Thanksgiving Mise-en-Scène

Thanksgiving 2012 Montage“think like Coppola or Demille when planning your table” 

Mise-en-scène, as taught in my college film studies course, is a cinematic term which refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement – the composition of sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. When I’m planning a party, an event, or even a simple dinner party, I always keep this concept front of mind. I think that entertaining is very much a production (either large or small scale).

Framed in this light, Thanksgiving at the Richmond is for sure an epic.  Filled with tradition, a little excess, and a few novel touches each year. It has become a must attend ritual for the 18 or so folks who gather around our table. And for me it is my very favorite day of the year (thanks in part to lots of help from guests, bloody marys and lorazepam).

For sure the holiday is all about the food (I go the traditional route); but to me it is even more about the table.  Nothing makes guests feel more festive, or welcome, than walking in to a dining room and seeing a thoughtfully planned and attractively executed table-scape with a place set just for them.

Here is a round-up of the “props” I used to create last year’s Enchanted Forest motif:

1 – The centerpieces were made with Burnt Orange Calla Lilies, Purple Artichokes and Light Pink Peonies to add fall color and a natural feel.
2Festive Quail Friends from Wisteria added some still life to the table.
3 – The place settings were on Customized Cranes Cards (a thoughtful host gift from a friend).
4Faux Bois dishes: a discontinued pattern from Marta Stewart & Burliegh
5 – Rather than spend a fortune on a table cloth, I used 12 yards of Mineral Linen from a close out bin.

6 – I love My Drap tear off cotton napkins – here I used  Brown Gingham in the luncheon size.

7Indian Corn painted with Metallic Paint and then sprinkled with extra fine Gold Glitter added some sparkle to the arrangement
8Hermes “Les Maisons Enchantées” salad/dessert plates – a slow building personal collection of mine.
9 – And finally, lots and lots of of Reidel for Target wine glasses to catch light and inspire toasting.


Fried Chicken & Fixin’s for Jen’s 40th

fried chicken“Buttermilk Fried Chicken, with all the trimmings, the center of a festive 40th birthday celebration for Dr. Kim.”

Jen at TableWe’ve held three fortieth Birthday parties at The Richmond in as many years. Themes have ranged from a Staten Island BBQ to a Throwback Fraternity House Mixer. So for my dear friend Jennifer Kim, I was challenged to forge a new route. I wanted to host a casual Sunday event where many different people from all factions of her life could interact in a meaningful way and have fun. Since everyone (including Jen) goes crazy for my Buttermilk Fried Chicken, a recipe and process adapted over many years (with a lot of influence from my Mississippi grandmother), so that seemed like a natural menu choice. Who doesn’t like fried chicken? I’ve even seen vegetarians fight over one of my drumsticks. So from there the Fried Chicken & Fixin’s Brunch was hatched (pun intended).

Sides MontageAs good as the Chicken is (and it is good – more about that later), any successful picnic (indoors or out) it is all about the sides. Because I was cooking for 50 people – I wanted to make sure I had guaranteed hits on my table. For this reason the four I picked were all tried and true classics. First up Buttermilk and Dill Potato Salad with a garnish of sliced boiled eggs (thanks Martha). Next, Creamy BBQ Peanut Coleslaw (it sounds strange but this combo really works). Then Pesto Pasta Salad with Peas and Pine Nuts is always a hit (thanks Ina). And no authentic Southern gathering would be complete without Crustless Pimento Cheese Sandwiches on White Bread (thanks Mom). Judging from the empty serving bowls, and the 4 dozen pimento cheese sandwiches which were gone in a flash, I was four for four here. I love it when there are no leftovers – so following the recipe’s serving sizes I planned on a half portion per guest. And as the host this menu worked well for me too. I deliberately chose recipes which could be made earlier that morning and refrigerated or where the components could be prepped ahead of time and combined at the last minute. This was critical – as I had almost 100 pieces of Chicken to fry.

imageThe secret to great Fried Chicken is mostly process driven. My late Grandmother Wanda’s bird was the blue ribbon standard in my family. A few years before she passed away I called her specifically to talk Fried Chicken. I had done a lot of research and seen that many chefs recommended frying the chicken until it was just lightly brown and then finishing it in the oven for about a half hour. This allowed for simultaneous serving and a more uniform cooking process. I expected my Grandmother to shudder at this notion – as I had only seen her tending chicken one piece at a time. Instead she told me this was the way her mother cooked fried chicken when she was growing up on a small farm in Iowa. This was the only endorsement I needed. And after many batches I can now attest that the process works (bring the chicken out of the oven when the internal temperature in the breast reaches 160 degrees).

