Say you’re having a party for the Queen of England. Or maybe your mother-in-law. Someone you want to impress. How on earth do you pull that off?
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine asked Patrick O’Connell to cook for Elizabeth II when she came to Virginia for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. The renowned owner of the Inn at Little Washington was tasked with producing a VIP reception where the queen could mingle with former governors and other dignitaries.
No detail was overlooked: The color of the flowers had to be approved by Buckingham Palace and petals sent to England so the queen could match her outfit to the decor. The palace requested that guests be placed in groups of seven and stand in pre-marked spots without moving — the queen would come to them. The food was passed around on trays and had to be consumed standing up. (No issues with wine. Her Majesty travels with her own drink valet, the only person authorized to fill her glass.)
O’Connell’s menu showcased the best of Virginia: morel mushrooms and scrambled eggs served in real eggshells, fresh asparagus spears with hollandaise, mini rabbit turnovers and more.
He held a dress rehearsal the day before to ensure that each portion was the ideal size. “Young kitchen workers always forget that you have to look good while you’re eating,” he says. “It has to be dainty, easy to get into the mouth and look and feel good, especially at an event like that.”
The party, he says, was perfect. “The only thing that was a little off-putting was the amount of snipers with their rifles at the back kitchen door — and the continual reprimand from the Secret Service, ‘No sudden moves. You got that, guys?’ ”
Chances are, your parties are less regal and less perfect. But just in time for summer weddings and backyard suppers comes O’Connell’s latest book, “The Inn at Little Washington: A Magnificent Obsession.” It’s a lush coffee-table fantasy that chronicles the transformation of an old gas station in the middle of nowhere into a world-class destination. O’Connell’s style is playful over-the-top perfection, and there’s a chapter on entertaining, should you aspire to a soupçon of his signature flair.
A great party, he says, is simply “a matter of time, sacrifice, focus and obsessiveness. Absolutely nothing done well is easy.”
One of O’Connell’s favorite fortune cookies reads: “Put all your eggs in one basket — but watch that basket.” For 37 years, he has poured all his energy into his Rappahannock County inn, winning almost every culinary award along the way, including the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef in America.
He applies the same philosophy to entertaining: Instead of three mediocre dinners, throw one exquisite evening. A truly memorable party requires thought and planning.
“I think the mistake most people make is not taking it seriously enough,” he says. “A little stress is good. You should worry before having a party — but long in advance, not when the doorbell rings.”
Craig Claiborne, the late New York Times restaurant critic, was the most influential food writer of his era. When he called to make a birthday reservation not long after the inn opened, O’Connell went into overdrive: He read Claiborne’s autobiography and discovered that Claiborne found his life’s calling during a trip to Morocco. O’Connell decided to re-create that experience, borrowing a Moroccan table, waiter’s uniforms and a tent from a downtown restaurant, then filling it with Arab newspapers, mint tea and a parade of Moroccan dishes for Claiborne and his guest.
“Now, it didn’t really cost any more than an ooh-la-la French-style party with caviar and foie gras, but it was a departure and completely unexpected,” O’Connell says. “He talked about it for years afterward. It was so personal, and it was so intimately about him that it was truly a gift.”
Claiborne returned for his 60th birthday and was the first person to stay in a small house that now serves as the inn’s presidential suite. (No presidents yet, but Warren Beatty, Al and Tipper Gore, Alain Ducasse and Susan Lucci have stayed there.) How to top the Moroccan extravaganza? O’Connell turned the house into a re-creation of Claiborne’s childhood home in Sunflower, Miss. The critic stayed for three days and returned almost every year thereafter on his birthday.
Okay, the average host can’t decorate a house, concedes O’Connell, but you can find a photo or something meaningful for the dinner table. For former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman’s birthday, he unearthed the recipe for her mother’s coconut cake (Richman’s childhood favorite) and surprised her with it.
Surprise, says O’Connell, is essential to a really fun party. For her 60th birthday in 2006, Laura Bush knew she was going to lunch with her girlfriends, but she didn’t know where. The group of 30 women showed up at the inn, where they were ushered into the kitchen for margaritas and bluegrass played by musicians dressed as chefs. “It was a big icebreaker,” he says. They all moved into the restaurant for lunch; in a nod to the first lady’s literacy work, the final surprise was individual mini birthday cakes designed to look like three stacked books.
