Entertaining expert Susan Spungen’s favorite outdoor party venue is by the water. “We meet at the beach, bring potluck and end the evening with a bonfire under the stars making s’mores,” Spungen says.
But most outdoor gatherings end up being in her back yard, where Spungen, the founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living and an accomplished cook and culinary consultant, will light a row of citronella tiki torches and prepare a savory paella on her grill.
Spungen’s new book, “What’s a Hostess to Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining,” has a chapter on al fresco dining, including advice on the most stylish unbreakable plates and how to master a charcoal chimney. Spungen, whose work as a food stylist can be seen in films such as “Julie & Julia” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” says the best hosts are the ones who make everything look easy, knowing how to plan ahead and spoil their guests.
We spoke to her a few weeks ago as she was starting a kitchen renovation on her new beach house in Amagansett, N.Y., which includes a large deck for parties. The first piece of furniture she and her husband bought for the place: a Crate & Barrel teak Regatta extension table that seats up to 12 and eight teak Regatta chairs with charcoal-colored Sunbrella cushions. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How do you survive throwing an outdoor party?
The biggest challenge is to be organized in advance so you can get everything outdoors and minimize the running back and forth into the house. I like to have a bar set up outside and a table to bring all the supplies out on trays. I also make lists. Even if you don’t read the list later, the simple act of writing everything down will make you memorize what you need to buy and do.
What are the basic things you need?
A good grill you enjoy using. We actually love the Big Green Egg, and my husband is a big smoking and barbecue aficionado. I think for the new house, we will have both charcoal and gas grills as well. You should have tableware you are comfortable using outside. I think melamine is perfect and I like the Coastal Melamine Plates from Williams-Sonoma. I like using real glasses, not plastic.
What about lighting?
I love fabulous hurricane lamps that don’t blow out. I also am a big fan of tiki torches, such as the South Seas bamboo ones from Kmart. They can add a lot of drama, mood and light.
Paper or cloth napkins?
It depends on what you are serving. If it’s barbecue, it could ruin your cloth napkins, so use paper. If you’re having a nice dinner with grilled fish and salad, use cloth. I love the napkins from Francoise Paviot. Also I like MYdrap, tear-off disposable cotton napkins you can find at Bed, Bath & Beyond.
What jobs can you delegate when entertaining outside?
I am always frantic at the last minute. Get someone to be a bartender. They can set up the bar with ice and give everyone a drink when they walk in. Then you can have the rest of the evening be self-service. Have someone arrange the flowers: hydrangeas in a jar or sunflowers or cosmos from a farm stand.
What do you do with the beer and wine?
You can put beer and wine in galvanized buckets you pick up at a hardware store. Sears has good ones, so cheap and so chic. If a guest brings me a bottle of wine, which in the summer tends to be rose, I stick it right in the bucket.
Do you use tablecloths or placemats?
I do not usually use a tablecloth. I’m a fan of the Chilewich basketweave placemats that are so easy to clean. They are totally flat and come in great colors. I’m partial to green, as it connects with the outdoors and flatters food nicely.
What are the biggest challenges?
Bugs and weather. Mosquitoes come out at dusk. So if you are going to be outside, have repellent handy so people can spray their ankles. In the summer, you need to have Plan B. Figure out how you can do everything inside if you need to. If you invite a lot of people and you can’t accommodate them all indoors, have a rain date on the invitation. Remember, you can’t get too fixated on having a perfect day. You have to be able to roll with the punches. It may not be what you dreamt of, but people will still have a good time if you are relaxed about it.
Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Susan Spungen, founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living and author of the new book “What’s a Hostess to Do?: 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining,” joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions at washingtonpost.com/home .
Spungen will be teaching three 90-minute “The Art of the Summer Patio Party” classes the weekend of June 22 at LivingSocial’s 918 F St. location. For more information, go to www.livingsocial.com .