|Chapter 10: Holiday Entertaining
I love celebrating the holidays. Some of my favorite events have been planned around the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year's. Although I'm continuously busy throughout the year, there is something about these six weeks that brings me a special joy and pride as a party planner and event producer. The holidays are a time of bringing families together and celebrating old traditions. Of course the holidays are also a time to start new traditions! Over the years I have been privileged to help decorate the home of Vice President and Mrs. Gore for the Christmas season and help plan unforgettable holiday parties for numerous clients.
More than any other time of year, the holiday season seems to offer a reason to throw a real bash, to celebrate. The same principles apply for holiday entertaining as for any other kind of party, but with a unique twist when it comes to decorating and atmosphere. There is one more detail to consider when hosting a holiday party: how to survive! As with any party you plan or host, having a well-thought-out strategy and keeping your sense of humor will help see you through this very special time.
I chose three of my favorite events of recent years to highlight how special the holidays can be. And there is also one for those of you who love the summer.
The Event: Thanksgiving in the City
THE SETTING An apartment in New York City on Park Avenue overlooking Central Park.
THE DESIGN The hostess wanted to have a casual and symbolic setting for her family's annual Thanksgiving celebration that utilized her very formal dining table. The environment in the apartment was formal, but my clients were rather down-to-earth, so I thought I'd balance the look of the home with the personalities of the host and hostess. I decided to make the design rustic, but keep it simply beautiful.
THE TABLE DESIGN First, I covered the table with foam board, available at any art supply store. This allowed me to set anything I liked on the top without damaging the table. The foam board is placed over table pads to ensure safety for the table. I covered the foam board surface with terra-cotta-colored tumbled marble, which had an earthy look that played into the fall foliage because of the orange and rust colors. To fill in the spaces, I rubbed the entire table with moss, which filled the crevices between the tiles. This gave a feeling of the earth, symbolic of the harvest associated with Thanksgiving.
Large birch tree logs (that would later be used for firewood) were set as the "anchor" for the runner. Placed among the logs was a variety of crystal bowls and canisters that held cranberries, some of which fell onto the tabletop. Beautiful flowers and other fruit representing the holiday were also placed in the bowls and canisters. Hollowed-out gourds and small pumpkins served as vases for the flowers. This really added a natural beauty designed to bring the guests into nature, while dining on Park Avenue!
Large, chunky, round candles lined with cinnamon sticks (purchased from Pottery Barn) were set on small antique stands and placed directly on the table. To add an interesting twist, the table was set with a mixture of the hostess's fine china, crystal, and flatware. I loved that the guests ate off expensive place settings mixed with inexpensive decorations. The combination was rustic eleganceperfect for Thanksgiving in the City.
THE MENU Louis Lanza, chef and owner of Josie's and Citrus Bar and Grill in New York City, provided the delicious catering for this fantastic Thanksgiving celebration.
An Almost Tratitional Thanksgiving
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
12-Grain Biscuits with Horseradish-Unfused Butter
20-pound Roasted Free-Range Pasilla Chile and Cinnamon-Rubbed Turkey
Corn Bread, Pecan, and Fresh Cranberry Dressing
Baked Apples with Raisins and Cinnamon
Oven Pasnips and Carrots with Rosemary
Slow-Cooked String Beans with Smoked Chicken Sausage
Fruit Pie with Macadamia Crusted Top
Pumpkin Carrot Cake
THE EVENT: Christmas in Connecticut
THE LOCATION The historical home of clients in Connecticut that was built in 1891.
THE SETTING A fairy-tale mansion in the woods.
THE DESIGN This particular client owns a chain of boutique-style gift stores and coffee shops, so during the holiday season she is too busy to decorate her home. She approached me with the project of preparing her family's holiday decorations, and I was elated. Her home is my dream house, and if she ever put it on the market, I'd snatch it up in a second. I was able to hand-pick all the decorations I wanted from her amazing shops, and I felt like a kid in a candy store.
THE LIGHTING Holiday lighting is very important, especially when decorating a home of this size and grandeur. I wanted passersby to gaze in awe at the home's expression of the season. I hired a lighting company to install lights on the outside of this magnificent home. I up-lit the house in alternating red and green lights, washing the entire front in those holiday hues. Miniature juniper trees on the front porch were covered in small white lights. This provided an intimate touch in front of such a large home. Tiny white lights ran along the entire edge of the back porch, like delicate icicles hanging from the arches. This tactic allowed my client to enjoy the lighting from inside her home.
