What does it take to become the host of as serious ass party: Imagination, organization, a sense of humor and a good recipe, according to our panel of experts worldwide. See how they set the tone for memorable parties on the pages ahead.
INVITATIONS AND PLACE CARDS
The fluent entertainers we spoke with favor one of two methods of invitation. The first and preferred way, unless a party is very formal, is to telephone the guest, then send a written reminder. This circumvents people’s tendency to not read their mail/forget to RSVP.
The second, more formal approach is the written invitation, delivered by post or hand. “I always send an invitation” says New York fashion designer James Mischka of Badgley Mischka. “It’s proper. It shows you’ve made an effort. It also forces you to stick to a date.” John Loring, design director at Tiffany & Co. and author, most recently or a Tiffany Christmas (Doubleday), goes further: “I’ve never been to a good party that started with a phone call. A beautiful invitation is part of the fun; it helps set the mood, create talk”
Unusual invitations also make wonderful keepsakes, points out Loring, who’s amassed a treasured collection over the years. Of course, it takes a bit more effort to create a souvenir-caliber invitation, such as those sent out for Ambassador Felix Rohatyn’s 70th birthday party. Invitations to the party, which took place in Paris and had a Casablanca theme, sported a doctored photo of Rohatyn’s face atop Humphrey Bogart’s torso. (Would-be humorists: make sure, first, that your subject will be amused:)
For your guests’ sake and your own, make RSVPing simple. For instance, Metropolitan Museum of Art honorary trustee Patti Cadby Birch travels frequently, so she gives guests her New York number to call–even if she’s asked them to dine at her house in Marrakesh or on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Place-card protocol is another free-for-all. Generally, if the dinner is small (eight people or fewer), or if the guests are already acquainted, you can skip the cards, it’s easiest to use blank, prefolded cards, but creative types will inscribe guests’ names on anything from rocks to shells to ivy leaves (using, on the latter, white or silver ink).
For sheer flair, it’s hard to top fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, who’s been known to embroider guests’ names on garden gloves, engrave them on silver ID bracelets or tuck place cards into her signature lipstick totes. Just for fun, she sometimes puts out a card inscribed with an absent celebrity’s name so everyone can dish about who’s not coming to dinner.
Generally, centerpieces fall into one of three categories: the whimsical, the all-natural and the curatorial. Each has its charms.
Hosts in the whimsical vein put together centerpieces with the practiced passion of a set designer. “I always have a theme centerpiece, no matter what” states Tina Santi Flaherty, the New York-based author of The Savvy Woman’s Success Bible(*) (Putnam; $13). Flaherty’s signature centerpieces, exuding humor, “loosen people up.” At her Wildlife Conservation Society dinner, a tiny menagerie (an agate frog, a 19th-century bronze dog, Meissen guinea hens, ceramic chimps) inhabited the table.
If you’re not the whimsical type, flowers never go out of fashion. Ready-made arrangements are fine, but some hosts like to add a personal touch. Consider philanthropist Henry Buhl, who plants 10,000 sunflowers behind his Southampton house each year in preparation for his foundation’s annual benefit. Come August, sunflowers throng the house and tables. Terry Stanfill, an international representative for Christie’s in Los Angeles, started plotting her floral arrangements months in advance of her recent party for the Los Angeles County Art Museum. She planted moonflowers and morning glories, then trained them up over four obelisks towering in the corners of the room–a marvel of foresight (though the full moon that night, she claims, was pure luck).
In the all-natural mode, New York fashion designer Han Feng favors a greens-only decor, covering the table with snipped blades of fresh grass or strewing it with fiat tulip leaves. Kelly Hoppen, the London-based author of Table Chic(*) (Thunder Bay Press; $25) crisscrosses very narrow strips of bamboo in a grid over the table.
Then there’s the curatorial approach, in which the centerpiece serves to display the host’s treasures. Over the years, Beverly Hills artist and designer Tony Duquette has evolved some striking’ centerpieces: a gold-plated armadillo shell, tiny antique oil lanterns from the Crimean War, pomegranates ornamented with small golden insect sculptures and pried in a big gold dish.
Beware: too much precious stuff can take a table over the top. Recalling dinners at the Duchess of Windsor’s Paris house, Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes says, “The table was always covered with things–little gold boxes, cigarette cases, silver-grit candelabra–so that you could hardly see the tablecloth.”
No matter what’s atop the table, what truly counts is those seated around it. “Brilliant people are the best ornament,” as John Loring puts it. We couldn’t agree more. J.S.
Dinner party. A simple phrase that evokes pleasant anticipation in some hosts, unalloyed panic in others. If you are among the latter, heed the advice of the following folks, who entertain with ease. If you are among the former–well, there’s always something to learn.
Refreshingly, even in a contentious world, our experts alt agree on several points. First, home is not the place for the sublimely perfect meal; if you’re really looking to impress people, take them to a first-class restaurant. That said, if you do decide to stay home, organize so that as much as possible is done in advance. Finally (and this is critical), make sure you enjoy the party; otherwise, your guests won’t. The trick is knowing what will ensure your enjoyment. Our savvy hosts have learned, over time, what works for them.
