Whenever I prepare for a party I remember starting out, before I went to culinary school, with my good friend Jenny Stegall in San Francisco. A beautiful Southern Belle, she had just graduated the French Culinary Institute and had moved west for her husband’s job and was working as a private chef and caterer for some of the super-rich finance types in Pacific Heights. When we met we instantly bonded over our love of food and regularly met at the Ferry Building farmers market, swooning over the cakes at Miette (long before they had their gorgeous shops) and the jewel-colored pyramids of Frog Hollow Farms stone fruits. We bought lots of ingredients that were new to us and tried out new recipes on one another. My first invite to her home was for the Oscars. She’d prepared homemade pizzas and goat cheese wontons with a chilli dipping sauce. I was in awe.
Even though I loved to cook and entertained ambitiously myself, it wouldn’t have been without Jenny’s guidance that I ended up at the French Culinary Institute myself, cooking for a living. She hired me as an extra set of hands to help her with the gigs she regularly did for her church, her Junior League members, her regular clients. I’d just show up and do whatever she asked, forever fearful I’d be in her way or do something wrong. But Jenny was patient and encouraging and after not too long we were collaborating on menus and bouncing ideas to grow her business off one another. I learned so much during those two years before I decided to head back East to New York and go to culinary school myself.
So now, gosh, nearly 10 years later, as I prepare for an event tomorrow night, I remember all that she taught me. Most importantly was the fierce attention to detail that she instilled in me, long before Chef Henry at the FCI did. Nothing slightly too brown or too wonky or too imperfect ever went out to clients. I still find myself saying, “Would Jenny serve this?” Also crucial was the gear we brought with us for each gig, no matter what the size – the just in case stuff. These are the items, beyond the platters and serving bowls and regular ingredients, that I like to have on hand wherever I go because you never know what might happen in someone else’s kitchen. And so I am sharing my list of indispensables with you as I pack them, ready for tomorrow night, as food for thought the next time you throw a party of your own.
Plastic Squeeze Bottle (good for drizzling sauces)
Notebook with Timeline and Temps Noted (sacred)
4 White Napkins (makes everything look nicer if you need them)
Offset Spatula (helps with little fiddly canapes)
Two White Aprons (one always gets dirty)
Lighter (for candles)
Corkscrew (I’ve had so many at client’s homes not work properly)
Lemons (adds zing to everything)
Maldon Sea Salt (for finishing dishes)
Good Olive OIl (again you’d be surprised at what people keep at home)
Chives (a sprinkling makes anything look better)
Olives (if there’s space on a table you need filled)
Rice Cracker Mix (ditto)