THE TREES Three Christmas trees were placed inside the home. The first, a traditional tree in the family room, had classic-looking ornaments, multicolored lights, and the added touch of real candy canes. The next tree, of sheer elegance, was set in the alcove of the amazing formal living room. It was covered in tiny white lights and delicate ornaments. Hand-tied bows of silk shantung in solid mango, hot pink, and gold and plaid made the tree seemed dressed for the occasion. The colors complemented the wall treatments of the room. The outcome was the " picture-perfect tree." The third tree was set up in the kids' playroom. While I had been able to decorate the trees in the main areas of the home as I deemed best, I wanted my client's children to experience the thrill of decorating their own tree for Christmas. I helped with the lights on the tree, but the kids did the rest themselves. Handmade ornaments from school, past and present, and their favorites covered the tree from top to bottom. The key was to let the children's imaginations go wild and let them enjoy the season.
TUTERA TIP: Fresh garlands and ribbons should be kept a safe distance from open fires and fireplaces. It's easy to get caught up in the look of a magnificent mantle, but remember that both of these holiday trimmings are fire hazards.
OTHER HOLIDAY DECORATIONS This fantastic home has twelve fireplaces. I thought it would be fun to create a decor for each one around my version of the "Twelve Days of Christmas." I decorated each fireplace mantel with a specific theme based on the twelve themes that were reminiscent of the season. The fireplace in the formal dining room was all white and had an antique mirror hanging above it. The feeling was very clean and pure, like snow, so I placed fifteen different snowmen, in different sizes and styles, on a bed of Christmas tree branches and greens, adding contrast to all the white. I draped strings of crystals (available at any home improvement store or lighting company) along the edge of the fireplace and mantel. These crystals are an inexpensive way to add sparkle and formality to any setting. Between the swags of crystals I hung simple yet elegant round glass ornaments. Each ornament hung at a different level and was tied with a see-through iridescent opaque ribbon.
In the living room, since the tree was elegant and formal, I decorated the fireplace a little less formally. It was covered with a variety of carved wood animals. A garland and the same silk ribbon that was used on the tree coordinated the overall feel of the room. The fireplace in the study was simple and masculine. A variety of antique nutcrackers imported from Germany were set among a small amount of Christmas greens placed atop the mantel. The edge was accented with miniature nutcrackers hanging like fringe. For the fireplace in the family room, which was traditional like the tree that stood beside it, I draped garland and a wide plaid Christmas ribbon, and topped the mantel with antique angels. The theme was representative of peace for the season. The next fireplace was decorated for the children's enjoyment with a variety of teddy bears dressed for Christmas sitting on top of fresh Christmas greens.
One of the most beautiful and amazing fireplaces was in the main entrance of the home. Since Santa Claus is one of the most visible symbols of the holiday, this mantel featured a variety of Santas. Garland was also draped along the sides of the mantel and accented with tiny white lights that led to a huge Santa holding a bag of gifts. I placed a plate of cookies on the mantel to represent the traditional offering families leave for the big guy. As a finishing touch, the entire banister in the foyer was covered in a garland of festive holiday ribbon.
TUTERA TIP: Providing a separate dining table for the younger kids is a great way to keep them entertained, calm, and still part of the holiday. The kids' table should be shorter in height than a regular table, and you can rent kid-size chairs. They will feel more important and have a lot more fun. Place a fully decorated miniature Christmas tree in the center of the table for a whimsical touch.
THE EVENT: A New Year's Eve Celebration
THE LOCATION The newly finished log cabin home of my clients in Westchester County, New York.
THE SETTING The wooded backyard of the family estate.
THE CONCEPT This was the only party I planned for the turn of the century. Though I was asked to plan major extravaganzas from Atlantic City to New York City, I chose to plan only one event for this important milestone. My clients were the family of other clients I have worked closely with over the years, and I wanted to help plan this dreamlike spectacle to ring in the new year and new century. The evening was a perfect finale to six months of planning and preparation. This party, like the turn of the century, was a once-in-a-lifetime event for everyone involved.