Whether they’re hosting a small dinner in their Manhattan loft or a large buffet in their upper Connecticut house, writer Brooke Hayward and her husband, orchestra leader Peter Duchin, have worked out several strategies for making evenings memorable. Keys to their success? “Music is critical” says Hayward. “It can set the whole tone for the evening. I always try to get a good piano player and, if the evening is going to be a big one, a singer as well.” And at the table? “We always have a fish dish, because so many people don’t eat meat now. Salmon is good, if familiar. For the meat dish, I rely on veal marengo, cassoulet and boeuf bourguignon. They’re easy to serve, you don’t need knives to cut the food and, most important, there are no bones” One last insight: “Choose food that can be served at room temperature. It frees you from the tyranny of perfect timing.”
W. Peter Prestcott, a former director of special projects at Food O Wine (for many years he masterminded Aspen’s Food O Wine Classic), follows what he calls “the Three P Principle: preplan, precook and preset.” Meaning? “Don’t wing anything. Sit down in advance, know exactly what you want to do, choose food that you can have at the ready or that can be cooked easily, and have the scene set well before your guests arrive.”
Los Angeles hostess Diane (DiDi) McNabb shows the confidence that makes for a great party. “My husband and I may not be the world’s best cooks, but we both enjoy cooking. If more than ten guests are involved, however, we do have caterers with whom we’ve developed terrific rapport. And we always make sure to serve a really good Bordeaux.”
As food columnist for The New York Times and author of The Pleasure of Your Company(*) (Viking; $26.95), Molly O’Neill knows the pleasures and problems of feeding those you love. “There are some basic rules that I always follow. First, I stick to three courses. Second, I rely on dishes that can be made ahead and that will improve by being kept for a couple of days. Some favorites are bouillabaisse and preparations with Tuscan white beam. I will mix them with cooked shrimp for a great stew or do a ragout of the beam with roasted garlic. The third rule: Don’t hesitate to use good prepared products to save time. With the bean dishes, I’ll buy some Italian dried beef or salami or prosciutto to serve on the side, then make some garlic bruschetta with good Tuscan bread. For desserts, which I like to do as a heroic course, I’ll buy puff pastry and layer it with cream and berries, or use really wonderful cookies to dress up some sorbet.”
Regardless of how they feed their guests, the masters’ message is clear: be yourself, and plan the party so that you can spend time with your friends. After all, that’s really what they’ve come for. As Molly O’Neill says, “Making it easy on yourself is the best host gift in the world.”
Why does something as pleasant as wine flummox so many people? Probably because it’s been overburdened with a daunting mystique. Strike a blow for libation liberation by heeding these hosts and hostesses whose guiding philosophy is that wine is meant to be enjoyed–not to be intimidating, impressive or idolized.
You’d expect a Frenchwoman to have definite ideas about wine, and Countess Isabelle d’Ornano has them. “My husband and I almost always go with Bordeaux, because they are less complicated and more inviting than Burgundies. We particularly like Chateau Beychevelle. Everyone likes it. It’s our great standby.”
Although Denise Hale, philanthropist and social force, lives in San Francisco and on a ranch in Sonoma near the heart of California wine country, she really prefers European wines. “I’ll serve wine throughout the whole evening, from cocktails to dessert. Before dinner, I like a good French white Burgundy and rich Italian reds such as Brunello and Barolo. I serve good wine at the cocktail hour. Life’s too short to drink anything but good wine” She adds, “I feel it’s really important to keep a time limit on the cocktail hour; otherwise it throws my dinner off. For me, half an hour is just right.” At the table, France rules. “I’m very fond of Chateau Haut-Brion for white, and for red, Chateau Beychevelle. They’re my favorites.”
Television host and Allure contributing editor Nina Griscom, who’s also writing a book on entertaining for William Morrow, offers these thoughts on wine: “Like skirt lengths, there’s no right or wrong. Just go with what you like and think will work,” Griscom will start out with dry white wine or dry Champagne for cocktails, perhaps continuing with the same at dinner. As for red: “I find that a slightly chilled Pinot Noir is the single most versatile wine I know.” When calculating how much wine you’ll need for a dinner, Griscom says, “Figure half a bottle per person–an then some.”
Serena Sutcliffe, head of the international wine department at Sotheby’s in London and a certified Master of Wine, naturally has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject–but her ideas about serving it are refreshingly simple. “I remember what an English composition teacher once told me about writing an essay, and it also applies to wines: begin and end with a bang. No question, you must start with Champagne. It tells everyone that the evening is going to be special. And I always end with a good Sauternes. It’s funny the way people profess not to like sweets, but you give them a jolly dessert and a glass of golden Sauternes, and they go home purring.”
“I’ve discovered that what not to do with wine is really more important than what to do” observes George Lang, who, as author of George Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary (soon to be reissued by the Book of the Month Club), doesn’t ride the trends but creates them, and who, as the owner of New York’s Cafe des Artistes, nightly throws one of the best games in town. “Don’t be a label slave. It will be clear that you’re trying to impress. Don’t automatically go for old wines, unless you know for sure how they’ve been kept. In my experience, most old wines have died premature bottle deaths. And don’t fall prey to tent-babble, describing wines as having nuances of semisweet Mexican chocolate found only in one small, remote village, or with the bouquet of a tiny wildflower found on the east slope of Mount Everest.”
Ultimately what’s most important is not a wine’s vintage or pedigree but the fact that you’ve made the effort to serve something that will add to your guests’ good cheer. Though George Lang has played host to the pope, presidents, princes, kings and queens, his first concern remains that people enjoy themselves: “There is no point or advantage in going for a big-label wine for which you have to take out a second mortgage.” An uncommon bit of common sense to which we should all raise our glasses. M.D.