Summer Entertaining Tips From Some of My Favorite Pros

Lessons in warm-weather entertaining from some of my favorite pros.

By Ted Kruckel July 1, 2008, 9:00 AM EDT

Illustration: David Pohl for BizBash

By now Puck is prancing well into his midsummer REM sleep. To inspire you all to make the best of these few fleeting weeks of glory, I decided to ask a few experts whose taste and talents at entertaining are beyond reproach.

1. Suzanne Goin
I was on hand when Suzanne first caught the national spotlight as one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs. She’s statuesque and quietly beautiful, so of course the magazine put her front and center at its New York and Aspen events. My client In Style chose Suzanne’s first restaurant, Lucques, as its night-before-the-Oscars dinner headquarters, and one of my jobs was to ask the chef to come and greet the hoi polloi. She was always intent on the task at hand, with her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail, but she was gracious and shook hands. Once Lucques had established itself as among the best serious restaurants in Los Angeles, she opened A.O.C. (named for appellation d’origine contrôllé, the geographic determinant of what wine may call itself in France) and the Hungry Cat with her husband, David Lentz. 

What would you prepare for guests to see upon arrival and say “wow”?
I think it would be a gigantic and abundant grand aioli—with all kinds of summer vegetables, grilled fish, tomatoes, radishes, etc.—on a huge wooden table for people to feast on.

In California, does everyone drive their SUVs onto the beach to set up like in the Hamptons?
God, that Hamptons thing sounds horrible. We don't really have that here. I'm much more of a low-key, take-the-cooler-to-the-beach kind of girl. Also, in L.A. there is always someone who knows someone with a house on the beach, so that can be fun.

Your favorite aunt calls and says she got a bushel of oysters as a gift from a party guest expected that evening. She's having 20 people and she has never opened an oyster in her life. What does she do?
If this really happened, I would go help her—or call my husband and send one of his shuckers from the Hungry Cat. Or she could steam 
them and then pile them up on a table and hand out oyster knives and let everyone shuck themselves ... kind of festive.

Suggest a few summer wines.
I will always be a rosé girl. Domaine Tempier, Copain Le Printemps. J&H Chardonnay, which happens to be made by my business partner Caroline Styne, is really delicious.

2. Phillip Roche
Philip is the proprietor of Plant Specialists, one of the city’s top landscape designers. He’s a Kiwi who once raised my hackles by observing that “American style is an oxymoron.” His work was on view this year at the Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse, where he transformed a bleak outdoor terrace with simple container plants into a tropical oasis. He explained to me that in doing New York City terraces, blocking ugly views—whether the street below, the tacky neighbors’ gold lame curtains, or a power line—was just as important as picking pretty plants. He lives under a bridge in Queens, and before you turn your nose up, know that he has a giant multilevel outdoor terrace and room for 100 or so where he entertains with abandon.

What did you put on the grill last year that worked all the time?

Vegetables. Easy, and they are even good if they get a bit burnt. Lamb and blue cheeseburgers.

Describe an outdoor summer party where you walked in and realized it would be a good night.
Someone at the door with great drinks. Cool, groovy, happy music, [but] not too loud to talk. A good-looking mixed crowd of old, young, straight, gay, men, and women; New York is way too socially segregated.

Give me some summer bar tips.
A summer punch with mint being poured in the group. No waiting at a bar. Wine slightly chilled; red Côtes du Rhône.

What are your rules about lighting?
I only use candles with hurricane lanterns. Wind is always a problem. They have to be easy to light, and clean is always an issue. For electric light, no bulbs should be visible, ever.

Any summer no-nos?
Sushi in hot weather is a disaster waiting to happen. Also, tight clothes.

3. Tinker Boe
Tinker’s trademark is that she gets her hands dirty. At a dinner party I recently threw (where she was supposed to be a guest), she watched me lamely turn a hot giant tray of demi lamb racks with my tongs and said, “Oh, Jesus.” Then, in white leather and cashmere, she pushed me out of the way and flipped the whole lot with her fingers in seconds. As proprietor of the caterer Mood Food, she taught me long ago that great-looking trays are important, but how the food tastes determines how guests remember it. 

Describe a summer or outdoor party that was just amazing.
We produced a private party on a property with Moroccan tents. All of the courses were incredibly aromatic surprises. Fish was cooked on the grill but served tagine-style in individual tagines—you’d lift the ceramic dome and the perfumes were intoxicating … fresh bass with tomato and fava beans and a special Moroccan spice mixture. Rose sorbet was a palate cleanser. Mint-crusted baby lamb chops for the main course. People sat at low tables, close to the ground, which made them feel more in tune with the outside, and ate from 
edible centerpieces. It was a sit-down dinner that felt very communal and very green.

What do you think is good on a grill?

