Lifestyle,Travel & Dining

The Party Pivots

By Beverly Stephen - July 22, 2020

The party’s not over in the Hamptons but it’s transformed. No big gala benefits. No waiters tray passing hors d’oeuvres. No hopping from one party to the next. No endless stream of house guests.

Small dinner parties at home are “in.”
The food is still gourmet. But the “see and be seen” appeal that fuels August in the Hamptons is largely on pause even though the size of social gatherings allowed has now been raised to 50 people. Celebrity sightings, impromptu deal making, networking, even match making have slowed.

One Southampton resident confesses she didn’t even bring any fancy clothes back up from Palm Beach this season.

Yet, Hamptons hosts and hostesses are inviting family and intimate friends into their homes, perhaps for dinner for 6 to 12, and sometimes even braving a somewhat larger celebration for, say, a 50th birthday or even a small wedding.

“People are ready to celebrate summer even if that means doing it in a modified fashion in their homes,” says Charlotte Sasso, owner of Stuart’s Seafood in Amagansett.

“Nobody is jaded anymore,” says event planner Victoria Dubin. “People are so grateful to have the opportunity to do something. Expectations are lower but the joy is higher.”

Caterers are going above and beyond to accommodate their clients even though these small dinners, usually packaged as parties in boxes, only add up to about a quarter of their normal summer business if that.

“We’re maintaining,” says Cheryl Stair, Bridgehampton’s Art of Eating co-owner. “We’re going to follow the rules, and try to stay safe, and feed people in a fun way.”

One of the fun ways Stair came up with is her drive-thru Supper Club on Thursdays. Every Thursday she has a different dinner ready for pickup. One week it might be the Indian classic butter chicken; on another, chicken Provencal with goat cheese stuffed baby zucchini.

Stair is always working on new menu items both for the Supper Club and her regular take-out. “We do a lot of boards — roasted vegetables and grilled meats with little dipping sauces, not your average crudités, a burrata board, BLT boards, fun with fajitas, a mezze platter,” Stair says. “One customer buys three quarts of white clam sauce every week. We sell a lot of ramen, shrimp and duck; we sell like 100 pizzas a week. And a crazy amount of caviar!”

Uber New York City chef Daniel Boulud saw a new business opportunity and launched a meal delivery service for his tony Manhattan customers now at the beach. Daniel Boulud Kitchen rolled out with a seafood bouillabaisse for Friday, a vegetarian dinner for Saturday and a Sunday brunch, all delivered by the Hampton Jitney on Friday afternoon.

The classic clambake is still a summer favorite even though people may be eating it poolside rather than on the beach this year. And lobster in any form is undisputed king of the sea.

Cooked lobster dinners are runaway best sellers. “My clients are asking for a lot of cooked lobster dinners,” Sasso reports.

However, Marc Miller, an owner of Hampton Clambake, Silver Lining Diner, and Food & Company, tries to steer his clients toward lobster rolls instead. “If you cook a lobster, it can get a little mushy,” he believes. “If I talk them into a lobster roll, everybody still gets one and one fourth pounds of chilled lobster and can put it together themselves. I just did a party for 25 that started as a clambake and instead of sending cooked lobster I centered it around lobster rolls.”

Cedar planked salmon is another favorite at Stuart’s.

 “I sell tons,” says Sasso. “You can serve at room temperature, heated, or cold. And the most popular local fish is striped bass.”

One of the most nerve wracking things about catering without sending staff is having no control over what packaged food will look like when the customers serve it.

“You make the food and you’re not putting it on a plate, you’re putting it in take-out packaging or on something disposable,” says Stair, who notes that she now “knows more about take-out packaging than I ever wanted to know.” However, for some of the clients she knows personally, she’s able to bring things nicely arranged on platters or in oven-to-table crockery. “And they bring it back!” she marvels.

Even if not everybody is Martha Stewart when it comes to styling food and tabletop, it’s important to make things look good.

Dubin has been setting beautiful tables at home and photographing them for her Instagram just to inspire others to do the same for their families. In a burst of creativity, she turned a ping pong table into a dinner table for her son’s 30th birthday.

Even when parties are small, seating will be a little different, a little more spaced out. Fewer people will be seated at a big table. Or several smaller tables might be spaced out. Or guests might even sit on blankets spaced out on a lawn.

Some homeowners, even South of the Highway, will do their own cooking for a smallish dinner party rather than rely on a caterer. And if they do, who better to turn to for a little advice than the Barefoot Contessa herself. Ina Garten’s “Entertaining Tips to Live By” as told to Food Network advise “Keep it really simple…Do get comfortable. If the hostess is stressed, everybody is going to be stressed…Do tried and true recipes.”

And what to drink?
Rose is here to stay. It might even turn up in spritzes but rose itself “will never go out of summer style,” believes Marc Miller. “For local fun, we love the Long Island wineries, like Wölffer’s Summer in a Bottle. For classic roses, nothing beats the wines of Provence.”

Charlotte Sasso concurs. “With lobster, rose is always good and beer is complementary too. I like a nice dry French Sancerre — that’s my go to in the summer.”

However, the caterers note that their clients tend to have deep wine cellars and need no help from them. They do, however, offer prepared mixes for cocktails and let the clients add their own alcohol.

Tequila is the hot ticket this year and Art of Eating has a Margarita mix. They also offer a Mojito kit and a Bloody Mary Kit. “We do the base and the garnishes,” says Stair.

Hampton Clambake offers a rum punch with four citrus fruits in Mason jars. Miller also favors a watermelon Caipirinha.

The prepared bases would fall in line with Ina Garten’s advice to “make easy drinks.” And “If it’s too complicated to make a cocktail, just have bottles of wine for people to help themselves.”

Beverly Stephen, former executive editor of Food Arts, is now co-owner of Flavor Forays, a culinary travel company.

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