My other Secrets for Fabulous Fried Chicken:

  1. Brine the chicken overnight in buttermilk and salt to guarantee moistness and infuse flavor (I also add Crystal Hot Sauce to add a slight kick).
  2. The paper bag method works. Combine the flour and seasonings in a paper grocery bag, drop the pieces in one by one, shake to coat. This a sure a sure fire way to uniformly coat each piece – and the bags make clean up a breeze.
  3. After you have it coated put the chicken back in the fridge on racks in baking trays and refrigerate for a half hour. This allows the coating to set and adhere to the chicken.
  4. Nothing works better for your frying process than a cast iron skillet and peanut oil. The cast iron keeps the temperature of the oil uniform and insulates the chicken from the flame. The high flash point of peanut oil keeps that burnt flour flavor away. I use a candy thermometer to keep my oil around 360 degrees throughout frying process.
  5. Use the best chicken you can find. All natural chicken (I prefer the antibiotic and hormone free variety at Whole Foods) is the key component to insuring great chicken flavor. I cut the breasts in half to allow for more manageable and uniform pieces.
  6. And finally select a great sous chef. For this party it was my good friend Sarah Brick – who did a smashing job. It for sure takes two people to keep this process moving along.

Custom Cocktail NapkinA few more touches made the day memorable. The pre-made Strawberry Limeade served in a glass canister on the bar was a hit – allowing people to add vodka or champagne as they liked. To keep things festive I had Custom Cocktail and Luncheon Napkins made for the occasion at For Your Party. They have an winning assortment and their real time design tool is fantastic. Having another friend handle the cake (kudos Amy Waldon who chose an excellent one from Deerfield’s Bakery) allowed me focus on the main course. And to keep things easy, I used Disposable Bamboo Plates which looked chic and minimized clean-up. But the real secret to the party’s success was the guest of honor. A true friend to many, she inspired the very best from all of us on her big day. Happy fortieth Dr. Kim.


A Dinner for a Duke

image“what to do when a aspiring reality star comes for supper”

imageEntertaining Royalty presents its challenges – be it the Queen of England, the King of Pop, or a friend who has a new reality show. Recently I was tasked with the final scenario, which thankfully made the pressure a bit less intense. The guest of honor – Christos Garkinos, fresh off the launch of his new Bravo show, The Dukes of Melrose. Christos was in town with his crew from Decades in Los Angeles to host a three day pop up at our store space519. Having just returned from a buying trip to Paris I decided the menu would be decidedly French. The challenge – to replicate some of the amazing dishes I had during my visit.

A fun crew convened, my three favorite local PR mavens, Kimberly Burt, Abby Dunn and Amanda Puck, uber chic stylist Annie Barlow, chef/socialite/ceo Toni Canada, artist David Csicsko (just back from a project at the White House) and his partner Chicago Tribune Editor (and fashion expert) David Syrek. Jimmy’s soundtrack of french pop provided the backdrop, Moscow Mules were pressed, and then came the main event – dinner.

Christos MontageCourse by course I presented dishes inspired by my Paris haunts. First up “Hot Dog en Baguette” Bites. Amanda and I love to go a small food stand right off the Place de la Concorde and eat their specialty – Hot Dog in Baguette. It’s kind of simple and at the same time kind of genius. They take a baguette which is partially hollowed out, insert a kosher frank, pile shredded Gruyere on top, and then put the whole thing under a broiler for a minute or so. The finished product is crispy on the outside and pillowy soft inside. Finished with a thin strip of mustard (Dijon – of course) it is culinary perfection. For the the dinner we made them just as detailed above (using my favorite dawgs from Paulina Market) and then cut them into a bite size piece. With a dab of mustard creme fresh they became a fabulous amuse bouche.

