Home for the Holiday Party
Does planning a big holiday celebration give you the entertaining jitters? Here’s a comprehensive list of party pros who can help make sure your next big affair is one to remember, not revile
By Margo Rudman Gold
You’ve invited the Big Boss to the house for your annual holiday celebration. Or you’ve invited the new in-laws over for the first time. Or the old college roommate you haven’t seen in 20 years and her family. In any case, there are certain parties when you want everything—from the first sip of a cocktail to the last nibble of dessert—to be absolutely, positively perfect. If you happen to live like Alexis Carrington in Dynasty, that’s no problem: all the assistance you need is already on your huge personal staff (“Charles, please see that the table is set for 16 tonight. And make it snappy.”) Alas, the rest of us have to look further afield for help. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of local professionals who can ensure that your next important soirÃ©e—whether it’s for 12 guests or for 120—is a smashing success. The roster includes not only caterers (essential though they be) but also florists, musicians, valet parking services, waiters for hire, and companies that rent table linens and other essentials. There are even cleaning services which can make the inevitable morning after seem, well, not quite so inevitable. Who knows? You might even conceivably find yourself actually enjoying your own party.
From Asian Fusion to seared duck to barbecue, these chefs can whip up menus that will keep your guests talking long after the evening has ended. And if you want to pass it off as homemade—we won’t tell.
Thai At Home
Pelham (914) 552-5258
Contact: Nisa Lee
($65-$85 per person)
While other caterers have picked up on the Thai/Pan-Asian trend with a dish or two, Nisa Lee is a specialist. That’s not to say she can’t mix things up a bit by pairing filet mignon with a shiitake wine sauce. She serves vegetable rice crÃªpes with sweet chili sauce and spiced crab cakes with mango purÃ©e to Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as Vanessa Williams, who has said, “I truly embraced a new idea in catering when I hired Nisa.” In business for only three years, Lee’s success has been so quick that her investment-banker husband left his career to handle the business side of hers, including creating a website whose content I found mouthwatering.
Lee is indefatigable; I cooked across the room from her at a charity event last spring and noticed her stunning food as she ran around in heels, six months pregnant. Jeff Beckerman, president of Cutting Vision in Manhattan, used Thai At Home for a corporate party for 125 clients and reports that “the night went off perfectlyâ€¦our clients and staff raved for days about the outstanding food.”
Contact: Gary Stone
($40-$80 per person)
Gary Stone may hug you if you don’t insist upon Peking duck crÃªpes. Not that his staff can’t make them; they’ve been doing so for 15 years, leaving his signature at many a Rye cocktail party. But Stone promises to surprise your guests if you’ll let him, with tidbits of Cajun tuna on cornbread; Asian pear boats with goat cheese, mint, and pine nuts; and pastry-wrapped spicy andouille sausage (his riff on the perennially popular pigs in blankets). A holiday entrÃ©e both decorative and delicious is a flaky phyllo-dough package, enrobing halibut with sautÃ©ed spinach. Born in Zambia, Stone crossed the world to train at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) where he met his pastry-chef wife, Liz. Her imprint is on breads and pastries, all baked in-house.
Cornerstone likes to “mix things up a bit” with interesting combinations of themes and flavors as diverse as their clients, who’ve included George Bush, Sr., Steven Spielberg, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Murray. Pam Kindler of Rye is one of Stone’s many repeat customers, having had 10 to 15 Cornerstone-catered parties over the years, from a graduation celebration for 40 to a Christmas party for 120. She notes Stone’s “perpetual calm, accommodating, friendly staff, plus perfect food.”
Contact: Mark Kramer
($95 per person)
Mark Kramer strikes me as the ultimate perfectionist. He personally visits and supervises all of the parties catered by his company, which, on his busiest weekends, can mean 14 functions per day! Full service to him means conceiving and designing the event as a whole, from the chairs guests sit on to the lighting. His holiday menus include a “Charles Dickens Victorian Christmas” as well as “classic American regional” and “Italian regional cuisine.” A passionate collector of antique copper, Kramer combines the perfect serving pieces with estate urns, English ivy topiaries, magnolia leaf garlands, and verdigris baskets of fruits and nuts to create a stage set in your living room. His team will arrive two hours before your party and aim to calm you, perhaps with a seasonal Poire William (pear) martini.
