A “Don’t Cook” Dinner Party


Despite my love for travel, I’m a homebody at heart, so I love hosting especially if a) I don’t have to cook since, well, I don’t know how to and b) the devil’s in the details for someone else. Don’t get me wrong—I make a killer cheese plate and a mean make-your-own-mimosa bar, but I know my strengths and they’re not in full-blown meal and party planning. So I was thrilled when my good friend, Lauren, asked me to host a surprise birthday dinner for her husband, Toby, where she did all of the decorations and Kitchit, a personal chef service in SF, LA, NY, Chicago and growing, did all of the cooking. Judging from the empty plates that evening and the empty bottles the morning after (six…for six people), I’d say it was a success.

I sat down with Lauren later to learn more about how she went from a last-minute vision for the evening to executing a picture-perfect elegant picnic in my living room. Here’s what she shared, along with some shoutouts, and luckily there was only one empty bottle at the end this time around.

We only have a high bar table, but this $40 fold-out table with the chairs from our roof did the trick.

We only have a high bar table, but this $40 fold-out table with the chairs from our roof did the trick.

q & a

First, thanks for making me look like such a good hostess! Did I actually do anything helpful?

You married well! Jon did a great job ironing tablecloths, making the signature cocktail and keeping me calm as I tried to put the whole table setting together in under an hour so Toby wouldn’t get suspicious.

Hmmm, so no?

You gave great moral support, especially during the week of planning when I was trying to quickly nail down the theme and the chef. Oh and don’t forget the napkin consultation – twine or raffia? It makes a big difference. You also made sure the chef got to your house.

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Okay, I feel a little better. So, we were going to do dinner at Tosca. What caused the change of heart with one week to go?

Birthdays are a competitive sport and I wanted to beat Toby! My birthday was only a few weeks before and he had done such a good job planning it that I felt like I really had to up my game. [Laughs, but I know her well enough to know she’s only half-kidding.] I wanted it to be a really special evening, so I felt like going out to a restaurant would be too predictable. Toby is also so low key about his birthday that having something at home felt right. Once I got the idea of hiring a personal chef, it all clicked.

Did your vision start with the meal or the decorations?

Toby has always been a huge BBQ lover, and his father and brothers would go on road trips around the country in search of the best sauce. When we lived in North Carolina, he always talked about making his own and still likes to keep the dream alive. For his birthday, I thought it would be cool to bring an urban picnic—an elevated version of traditional Carolina BBQ— to your living room.

Saint-André and cheddar—equally delicious.

Saint-André and cheddar—equally delicious.

Actually, that brings up a good point. How did our apartment end up part of your vision?

While we have an amazing kitchen, there’s no space to set up a proper table for six people. Plus, with your two-story living room and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking greenery, it would feel more like we were sitting outside for our “picnic.” And it’s hard to surprise someone when you live in 900 square feet!

Back to the BBQ. Once you settled on that, how did you discover Kitchit?

I did a Google search for personal chefs in San Francisco  —whatup, Google [Laughs at the shoutout for me, though clearly, again, I was not actually useful here]—and came across Kitchit. There was an option for a Swine and Whiskey Soiree by Chef Nick Rappaport that seemed right up Toby’s alley. That chef was unavailable the night I wanted, so I contacted Kitchit’s Concierge to share my vision and they recommended Chef Andre Villahermosa. The dishes on Andre’s profile were a bit fancier than the rustic ones I had in mind, but I was really impressed by how quickly Andre translated my idea into a customized menu once we chatted on the phone.

Wherever Andre got this, it was melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

Wherever Andre got this, it was melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

Speaking of the menu, was the final menu his idea, your idea or a collaboration?

I feel like we really collaborated on it. For example, his original thought was to put arugula on top of the pulled pork, but I suggested a spin on coleslaw to make the dish more like authentic Carolina BBQ. Then we finalized everything based on budget. I planned $150 per couple based on what I thought we’d spend going out to dinner, aside from the alcohol and gratuity which I wanted to cover. For the physical menus, Paper Source on Fillmore was a huge help in picking out the right paper, the monogram stamp and the printer, Copynet. Actually, you did that.

See, another way I helped! That printer’s next to Pizzeria Delfina, so a no-brainer. Back to the booze, could Kitchit have helped with the wine and cocktails?

From what I can tell on the website, each chef is different. The Swine and Whiskey Soiree would have included cocktails, but I think most chefs leave the alcohol up to you.

This pulled pork with pickled onion slaw caused the table to get very quiet.

This pulled pork with pickled onion slaw caused the table to get very quiet.

What was in the Bourbon Ginger Snap?

When the Ravens beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl—go, Ravens—our friends Miriam and Josh brought over what we now call “Miriam Juice.” It was really this awesome recipe from Real Simple that’s a crowd pleaser and super simple to make. [Laughs] I think—your husband made it.

Well, the entire batch was gone, so it must have been good. On to the decorations. Where did you find your inspiration and how did you bring it to life?

First, I peeked at Pinterest where I got the idea of a centerpiece with flowers in mason jars on reclaimed wood, which in San Francisco is easy to come by. I do need to thank the guys at Big Daddy’s who let me scrounge through their scrap pile to find the perfect imperfect piece. If I can find one idea that I’m excited about like this, everything else falls into place. To keep it from getting overwhelming, I think about each piece of the party like a series of mini-projects tied together by a theme, making it easier to tackle. I love planning events, but I have zero patience so I like short timelines with instant gratification.

Tealights set the mood when it was time for dinner.

Tealights set the mood when it was time for dinner.

I remember you showed up the night before with bags and bags of options. What was all that stuff?

Unless you’re following an exact photo, it’s sometimes hard to see how it will all fit together, so I always buy multiple options. And the tight timeline isn’t always on my side. I forgot it was Easter weekend, so of course Target was out of tablecloths. I bought bed linens and was freaking out about how bad they’d look until I remembered this little thing called, um, Bed, Bath and Beyond. Ha.

I wish we had pictures of Jon ironing the tablecloth…on the table.

Me too! I wasn’t sure which tablecloth I was going to use, so I laid it out straight from the bag, set the table and then I didn’t want to move anything because it was all looking so perfect, except for the wrinkles. Since we only had about an hour, Jon kneeled along the side, with one hand behind the tablecloth to create pressure and ironed as he went.

Well, I think that explains who drank all the Bourbon Ginger Snap and why! What happens to any options you don’t use?

I almost always use everything, even if it’s in a different way or for a later event. A perfect example is the cheese platters I brought over that ended up as displays for flowers and candles.

I was amazed at how a simple piece of wood spiced up our coffee tables.

I was amazed at how a simple piece of wood spiced up our coffee tables.

Speaking of repurposing, I was very grateful to rearrange all of your beautiful bouquets and centerpieces for the Easter gathering I had the next day.

Yes, you should always plan a big birthday event right before a holiday. [Laughs]

Okay, so now the ultimate question. Would you do it again or go out to dinner instead?

I would definitely do it again. I know that Toby thought it was really special and he can tell when I’ve gone the extra mile (read: let’s me go shopping without complaining).

Well, I clearly played a critical role, so you know where to find me. Thanks for the interview! xo

All things must come to a sweet, sweet end.

All things must come to a sweet, sweet end.

So, keep Kitchit in mind next time you have a special occasion and want it to feel a bit more intimate. As for setting the scene, hopefully you have a Lauren of your own. And sorry in advance to my Lauren, who’s now officially on speed dial for any future party planning.