Another trick I love in french cooking is using haricorts verts (aka green beans) as a base for a salad in lieu of lettuce or greens. Au Moulin Vent (see my previous post Two Dining Gems in Paris) does a wonderful version of this concept with fresh crab meat. Drawing upon this, for the salad course I presented “Haricots Verts with Crab, Capers & Dijon Vinaigrette.” I lightly blanched the green beans and then tossed them in sea salt and a mustard vinaigrette. I topped them with fresh lump crab meat, toasted almond slivers, salt cured capers and diced boiled egg. Finished with a bit more vinaigrette they tasted incredible and looked smashing on my Hermes Balcons du Guadalquivir plates.

imageFor the “Filet of Beef Bourguignonne with Potatoes Robuchon” I borrowed from two experiences. I love the 50/50 potatoes served by chef Joel Robuchon at his self named L’Atelier. Named for their excessive 1 to 1 ratio of butter and potatoes they are divine. Now onto the beef. Last month I had a wonderful Filet of Beef Bourguignonne at Au Bon Accueil – a charmer tucked on a small street by the Eiffel Tower. Don’t confuse this with traditional Beef Bourguignon (the famed Burgandy Beef Stew). This Beef Bourguignonne is made with 1″ tenderloin filets which are pan sauteed in butter and served in a red wine reduction with bacon, baby onions and mushrooms. I did have to consult Julia Child for help with this one – and as always her recipe was spot on (as is this great adaptation from Ina Garten).

For dessert Mille Feuille with Vanilla Custard & Framboise. was not directly inspired by my trip, but by a desert served here in Chicago at the French Diner Au Cheval. My puff pastry discs were cut from Dufour Pastry (available in the frozen foods section at Whole Foods), layered with homemade vanilla custard, and finished with a delicate raspberry sauce and fresh raspberries. Served in Vintage Champagne Glasses (a favorite Christmas gift from a dear friend) they provided the perfect end note for a wonderful evening.

For additional photos, and more fun details about the evening, check out the dinner as featured on refinery29.

Dukes of  Melrose 
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A Birthday Dinner for Jimmy & Toni

A few days after Jim’s birthday, and a week or so after my dear friend Toni Canada’s, I hosted a seated dinner in their honor at The Richmond. Toni and I love to cook together. In February we collaborated on Fried Chicken and Waffles Dinner (my chicken, her waffles, and lots of fun) and the previous fall we co-hosted a Mexican Fiesta where she taught me how to make Cheese and Jalapeno Tamales from scratch and I added some of my family favorites from a lifetime spent around a lot of Mexican food. For this double birthday celebration we came together to create a four course menu – each taking the lead with two courses. We wanted to capitalize on the fresh flavors of the summer season.

The sixteen guests were broken into two tables and we switched seating mid-way through the evening to allow more people to mix and mingle. This summer for some reason I was really feeling blue ginghham – so I built the feel of the dining tables around blue check tablecloths (creating a less formal feel with the picnic pattern). And I elevated things a bit by using china and pressed white napkins for the place settings.  Hydrangeas from my garden served as the beginning for the center pieces.

For the cocktail hour my friend Jen Kim and I juiced a watermelon earlier in the day to make Watermelon Margaritas with fresh lime juice.  We also juiced a pound of summer tomatoes which served as the base for a Tomato Martini with Blue Cheese Olives (she graciously stuffed a few dozen with Maytag blue).  And for dinner we kept things simple with a case of a remarkable Rose (see post below).