Almost anything, as long as you know how to control the heat and watch the
 sugar content of your sauces or marinades. The sugar should be left out of the marinade and only put in the sauce for final basting. Otherwise, you need to grill on a lower flame, so the meat or
 fish doesn't burn. Also, remember that the grill can be a great steaming or smoking
 device if you package your food properly in aluminum foil—or in what I call a makeshift double boiler of disposable aluminum pans.

What’s new this season?
You should check out Robert Verdi’s new party space. It’s incredible.

4. Robert Verdi
I knew Robert and I would see eye to eye when I asked him to name his favorite summer benefit—Diffa’s Dining by Design in the Hamptons. It was kooky, colorful fun, and he and I were photographed for one of those Hamptons magazines having a fantastic time. The TV personality (he currently hosts Fashion Police on the Style Network) and interior designer’s newest creation is called Luxe Laboratory, a party space adjacent to his office in Midtown. You bring the guests and he brings just about everything else to the space, which includes a spa, outdoor terrace, dining room, and private library.

What’s on your table this summer?

Smith & Hawken has these reusable and unbreakable melamine—it’s like Bakelite—plates in an ochre saffron-y color I love. For glassware I like clear, oversize juice glasses, just short of the size of a pilsner. You need water!

Talk to me about napkins.

I use 100 percent flax linen large napkins. I use Beach Days detergent by Good Home Company, which smells great and everyone comments on. I can’t abide any poly blends; they’re just not absorbent. I’m also not a fan of busy print napkins. I don’t want to wipe my face on a painting.

5. Geoffrey and  Margaret Zakarian
I’ve known Geoffrey, whom I kind of think of as the Omar Sharif of chefs, for longer than either of us care to admit. Back when he was chef at Brian McNally’s 44 in the Royalton, I went for lunch three times a week and did tons of events there. Chic, yes, but the food was the hidden surprise. I still dream of the blue-cheese croutons that accompanied a salad there. Along the way he found elegant and personable Margaret, whom I knew separately as the party diva of Lotus on 14th Street, where I did a few events but had more fun as a frequent guest. Now, of course, they’re famous with their restaurants, Town and Country, and this summer Geoffrey is taking on all the food and beverage for the Water Club Borgata Hotel, opening in Atlantic City at the end of June, which I’m told is going to be all about summer—four pools, outdoor cabanas, and a spa overlooking the ocean.

What did you serve all the time that worked last summer?
Ice cold rosé, magnums of Domain Ott. We also eat a lot of Lebanese food in the summer: tabbouleh, kusa, Syrian bread.

What do you put on the grill that always works, is easy, and is different?
Grilled corn with fresh basil, olive oil, and butter.

What music do you put on if you really want people to dance?

A remix of Stevie Wonder’s “As,” Verve Remixed Vol. 2, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bang Bang,” Fergie’s “London Bridge,” Kayne West’s “Stronger.”

6. Paula LeDuc
If you took Flora and Fauna, stuck them in a mason jar, and shook really hard, out would fall Paula LeDuc. She is San Francisco’s best and busiest caterer. To catch my drift, here’s about one-tenth of what she left me on one voice mail message: “We are just in the spring here, and babies are happening. I’m giving birth to all these babies [her parties], and it's joyous and it's good news, but I’m so busy—how are you? I’m so sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you—isn’t there a recession? Why are all these people throwing all these parties? Oh it's just wonderful to hear from you—now, darling, tell me again why are you calling me?”

Her newest venture is Annadel 1880 Winery and Gardens, in Sonoma. If you think a fine food and eclectic wine tasting under an arbor with hanging quiet lights amid the old brick ruins of the original winery sounds appealing, give her a call.

What do you bring from home for a beach picnic?
Well, china. Yes, china—so what if it is work and a piece breaks? In the moment it is so worth it. I’m not a basket fan, but I have one wire breadbasket that always makes it's way into the car. Large linen napkins. No plastic. I compromise on stemware, though, so stackable glasses. Wooden trays, I guess. A bamboo cutting board saves the day.

These stackable glasses—what goes in after unstacking?
I’m a red girl, so I’ll pick up a pinot noir—Merry Edwards is one that comes to mind. Sparkling wine, prosecco, affordable champagne are all fine, as long as you have fruit and juice to mix with.

Summer party that lingers largest in your mind?
My daughter Diana’s wedding. Having seen it all because of the leftovers I bring home, she wanted food of my parents' and my heritage, which is Northern Italian. I was so flattered. She wanted soft polenta like my mother made, so it had to be stirred in the tent, then topped with a special ragu, which has chicken and fennel sausages, and the aromas filled the tent. It was hard, the smoke and staff and everything figuring it out, but it was absolutely perfect. I guess I did change Grandma’s recipe. Just a little bit.

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