Great friends, exquisite cuisine, spirits and perhaps…a dynamic stranger or two. It’s not just another evening when these are combined to create the perfect dinner party as Daniel Cappello’s Dinner Diaries book inspires for that ideal night ahead, as our social raconteur Lance Avery Morgan learns.
Photography courtesy of Assouline Publishing
DINNER AT EIGHT
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations,” British wit Oscar Wilde was known to say. Fast forward to now where a good dinner party seems like how civilization carries on with style, quite frankly. Everything and everyone seems so much more, well civilized, in the midst of a seated scenario, swapping ideas and sharing information that might be rather earth shaking. Or at least, that’s always the goal when hosting anyway. But how can one entertain more perfectly to create a memorable experience?
Daniel Cappello’s Dinner Diaries has the answers. It chicly picks up where the Proust Questionnaire leaves off… revealing the inner entertaining secrets of some of the greatest hostesses I’ve known, including Becca Cason Thrash, Amy Fine Collins, Eva Jeanbart-Lorenzotti, Tatiana Boncompagni Hoover and other fashion and style leaders who are the bright lights and bold names that make this world more interesting. Want to know about their preferred seating arrangements? It’s here. Best topics of conversation? Check. And that’s just the beginning. “To host a successful and memorable dinner party, be as gracious as you know how, present the best you have to offer, and remember that, as host, you set the tone for the evening in your every manner and approach,” Daniel Cappello is quick to note. And it’s true.
We’ve all attended (or hosted) dinner parties that were either ho-hum, less than lackluster or even, hold-onto-your-hat great, without knowing better. Never again thanks to this tome. Serving in Bill Clinton’s administration as director of specialty press, as well as working on the staffs of top publications, Cappello’s insight is unparalleled and honest throughout the book that began with a guest misstep at one of his own dinner parties. He pondered Do enough people even have dinner parties anymore? Is the art of the dinner party dead? Have good manners and etiquette become antiquated? We’ve all asked ourselves these questions.
“It didn’t occur to me to do a book about entertaining until I happened to be hosting a dinner party one night where one of the guests—who is himself a generous and fun host—decided we ought to change up the music because he didn’t love the vibe I had chosen for the night,” confides Cappello. He goes on to say, “This guest started looking for where my iPod was docked so he could put on a playlist of his own, and I was appalled. I couldn’t believe someone would dare to criticize a host’s choice on anything, let alone act on it. Part of the joy of a dinner party, for me, at least, is to relish someone else’s style of entertaining for an evening. I’ve often been inspired to do something I’d never have done before just by observing other hosts and hostesses.”
LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU
Cappello’s social network is wide and varied. “It wasn’t easy choosing whom to ask to contribute,” he muses. “I feel fortunate to know so many wonderful hostesses, so narrowing it down became quite a challenge. He enlisted the help of Houstonian philanthropist Becca Cason Thrash, whose grand parties are legendary. She shared with me her own advice that complements what Cappello included in Dinner Diaries. Her advice is succinct about hosting a successful party. She told me from Switzerland, “The simple answer is the guest list. Make it diverse. Mix it up. Don’t invite bores.” Socialite author Tatiana Boncompagni Hoover (Social Death, Hedgefund Wives, Gilding Lily) shared her own advice with me as well, “The best dinner parties are the ones that feel the most intimate and effortless–even if the food, decor and setting are not. I like to keep things light and fun no matter the occasion. For a formal dinner, a funny (but heartfelt) toast at the start of the meal can set the right tone. For something more casual, it’s all about the music, lighting and putting your guests to work. Nothing creates a team atmosphere faster than letting your guests help. Just make sure you give them easy, enjoyable tasks like lighting candles or pouring drinks. Of course, on that note, serving a delicious cocktail helps, too, and for obvious reasons.”
To anyone who knows Daniel Cappello the origins of the book came naturally to him. “I spent some time remembering and writing about my parents’ dinner parties from when I was growing up,” he says. “And I then dug into several entertaining archives—including society collections in New York, where I found so many wonderful invitations and response cards and ephemera of old-school etiquette, along with some fabulous reminders from the ultimate entertainer—the Mrs. Astor, who famously hosted her “400” dinners [the 400 Manhattanites who she deemed were worthy of fitting into her ballroom]. I also read formal etiquette books from the 1920s to today, then came up with a final list of questions for the questionnaire.”
Some of the questions that the celebrity contributors couldn’t resist answering in their own inimitable style? What’s your dream menu? Seating arrangement: the classic alternating genders, or rules be damned? Your favorite hostess gift to give? What is the number one rule every good host or hostess must remember? What’s the perfect number of guests? The place setting: American style, European Style or your own style? Your dream menu includes…? What’s the most memorable centerpiece you’ve seen or used yourself? What was the greatest dinner party you ever threw? No dinner party should be complete without… The list of insight from the notable’s questions is abundant, full of wit and ready to apply to your own hosting opportunities.