The evening began with cocktails inside the clients' new home. Guests were greeted with a glass of champagne in the front courtyard and then guided to a wide-open space on the first level of the home. The house was positioned in such a way that guests had no idea there was an enormous tent erected at the back of the home. Since the house was an elaborate log cabin, I decided to play on the juxtaposition of the home. The cocktail space was designed to match the log cabin feel while the main party space was characterized by sleek decor, lively entertainment, and exotic food. The back of the home had continuous French doors, and these were kept closed until the end of the cocktail hour. Jazz played over the house system during cocktails and flowed into the tent when it was time for the guests to move inside. At just the right moment the doors were opened and the tented space was grandly unveiled. As they did, the music became livelier, so everyone knew where to go.
The tent was extremely sturdy, and guests felt as if they were still inside a permanent structure. It took three weeks to install the tent. The walls and ceiling were draped with white chiffon fabric, pleated and pulled to perfection. White carpet covered the floor except for the glossy white space in the center for dancing. This was not a sit-down dinner, so I carefully created areas within the large tent for guests to eat. The furniture, including sofas, cocktail tables, bar stools, lamps, and wall sconces, created an intimate setting.
An enormous three-tier crystal chandelier was hung at the entrance of the tent to create an impression of grandeur. Below it was a round table with a beautiful centerpiece made from simple wheat grass, green apples, and small silver-encased candles. A long table was set on either side, and a row of three smaller crystal chandeliers hung above each one. This setup allowed those who wanted to sit while eating to do so. This is important when having a variety of age groups at a party without a structured sit-down dinner. Older guests may not be comfortable standing to eat. Remember, you want everyone to be as comfortable as possible, and this includes your curiously good-looking distant cousin who never seems to show up with a date, yet ends up shirtless and leading a conga line with the waiters by the end of the evening.
Identical buffet stations were placed in the rear corners of the tent, and two bars were in the front corners. In addition, I designed two unique stations on opposite sides of the tent. To the left was a sushi bar and to the right a vodka and caviar bar. Those who just wanted to nibble instead of eating an entire plateful of food were able to do so. The sushi bar was made from four large fish tanks topped with a thick plate of Plexiglas. The tanks were filled with a variety of goldfish, which were given as favors at the end of the evening in small crystal fish bowls with the client's name and the date of celebration: 1-1-2000! The caviar and vodka bar was as simple and elegant as the offerings: a long wooden bar covered in white padded fabric, a thick piece of white marble on top, beautiful candles, and silver pedestals to hold the caviar and accoutrements.
For additional seating, two "lounges" were created in the corners of the sunken dance floor, which was in the center of the tent. Identical white sectionals were placed on a bed of grass -- so that the guests would feel as if they were at both a chic club and a theater space. The tiered approach gave the sensation of being in a Broadway theater: the dance floor was the lowest level; the guest and buffet tables surrounding it were on the next level,and the multilevel stage was the highest tier.
TUTERA TIP: Be sure there is plenty of space around the buffet area to allow easy movement.
THE ENTERTAINMENT A stage was built behind the dance floor for the entertainers. A DJ was placed fourteen feet above the guests' heads, giving the illusion of a nightclub. His oversize white leather chair served as a perfect base for him to spin.
This was a night like no other, so only one entertainer would not suffice. I created a night of disco divas. First, Alicia Bridges performed her famous single "I Love the Nightlife." Then the group Musique played a forty-five minute set, including their hit song "Push Push in the Bush." Finally, Lisa Lisa of Cult Jam fame brought the house down with her music and fabulous dancers.
Having three different entertainers along with a DJ allowed the guests to hear something they liked and have a great time. The evening was a continuous build of entertainment suspense and surprises, the perfect schedule for such a magical millennium evening. Four sexy go-go dancers dressed in silver outfits danced on clear Plexiglas boxes, which were dramatically up-lit from inside, adding to this theatrical night.
