Celebrating the release of a new book, renowned tastemaker Carolyne Roehm chatted with us about the emerging trends in entertaining and the essential elements of a fantastic party.
Carolyne Roehm is an authority on matters of style, from fashion to entertaining to gardening. The author, designer, and party guru began her career as a designer at Oscar de la Renta, then turned her attention to floral, product, and interior design, developing the "Carolyne Roehm look" that is so easily identified in her events. Here, she shares advice to help you create your own elegant affairs.
Southern Accents: In your new book, you identify "food, drink, and a festive environment" as the essential elements of a great party. How do you know when those pieces have all come together?
Carolyne Roehm: If you are organized, you know it early on. Preparing in advance helps you get as close as possible to the goal of having a great party. A relaxed host helps as well.
Ultimately, you know it’s a great party when you see smiling, happy, laughing guests. And I’ve learned that if you’ve provided good food, good drinks, a good environment, and you’re in good spirits, you shouldn’t worry — the rest is up to the guests.
SA: When hosting a party, what are the five things you try to avoid?
CR: First, not allowing time to pamper myself. I allow a half-hour before my guests arrive to get into the party mode.
Second, not having a plan. I always have a detailed plan for any dinner with more than eight guests.
Not leaving room for mistakes. I know that I need to have expansion room in case something doesn’t arrive in time, for example, or there’s a storm and the flowers that I planned to use are mutilated.
Not having a good seating scheme. It’s not one of my favorite aspects of the party to coordinate, but it’s vital. I always try to put a talker next to a nontalker or a relatively shy person next to an outgoing person.
Not having a schedule. I don’t like for people to have to wait between courses, so it’s important to go over timing and flow with waiters or other staff beforehand.
SA: What do you see as the emerging trends in entertaining?
CR: I think that for several years now, we’ve gone through a period of minimalism that references earlier decades, paring things down with flowers, table settings, etc. Since trends are cyclical, I think that in time, we’ll see more romantic trends — a return to "lusciousness." Not grand or overdone, yet making a statement.
I also think people will entertain at home more. It seems that with baby boomers, there’s a renewed interest in traditional things. We’ve done fine restaurants and evenings out. Now we want to stay at home and entertain.
SA: You are known for classic, impeccable taste in many areas. Can you comment on the relationship between fashion, entertaining, gardening, and interior design?
CR: Whether you’re designing a platter of food, a dress, a room, or a garden, the elements — proportion, color, texture, line, and composition — are always the same. For example, I’ve found that fashion designers usually have lovely homes and gardens. My point of view is consistent throughout all these media. I’m very much a classicist, which doesn’t mean I’m over-the-top. I just like to have traditional elements in my design, and I think classicism implies a sense of balance.
SA: Can you tell us about some of the things that have inspired your parties?
CR: I once found some great, half-price red lanterns in Chinatown and had the idea for a Chinese party. And I tend to find inspiration when I travel. I saw some great piñatas at a wedding in Santa Fe, and I know that someday, I’ll do a party with piñatas. When I was in India, I bought a bunch of shawls that later became tablecloths at a party. I also once found some striped fabric at a remnant house in Paris that I sent back to the United States and then made into tablecloths.
SA: What makes a perfect hostess gift? Can you describe any favorites you have received, or the "best bets" you like to give?
CR: Since I’m very specific about the style of my house, I usually don’t like to receive gifts that people might think I’d like in my home. My favorite gifts to receive are good wine, smoked salmon, good candies, any type of lovely food item. Since entertaining is expensive, it helps to get things that you can share with your guests. I also like music and books, which I also can share with others. As for giving a gift, unless I know the hostess very well and know her favorite color or whether or not she collects something, I give food, music, or books.
SA: In the book, you speak of the importance of rotating your table settings. What are the "musts" for every hostess in terms of dinnerware, linens, and service ware?
CR: This is a favorite subject of mine. I buy a lot of different plates, but I think that you always need great white or off-white plates and other basic porcelain pieces that you can mix other colors in with. I also have a lot of blue-and-white china patterns, and I mix them together to make things more interesting.
Another staple is beautiful, simple, white linen napkins, the larger the better. I’m an advocate of linen and cotton; I don’t like things with polyester in them. It is an effort to maintain linen and cotton, but even if you have one great set, it’s nice to treat yourself and your guests on special occasions. Heaven forbid that our lives become so busy that we don’t have time to make an effort for the guests coming into our home. There’s a time and place for no-wrinkle clothes and fast food, but you also need to live life with a certain amount of quality.
SA: Tell us about your most memorable impromptu gathering.
CR: One night I had a cocktail party after which everyone, including myself, had plans to go on to other dinners. A big storm came, and almost everyone stayed. Luckily, we just happened to have a pianist at the party. We made pasta, drank Champagne, and sang around the piano. It was a lot of fun.
SA: What are some staples you rely on when entertaining?
CR: For décor, I generally use a lot of carnations, mixing small ones with large ones. I also always have candles. They’re such an easy way to make things attractive, and everyone looks better by candlelight.
One of my favorite food staples is Vinho Verde, a fresh, green Portuguese wine that I always serve in the spring, summer, and early fall. It doesn’t have a lot of alcohol, so guests can enjoy it, and everyone’s not gaga by the end of the evening. And I always have homemade chocolate chip cookies available, and no matter what dessert I serve, whether it’s molten chocolate cake or pumpkin pie, guests always get into the cookie jar.
SA: Your chapter on "The Party Process" is helpful. For you, what is the most exciting aspect of planning a party?
CR: I look at a party as a total entity, so creating the theme is my favorite part. For example, if I center a party around daffodils from my garden, then they are the core of the party, and everything flows from there.
The feedback from guests is also exciting. I like it when people realize that they’re not just coming to dinner, but to something special. When they’re pleased, I’m pleased.
by Holly H. Goff “Southern Accents Magazine”