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Matthew Mead: Creativity Made Simple

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 20, 2008

For style expert Matthew Mead, the key to successful entertaining is a single piece of dishware: the cake stand.

"If you've ever been to a birthday party where cake is on a cake stand, that moment it's presented is that 'awww' moment that denotes what celebrating is all about," says Mead, the style editor at Country Home magazine.

In his new book, "Entertaining Simple" (Wiley, $24.95), Mead demonstrates many ways to turn an ordinary glass cake stand into a stately pedestal: A stack of doughnuts, for example, elegantly perched and dotted with candles, is transformed into a birthday cake. Turned upside down, he explains, a cake stand can be used as a chips-and-dip server.

Creative repurposing is the core of "Entertaining Simple": a votive holder as a receptacle for bar garnishes or individual-size hors d'oeuvres, an egg cup as a bud vase or an amuse-bouche dish. (What devilish delight to serve a mojito out of a 12-ounce milk bottle! )

Part entertaining guide, part cookbook, "Entertaining Simple" has the feel of a Pottery Barn catalogue or an issue of Real Simple. Mead, who is based in Boscawen, N.H., and has his own style blog, http://www.matthewmeadstyle.com, has contributed to both.

His book is organized in a tidy, paint-by-numbers way. He begins by laying out, in very specific detail, essential dishware, a collection built around plain white ceramic place settings and simple glassware that he says give you both a "unifying theme" and a "wide range of options." He goes on to demonstrate how to use those dishes in eight themed parties, including a brunch featuring cheese strata and mini pumpkin bundt cakes and a "girl talk" party, where the menu centers on finger sandwiches and tea punch. Accompanying each party suggestion are recipes as simple as the plates they sit on, such as herb-roasted chicken, tomato bread salad and berry-plum compote.

We asked Mead to elaborate recently by telephone on his simple ideas for entertaining.

How would you describe your entertaining philosophy?

It's about . . . saving your sanity and realizing that all the aspects of entertaining don't have to be complicated. They can be simplified: You don't have to cook everything; you can buy things that are prepared.

How do you define a successful party?

Time should pass so easily that you think, "Where did four hours go?" But you want to feel like you're a successful host as well, in the sense that there should be an ease about it. Your guests should have a fabulous and amazing time, and so should you.

Why is cleaning out your closet, or in this case, your cupboard, so important to entertaining? What does clutter have to do with entertaining?

I think it's no different than having your pots and pans in order. You can at a moment's notice pull a party together: cook or buy things for the party that you just have to present. I live with the things that I have, so serving a roast chicken is a matter of pulling a platter off the shelf and plating it. Having these things on hand, within arm's reach, is just a simplified way of always being ready.

You recommend a very streamlined collection of tableware and serving pieces, all white or glass. What if I have shelves of colorful dishware already? What should I do with all that stuff? What should I do with Grandma's china?

You don't have to do away with any of that. Keep your key pieces handy. Mix china in with modern, light things. Put a white charger under it. That gives it a little relief, sets it off a little. A modern touch can bring new life to your older pieces. I don't think people need to run out and buy new things. You likely have a lot of these things, and they can be mixed.

Let's say I have an 800-square-foot apartment with a galley kitchen. How can I apply your entertaining principles?

If you have galley kitchen, it is absolutely okay to put dishes on display in the living room. Dishes are attractive and shapely and can make vignette displays. I don't think I'd put dishes in the bedroom, but definitely in the living room you can do a wall display. Your space can denote the kind of entertaining you're going to do. If you don't have a dining space but have little perches, cocktail parties make a lot of sense. I'm also a big advocate of entertaining in the kitchen.

What is the biggest mistake people make when entertaining?

They tend to get overwhelmed with too many recipes and not enough time. They're not good time managers. I tried to provide recipes that can be made ahead of time or served at room temperature so you aren't spending the last five hours doing this tense thing, so you can split the duties.

Can you give me one piece of advice for the reluctant entertainer?

Keep it small. Have a few friends over at first; don't try to prepare things that are complicated. Follow our menus. Stick with traditional flavors. Have a luncheon or tea party during the day so there's not so much buildup for yourself.

How much time should you allot for party preparation?

It depends on the kind of party. But at least a week in advance I make a list. Then I revisit it three days before and then decide if there's a color theme; then I grocery shop. Maybe I spend a couple of hours the day before if there's food to be made. On the day of, I'm preparing maybe an hour or two before.

What's the worst thing someone's brought to one of your parties?

A giant wheel of baked brie oozing all over the place. We tried to cut it into smaller portions and put crackers around it to stop the melting. It wasn't the most attractive thing.

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