THE MENU Hors d'oeuvres were served during cocktails. Small, unique food was served, both hot and cold, but everything was bite size. (You don't want to serve anything too messy or too big, especially at a black-tie event.) The waiters were instructed to keep a continuous flow of food but not to offer the same item simultaneously. The buffet stations offered a variety of grilled fish, vegetables, and crepes. The sushi bar had a variety 11 made to order." After the midnight countdown, a dessert buffet that replaced the dinner stations enticed the guests with a variety of sweets, coffee and tea choices, and cordials. At 2:00 A.M., we opened a breakfast bar, complete with made-to-order omelets and a bagel-andlox spread that would be the envy of your favorite deli. This was a welcome surprise to guests who had worked up a hearty appetite dancing and ringing in the new year.
TUTERA TIP: When your party isn't a sit-down affair, make sure there is adequate seating for your guests. It is also a good idea to make provisions for sufficient bathroom facilities.
THE EVENT: A Memorial Day Clambake
I invited several friends to my home in East Hampton, New York, for a casual dinner to celebrate the beginning of summer, my favorite time of year. I wanted the night to be fun and festive, and the theme was to be a surprise. Clambakes don't always have to be on the beach or in Elvis Presley movies. In fact, even the sand is optional. The only real requirement is clams. This was such an easy party to pull together, and it was very cute. And it didn't cost me a bucket of clams, either.
THE LOCATI0N My house is not particularly nautical in decor, so once I chose the clambake theme, I needed to add a little extra beach atmosphere to my weekend country farm home.
The party was to take place in the backyard. I needed a table long enough to seat eight people comfortably. Since I'm not a conventional guy, a regular picnic table with benches just wouldn't do. I started off at an antique store looking for a farm table. After pricing them, I realized it was more money than I needed to spend. It occurred to me that I could duplicate the look with a door of some kind. But where does one buy a door that looks like an antique?
I went to a local junkyard and looked for a wooden plank door that was clean and level. I found the perfect door: It was white, in excellent condition, and cost only $30. But what was I going to use as a pedestal to support it? I found two battered birdbaths of the same height, as luck would have it, they were standard table height. The birdbaths cost $75. I asked the junkyard attendant to help me cut a hole in the center of the door that would allow me to use an umbrella. I liked the idea of having a doorknob on the door so that the table would become a conversation piece. I searched through bins of knobs and found a spectacular aged all-bronze knob. It was perfect and was only $5. So there I was in all my junkyard glory, having spent only $110 for a masterpiece table. I used an eclectic mix of chairs from my home, and the table looked great even before I set it.
THE TABLE SETTING It's amazing what you can do with ordinary dishtowels and yesterday's newspaper. Knowing that clams can be messy, I didn't want to use any of my matching expensive linens to set the table. I actually loved the idea of not matching anything for once. The assortment of colors adds a lively flair to an otherwise black-and-white newspaper tablecloth. The newspaper cost 50 cents, and each of the dishtowels was less than $2. For an extra touch, I bought eight miniature terra-cotta clay pots, knocked the bottoms off them, and used the remainder of the pot as napkin rings. My everyday china and silverware were the place settings, which worked well because the colors are not consistent. I used clear Mason jars for drinking glasses and served homemade pink lemonade, with the fresh lemons still in the bowl.
3 two-pound lobsters
3 pounds of New England steamers
3 pounds mussels
3 pounds littleneck clams
2 pounds shelled shrimp
2 pounds hot Italian sausage
Onions, leeks, and potatoes stewed in white wine
8 ears of corn
2 bottles of merlot
2 bottles of chardonnay
THE ATM0SPHERE With all the color already in place, I didn't think I needed an elaborate floral arrangement. Because I live near the water and the woods, mosquitoes can be a real nuisance in the summer months, so citronella candles were a must for the night. I placed the candles in two locations to ensure a no-buzzing zone. One set of candies, placed in large hurricane glass containers, was on the table on a runner of sand, and the other set hung from the opened umbrella. The glow from the hanging candies beautifully illuminated the whole table and served as the only source of light after dusk. One final touch was placing the heads of yellow daisies inside the hurricane glasses, on the napkins, and along the sand runner.
This party was so much fun, and I recently sold the concept to a client who wants to expand the number of guests to 250. She is using her own backyard (mine is way too small) but otherwise is keeping everything pretty much the same. There's just one problem: Where am I going to find a door that seats 250 people?
TUTERA Tip: When buying seafood, make sure you get the freshest available. Buy it on the day of the party and keep it refrigerated until you are ready to prepare the meal.
Copyright © 2001 by David Tutera and Golden Advantage Productions