World-Class Hosting Will Never Be Obsolete
By Suzanne Pollak
True house parties happen when multiple couples and families meet in one destination for several days. It’s not just your best friend and her partner staying the night in the guest room. A house party host has gone to considerably more trouble than when preparing for an overnight guest. The best house parties deepen relationships for the rest of your life. You become close as kin or, when the hosts are as magical as Tony and Carla Hendra, even closer. Tony, who played the band manager in the iconic movie Spinal Tap, and his wife, Carla, who is the global chief executive of Ogilvy Consulting, are possibly the world’s greatest house party hosts.
I visited Tony and Carla in their home in southern France for two summers, and now we are family. We’ve adopted each other. When I need a lift, I tap into the memories of those halcyon days at the Hendras’ place. What could be better than reveling for a week (yes, a full week!) in communal bliss—eating, drinking, swimming, and walking around a charming village, with time for long conversations and hours of cooking? All the while, you’re leaving the frenzy of your trials and tribulations behind, at least for a spell.
A house party host must possess an overflowing heart, a hugely generous spirit (and often, an open pocketbook), boundless energy, and a willingness to carve out time for others. The house party host is the exact opposite of self-centered. The tasks are multiple, but so are the rewards for those of us who have organized house parties and been recipients of these idyllic stays. Making a group of people feel safe and loved, watered, and fed for a few days is a fabulous gift.
A house party is not to be taken lightly. The amount of work can be dizzying. We all know that anything that goes well does so because there was a lot of preparation. I know the ins and outs of house parties because I used to throw plenty when I had space for it. Frequently, a week’s worth of naps was required to recuperate. Back in the day, some people had so much help that the host didn’t have to lift a finger, only supervise; but those house parties had a different vibe. Today’s version is more rewarding because everyone contributes. The working and doing together are the ties that bind. The key to success is a person in charge. In the Hendras’ case, Tony and Carla take turns handling boss duties.
The glue holding all house parties together is the communal dinner, where everyone cooks and gathers. Here, Tony reigns. He doesn’t cede an ounce of control in his kitchen, even to a sous chef. Being Tony’s sous was a big learning experience on many levels—heeding directions, following orders, and learning new tricks from a master. Did you know that cutting garlic lengthwise extracts more flavor, that steam is hotter than fire, or that cleaning scorched pans under cold water with a brush makes all the debris come off? How about that cabbage is nature’s fettuccine, and that you should give black pepper a rest once in a while, or else everything tastes the same? Neither did I! Hang out with an exacting, opinionated cook like Tony, and the learning curve is steep. Thanks to him, I even know all the reasons a cleaver might be necessary for butchering guinea hens and deer.
Dinnertime happens late in the Hendra household because Tony starts tomorrow’s dinner tonight. For example, at eight o’clock, Tony might spatchcock some quail (in France, this entails cutting off their little heads) and make the marinade (lemon juice, diced shallots, thyme, and olive oil) for an overnight soak that precedes tomorrow’s dinner. After finishing a few tasks for the next day, he begins cooking for the present day. Dinner starts around ten and usually concludes after midnight.
Making a group of people feel safe and loved, watered, and fed for a few days is a fabulous gift.
A highlight of our dinner each night was the spontaneous moment of silence at the table brought on by that first bite. It happened all at once; each guest became hushed and awed by Tony’s food, mostly because of his decades of experience and dedicated cooking using the most straightforward techniques and local ingredients. There are no errors, only variations.
To make house parties as joyous as they can be, a detailed organization plan is in order, and here is where Carla’s genius is evident. She does way too much by herself, but she does allow guests to pitch in. The business of feeding people (even small numbers of people eat massive amounts of food while hanging out) means making multiple trips to the grocery store to stock up on everything imaginable. It’s more fun when a guest or three accompanies the host to the store (sharing the cost too) for all the cases of wine, pounds of cheese, crates of vegetables, a king’s ransom of fowl, meats, pâtés, tea, and coffee necessary to feed the flock. Nothing relaxing happens when the larder is empty.
House party guests must contribute in the best way possible by buying supplies, helping set the table, making a centerpiece, cleaning up, acting as sous chef, sharpening knives, volunteering for errands, and folding the laundry. It should go without saying that guests are making their beds and taking out their garbage, not sitting in the living room looking at their cell phones while the host is hustling in the kitchen. If the house has a swimming pool, then keeping up with the towels—for bathing, relaxing poolside, and drying dishes in the kitchen—is a tedious task that even the laziest guest can take on. Everyone helping a little bit adds up to a lot. What it boils down to is that when everyone lends their expertise or energy, under direction from the hosts, the condition is set for people to have fun together without any formalities; otherwise, a house party requires too much heavy lifting.
If you are contemplating organizing a house party, there are two things you cannot allow yourself to worry about: the weather and whether your guests are enjoying themselves.
If you are a lucky recipient of a house party invitation, you might need ideas for a thank-you gift to send after an extended stay. A surprise is best. Discover your host’s passions and hobbies. Donate to a favorite charity or send a set of antique linens, a handmade pottery casserole in French blue, an Hermès beach towel if the stay involved hours around the pool, or a case of wine. My favorite house party hostess gift came from Tony and Carla years ago: a box of their favorite comedies—a gift that keeps on giving.
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Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal “Mansion” section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.