Contact: Taylor Smelser
($35-$40 per person)
Dolly Hertz of Armonk was planning a small, but important, dinner party for 14 guests. She was very impressed when Taylor Smelser enthusiastically offered to cook samples for her as she planned the party. Hertz recounts that she did “absolutely nothing” as Smelser handled every aspect of the meal, and did not leave until his staff had finished cleaning up. When he says he’s personally involved in all events, he means it! While interviewing him, I discovered that on the night of the Hertz party, Smelser was ferrying between a party for 200 people in another part of the county. Dedicated to using only top ingredients, he has developed a relationship with a small Dutchess County farmer who breeds lambs for him. For the holidays, Taylor offers a contemporary spin on the traditional turkey: a turkey/cranberry quesadilla with aged cheddar.
Contact: Anne Neto
($40 per person and up)
Forty years ago when Anne Neto was a student at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in London, the nuns made the young ladies learn a “trade” before graduation. Neto chose cooking and found her life’s passion. Her niche is providing “non-caterer” food, dishes that look like they were created at home by the party giver (and she will keep his secret if he wishes). Perhaps that’s why she’s kept several clients for 25 years. Alison Rubin of Chappaqua has used Neto’s firm to cater several hors d’oeuvres parties at her home. “I love the fact that they find whatever they need in my home, without even asking me, and I don’t need to do a thing,” Rubin says.
Two Good Cooks
Contact: Debra Altschuler or Judith Neidert
($50 per person and up)
I’m a sucker for ebullient people like Debra Altschuler, finding their enthusiasm infectious. A Midwestern girl who was raised on farm-fresh food, she and partner Judith Neidert do traditional crowd pleasers like “cows in a blanket” (they actually make their own beef hot dogs) and baby sirloin burgers as ably as they do foie gras and caviar. “We always aim to blend elegance and fun,” Altschuler says. Most caterers seem to suffer from amnesia when asked to recall “mishaps” (hmmmmmm). But Altschuler’s memory is intact. Two Good Cooks, she recalls, once catered a birthday party in a client’s home with a small kitchen. Short on space, the intrepid caterers placed the beautiful custom cake they’d created on a table outside the kitchen door. During the evening, they looked out to see a raccoon with a face full of white buttercream. What did they do? They whipped up another dessert—and fast!
Contact: Josyane Colwell (914) 469-6762
(Call for pricing)
Inspired by her own roots in the South of France, Josy Colwell brings French and Mediterranean influences to her creative cuisine. She can be beautifully inventive, even for a client desiring French flair on a budget. For one such client, she created a formally presented chicken saffron “cake” using inexpensive ingredients such as rice, beans, and chicken. Le Moulin catered a recent dinner party for a couple whose last child had left for college, leaving them with the proverbial “empty nest,” which became the party’s theme. Colwell carried through the “nest” concept in food and dÃ©cor for the dinner. Her priority, she says, is “connecting the palate with the visual and the sensualâ€¦food is so intimate.” (Spoken like a true Frenchwoman!)
The Great American BBQ Co.
Contact: David Pellon
($40 per person)
Do you see yourself as a holiday iconoclast? Then perhaps you’d consider treating guests to a Christmas feast of summer barbecue. Try dry-rub ribs or pulled pork with mango coleslaw and Southern potato salad, just part of the menu from this full-service catering company, sister to www.caperberry events.com (914-949-3543).
604 West 46th St.
(212) 541-7300 ext. 226
Contact: Judy Marlow
($65 to 85 per person)
In the world of kosher catering, Judy Marlow is unique. Coming from a New York fashion background, her sense of style is always at the fore. Simply Divine is her event-planning and catering business, which she says “offers great food that just happens to be kosher.” Not the prototypical grandma fare of beige potted food, she offers crispy seared duck with Medoc sauce and pepper-crusted filet of beef with horseradish sauce. Simply Divine will either prepare and deliver platters, cater the entire party, or prepare great meals for the kosher guests at an event. The firm takes the dinner menu for each party as a guide and creates kosher meals that are quite similar in food and style. The company used that approach recently for a private corporate dinner at a celebrated Westchester restaurant (Hint: it’s the one with the two-month wait for reservations).
Many caterers offer table settings, though you may want to go further and set the stage with an all-encompassing holiday vision for your home, both inside and out. While there are a number of florists in the area who do a beautiful job, our caterers and hostesses suggested a few who go beyond floral settings. They can design your Christmas tree to suit your dÃ©cor, utilize your own trimmings in an expert plan, deck your home inside and out, and appoint your holiday tables.
Contact: Anthony Anzalone
If celebrity designer, author, and television host Chris Madden uses a floral designer for her own home, you can bet that he’s exceptional. Anthony Anzalone can transform your home. In no time, it will be ready for its close-up. His signature style is more of a “Manhattan, upscale, compact design,” says Anzalone. To achieve that look, Anzalone starts with short square containers made of candle wax treated to appear antiqued (the containers are unique to his studio). Then, luxury flowers like calla lilies and amaryllis cut very short are added, perhaps in a monochromatic scheme. For a striking effect, Anzalone favors the use of one color in its various shades.