Toni began her courses with a lovely Tomato and Watermelon Gazpacho that had the perfect amount of heat.  She topped each bowl with a feta garnish.  I made the easiest cheese straws ever by coating two sheets of frozen puff pastry (I like Defours brand the best – available in the frozen foods section of Whole Foods) with melted butter, an egg wash and a heavy dose of parmesan cheese, before cutting them into strips with a pastry wheel and baking.  Next up Lump Crab Cakes (perfectly executed by Toni with just enough added ingredients to add flavor and hold them together) served on a giant heirloom tomato slice with Remoulade.  I made a the sauce for the crab cakes from a recipe I developed based on a salad dressing my Mississippi grandmother bottled in her kitchen and sold in the 1950s.

For the entree we had Roasted Beef Tenderloin Medallions with a Habanero BBQ Sauce served over White Corn Grits with Summer Corn (cut from the cob earlier in the day and mixed into the hot grits just before serving). My friend Matt Summy orders stone ground grits from Anson Mills in Columbia South Carolina and he is always good enough to share a few bags. The flavors mingled beautifully on the plate and I finally cooked a tenderloin to a perfect medium rare.  I began with three 3 lb tenderloins, rubbed with salt, course ground pepper and olive oil.  I let them rest and come to room temperature for about an hour before they went into the oven.  I roasted the tenderloins in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes or until the internal temperature was 125 degrees.  It is critical to check the meat often with a instant read thermometer to avoid over-cooking. Once out of the oven I tented them with foil and let them rest another 10 minutes before serving.

For dessert I made a Lemon Chiffon Pie – served with fresh whipped cream and a raspberry coulis.  The pie was the perfect light bite to end the evening. In fact I thought everyone was in a food coma until I saw the second table in the living room being broken down so guests could create a dance floor.  I’m not sure if that was inspired by the festive atmosphere or the case of Rose we kicked before dinner was half way over.  Eitherway it was a magical evening.  And as a special birthday present for Jimmy and Toni, Amanda had Tasya, a photographer, on hand to capture some of that magic. However luckily for everyone, she was long gone by the time the dancing began.

see more photos from the night

photography by Tasya Menaker –

40 Times the Fun: Kyle’s Big 4.0

Kyle's Big Day

40 TIMES THE FUN INVITEPlanning a birthday party for a forty year old fraternity boy comes with its challenges.  Especially when his older incarnation is a bit over the top (think 100 guests) and likes fine things. So my angle here was to channel all of the fun mixers we remember from college, but elevate the food and liquor to match our more refined adult palates. Throw in a snow cone machine (with homemade booze-laden syrups), long tables for flippy cups, a keg and photographer and it really felt like old times.

I of course am all about the food. In planning the menu I divided it into two parts; a well stocked noshing table for grazing throughout the event and a group of well edited passed hors d’oeuvres.  To stay within my theme I used bar food as my starting point and inspiration for all menu planning.  The table spread included pimento cheese pub spread, bacon wrapped bread-sticks (inside out “pigs-in-a-blanket”), my homage to Houston’s spinach artichoke dip, and a creative take on nachos – a spicy green chili and sausage cheesecake meant to be spread on chips and crackers.

passed hors d'oeuvresFor the passed hors d’oeuvres I made four varieties (pictured clockwise): beer-brat corn bites with honey mustard (corn dogs), blue cheese chicken salad stuffed cherry tomatoes with a buffalo sauce topper (buffalo chicken wings), mini grilled onion meatball burgers with ketchup and mustard gravy (hamburger sliders), and jalapeno and jack cheese chili-rellanos with red hatch sauce (jalapeno poppers).  The Rellanos and Brat Corn Bites were made in advance and frozen.  For the Sliders I made them earlier that day,  a reheated them with ketchup and mustard gravy, and used a crock pot to keep them warm for handy assembling.  The Chicken Salad was also made earlier that day and the tomatoes stuffed right before serving.  The buffet was set out before the guests arrived.  Accordingly the servers simply had to replenish througout the evening and circulate hors d’oeuvres.  This allowed me to enjoy my party.

Other fun touches included mongrammed cocktail napkins and matches, a giant photo collage of the birthday boy throughout the years, a music mix of late eighties and ninties hits, and a late night impromptu dance party (don’t ask).

see more photos from the night

photography by project captured –