he said. "It's great if you want to expand your cooking repertoire, but don't try to duplicate a recipe the first time and bring it to a potluck. It will only lead to frustration and a ride home with leftovers you don't even want."

Proper Planning

Another common misstep is not taking into account the way a potluck offering will handle the transition from an air conditioned kitchen to a table in the hot summer sun.

"Those ‘classic’ go-to picnic side dishes can be pretty volatile if they're left in the sun too long," said chef Jason McClure of Sazerac Restaurant in Seattle. "People figure they can keep these cold in mini-coolers, which on a hot day doesn’t always work. Soon you have people gobbling up these unhealthy dishes before they spoil in the afternoon sun."

If you're dead set on salad, make something that does not rely on sour cream and mayonnaise. Think fresh, and you may be surprised at how easy a dish can be in all facets from prep to transport.

"One of my favorite summertime salads is a panzanella salad, which is a traditional Italian tomato and bread salad," Mette Williams said. "Get some good, ripe tomatoes, use a good olive oil, a good vinegar, chop up a day-old piece of bread into large croutons and mix them together. Not only is it inexpensive, easy to make, and easy to transport, you can even mix it right there at the picnic. It's a salad that gets better as it sits."

Getting on the Grill

Common convention holds that you don't approach the actual grill unless you have an empty and waiting bun for a hot dog or hamburger on your plate, but Mette Williams believes the grill does not have to be off limits for potluck food.

"When I think barbecue picnic, I'm thinking pork ribs, but you don't want to step on anyone's toes," she said. "Do a dry rub with cumin, coriander, garlic, chili powder, and maybe a little bit of lemon zest or lime zest to give it a little kick, let it sit overnight, marinate, then maybe add some maple sugar to give it some sweetness. (At the potluck) just walk up and say, 'These are ready to go, want to cook them?' "

A Potluck Picnic Salad from Chef Jason McClure


Hearts of 3 bunches of celery with the leaves left whole and the stalks cut on the bias 2 lbs. English peas, shelled and left raw 4 oz. Grana Padano or other hard aged cheese, crumbled into thin bite sized pieces Salt and pepper to taste

Red wine vinaigrette:

2 cloves of garlic, minced 1 shallot, minced 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil 1/2 cup pure olive oil

Whisk all ingredients together.

Toss the celery hearts, English peas, grana, salt and pepper. Add mixed dressing when the salad is ready to serve.