Amy Fine Collins, author and special contributor for Vanity Fair was laser focused on the fact that it’s all about the guests when she entertains. She tells me, “I particularly like mixing ages and generations. By the end of dinner, someone should have at least a mild crush on someone else, even if it goes no further than that.” When Cappello was choosing his contributors of hostesses, he was excited about the caliber of entertainers. “Each of the people I asked has unfailing style in the way he or she entertains, so I knew we couldn’t go wrong,” he reflects. “Then I had to convince each of them to share some personal mementos from their private dinner parties, and I wanted to be respectful of privacy, but I also wanted readers to see just how special some of them are in the way they entertain.”
The efforts paid off with the insider’s look at high level party throwing, especially with the food that hosts chose to serve. New York social swell and founder of Voyager Spirit Eva Jeanbart-Lorenzotti, featured in the book, is well-known for serving her favorite pasta that she has mastered. She was candid when I asked her to reveal her own favorite hostess elements. “Mix the people, light the candles, play good music, create your own signature “cocktail” and serve 12 flavors of ice-cream for dessert (in silver cups, of course), and invite a surprise and unexpected guest.” So important is dessert to Jeanbart-Lorenzotti that she embraces the childlike feelings of what ice cream represents and besides an array of choices of it, she offers a dozen more toppings, stating that we all want to be happy around each other and our epicurean favorites.
There is a fundamentally human instinct to want to bring people together over food,” Cappello declares. “It sounds clichéd now, but our lives really are becoming less and less personal. We don’t see enough of one another, we don’t talk on the phone, we don’t even email much anymore—instead we send snippets by text or keep up on the lives of our friends via Facebook or Instagram. So having a dinner party is a very special thing. It brings us together, it forces us to forget whatever else is going on in our lives for a few hours, it reminds us of why we’re friends with the friends we have—and it might even introduce us to new friends, new connections, new adventures, and maybe even a date or future husband or wife.
To some, the devil is in the details. According to Cappello, “I love the fine details, down to what kind of place cards or what type of salt and pepper shakers are used. I think sometimes place cards really help, especially for large groups, but I also like to do a seating chart ahead of time and then direct guests to their seats as we’re moving over to the dinner table. It gives me a chance to “check in” with every guest again—or for the first time, in case they’ve come late during cocktails and I was in the kitchen or talking with someone else.”
There’s an age-old European custom of not seating couples together that falls in and out of favor, on which Cappello holds firm beliefs. “I’m definitely one not to seat couples together who’ve arrived together. I think it can bring each of them out of their shell a little more and be free to chat with new people, maybe in a way they wouldn’t have if their significant other happened to be leaning over the table listening within earshot. We sometimes have a tendency to categorize people, too—he’s shy, she’s self-centered and talks about nothing but herself, and so forth—but you’d be amazed how someone can come out of his shell or suddenly become a good and sympathetic listener the second you split them from their other half. It’s also only a few hours out of one night, and if you’re spending your life with someone, a few hours apart from him or her at the same dinner table isn’t such a big deal.”
He goes on to say, “But I do have friends who really cannot be separated. I know that their comfort zone is in staying together, and I know that I wouldn’t be able to get them back to a dinner if I ever split them, so I’ll keep them together. I don’t like to, but if they’ll be better guests for it, then it’s worth it.” There’s always to custom of the gentlemen at the table switching seats at dessert to share a sweet treat with a new companion, which is always a favorite.
Candles lit, dinner served, and fête accomplished, one can always send a gift the next day or bring one at the beginning of the evening for the host. Cappello feels that, “For giving host gifts, I think the key is to consider your host’s tastes, and to pick something accordingly. For some, it might be a signature-scented candle (I personally love Diptyque’s woody, mossy Chêne candle), or a beautiful set of monogrammed napkins. For others, it might be a box of the rose-shaped soaps you see in their guest bathroom at every dinner party of theirs. I once stumbled upon the most stunning and unique Uranium-yellow 1920s French aperitif glasses that immediately reminded me of the yellow glass in my friends’ dining room chandelier. I had to buy them and pack them away for the next time I was invited as a guest of theirs.”
“Another respectable gift is a handsome coffee-table book, or an out-of-print book on a subject that’s near and dear to your host’s heart. I sometimes find these rare books in antique shops or home stores and pick them if they remind me of someone, then give it as a hostess gift later. Lately my go-to hostess gift has been a copy of Dinner Diaries,” Cappelllo is quick to add and I agree wholeheartedly. “In the end, it’s not about the gift but about the gesture, which is what makes a handwritten note—sent the day after—the greatest hostess gift of all. It offers a chance to recall a funny moment from the night before or to single out some special detail about the dinner that stood out in your mind,” he shares emphatically. “It’s personal, it’s thoughtful, and it’s a memory of the evening that lasts longer than any bottle of wine or champagne you could offer.” Though champagne is always appropriate, according to Cappello (and as Becca Cason Thrash points out in the book, “We can never have enough bubbly”).
“There’s no greater feeling than gathering some of your favorite people and hosting them for the night,” Cappello acknowledges throughout his soon-to-be classic book. “Giving is the gift, as they say, and nothing feels better than cleaning up—yes, cleaning up, even—and seeing the traces of a good time that was had by all.”