X-Quisite Flowers and Events
Contact: Diane Amante
X-Quisite, designers of “extraordinary special event surroundings,” does not do many home holiday parties. However, the host who wants total event dÃ©cor might engage its services. One recent client wanted a medieval theme for a birthday party at Castle on the Hudson. The look was crushed velvet, gold tassels, and lush candelabras. For the “lounge look” that’s currently popular, Diane Amante brings in sofa sectionals, drapery, and lighting. She reports a trend away from red and green for Christmas, towards such color combinations as pink and light green plaid.
Designer Heather Granger suggests unique and modern centerpieces for parties, often using one-of-a-kind containers. The shop can also plan and execute outstanding outdoor holiday dÃ©cor.
Cirque de Botanica
Contact: Jan Axel
Jan Axel, the charming co-owner of design studio Cirque de Botanica, who began her career in product design, has a background in sculpture and landscape design. Her partner, Diane Bilgore, is a former metalsmith and photographer. Together, as Cirque De Botanica, they design holiday dÃ©cor, inside and out, for their clients. For those who do not celebrate Christmas, they can create a white winter wonderland.
Contact: Bob Pesce
You may have seen designer Bob Pesce’s work before. Each December he magically transforms Lyndhurst’s rooms into individual fairy tales (he does 17 rooms in seven days). Client Hal Prince entrusts his duplex to Pesce’s holiday hand. What better reference than a theatrical legend? Interestingly, Pesce uses no live floral elements, preferring glass, silk, and ribbon, which means his more practical clients get designs that last.
Forever in Bloom
Contact: Dean Andreades
Contrary to the company’s name, Forever in Bloom specializes in fresh, not preserved flowers. For holiday parties, owner Dean Andreades likes to visit clients’ homes and get a sense of their style and taste, so that he can blend his designs into the overall dÃ©cor.
Even those with an audiophile’s sound system may want to consider a pianist or small combo to hit the right note for a special gathering. If you don’t have a baby grand, your musician for may be able to bring a keyboard.
(914) 238-1485 evenings
(212) 908-6256 days
This musician is a copyright attorney by day, and a pianist at local parties by night. For $100 an hour, he’ll channel George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart.
Tom Nelson is the house pianist at the University Club in Manhattan. A professional musician for 30 years, he can assemble jazz trios, even vocalists, depending upon client needs. He can also perform in a variety of styles from Cole Porter to rock ’n’ roll to Broadway. Working by day on a musical about Liberace, Nelson is available for Westchester parties at $150 an hour.
Cornerstone Caterers recommends pianist Turtel to bring the sounds of Sinatra and Ella to your holiday party. Alex Turtel, also known as “Piano for All Occasions,” has performed at parties and taught privately for 10 years. He pleases baby boomers with Billy Joel and Elton John hits but plays jazz or classical music as well. He charges $250 for a two hour minimum, then $125 for each additional hour.
Brendan O’Keefe of
This music man can tickle your ivories or bring his own digital piano. He can also assemble combinations of musicians. For the past 20 years, he’s also booked musicians for combos, jazz ensembles, and chamber groups; many other options are highlighted on his website. Charges are $550 for up to four hours for one pianist, and $550 for each additional musician, if desired.
Typically rental services will deliver the rentals to your home one to three days in advance of the party, and pick up one to two days later.
Stamford Tent and Party Rental
The largest and oldest tent- and party-rental company in the tri-state area, Stamford Tent and Party Rental will provide tents as well as tables, chairs, linens, glassware, china, flatware, and “impeccable personalized service.” In business 50 years, it continuously updates its inventory. Stamford requests two weeks notice and will deliver a minimum order of $350 to $450, depending upon your location. Prices for its most popular rentals— water glasses and dinner plates—are $.80 and $.55 each respectively.
Cartwright and Daughters
Tent and Party Rentals
Cartwright rents all the typical linen, dishes, and glassware ($.50) as well as walls for tents, disco balls, or silver candelabras ($15) to name a few of its many rental items. Their website is easily navigated by clicking “catalog” and choosing a rental item category such as “linens,” where you’ll find a wide array of colorful fabrics. They will deliver with a minimum order of $50 to $80, and a minimum 36-hour notice.
Cloth Connection is the nation’s largest specialty linen rental company, providing tablecloths, chair covers, tie-backs and tassels for 25 years. Custom-des