O’Connell likes to keep guests moving. “I always think the party should begin in another room,” he says. “That way you don’t have anything static.” Cocktails in one space and dinner in another, then back to the living room or patio for dessert. The early birds can discreetly slip out; the night owls can linger. Everybody’s happy, and the party doesn’t break up because one person gets up to leave.
So how do mere mortals — without a fabulous setting and a team of chefs — throw a fabulous party? Think of it like a concert or a film, O’Connell says. Run it through your mind. How do you want your guests to feel?
Backyard weddings, Mother’s Day brunches and all those summer suppers have one thing in common: “Nothing should be done at the last minute. Don’t do any cooking the day of. You won’t compromise a thing and you’ll enjoy it more.” If you’re a big fan of barbecue, grill one dish during the party but have everything else prepared in advance.
Home cooks should create a menu of three courses — starter, main course, dessert — and prepare them over and over, practicing on friends and family until they’ve got it down cold. You can serve it for years, and no one will ever complain if it’s good.
“Never, never, never” try a new dish for a party. O’Connell gets panicked calls from hostesses asking for advice during their dinner parties, and he usually tells them to toss out the dish and make something they know how to cook. And he’s not a snob about prepared food from a good grocery store: “You can find amazing dishes, but I find they need to be reseasoned” before serving — more salt, fresh herbs, maybe a dash of lemon juice.
The other common mistake? “Don’t try to be a restaurant,” he says. Restaurant kitchens are set up differently, and the food is designed to be fussier. Simpler is almost always better.
Hosting a good party, like cooking, takes practice. The worst party he ever threw was early in his catering career, before he opened the inn. He was producing small dinners with just a wood-burning stove and a cheap electric frying pan when he was asked to cater the Christmas Hunt Ball in Warrenton, Va., for 350 people. He got swept away (an ongoing theme of his life) with ideas for the decor and created a Scottish buffet with spinning wheels, stuffed sheep and garlands of apples, pears and oranges hung on large fish hooks that he bought at the general store.
But he was horrified when the crowd lined up for the buffet and started grabbing the fruit off the garlands. “I’d never seen a hungry mob before,” he says. No one was injured by the hooks, but he learned a lesson: “Never let the theme dominate the food.”
Ironically, for all the fabulous parties O’Connell has orchestrated, he doesn’t get invited to many. “It’s just awful,” he says in mock horror. But the reality is that cooking for chefs can be really intimidating.
It’s one thing to invite friends, another to entertain serious foodies or chefs. The mistake that too many hosts make is thinking that they have to serve something as good as or better than what food experts do every day.
“What you live for is being able to enjoy food like a normal person,” he explains. Chefs spend all day in the kitchen criticizing (tweak this, salt that) so as a guest, they just want something simple and unfussy. “Mama cooking is what most chefs really crave.”
Think reverse chic: Jean-Claude Weil, who did public relations for a number of renowned French chefs, once invited a number of them to dinner in his New York apartment, and they all wondered what he would serve, O’Connell says. “What does he do but bring his mother from France,” who served up a huge platter of choucroute garnie, a rustic dish of sauerkraut and sausages that she had been making for 40 years. “It was like ‘Wa-hoo!’ We swooned as soon as we saw mama.”
And none other than Julia Child, who could have any dish prepared by any chef, had a very specific menu in mind for her 90th birthday party at the Four Seasons in Washington, one of a dozen celebrations across the country to mark the milestone.
“She said, ‘I know ex-act-ly what I want,’ ” says O’Connell, doing his best Julia imitation. “Let’s begin with a Caesar salad and follow that with cheeseburgers.” He laughed, thinking she was teasing. “I’m completely serious,” she said. “That’s what I want. And hot fudge sundaes for dessert.”
Charged with the dessert course, O’Connell decided that he had to make the most amazing hot fudge sundae ever: creamy vanilla ice cream, hot fudge from the richest chocolate, whipped cream, roasted cashews and pecans, toasted coconut, and homemade candied cherries with fruit from his garden.
Pick one thing, he says, even if it’s just a hot fudge sundae, and practice until it’s perfect. “It’s very simple. Whatever you do should be the best in the world.”