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Ask the Expert: 10 Simple Tips for Hosting a Beautiful Outdoor Dinner

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Ask the Expert: 10 Simple Tips for Hosting a Beautiful Outdoor Dinner

August 26, 2019

Is it possible to cook for 18 without missing the highlights of your own dinner? Soignée chef and farmer Phoebe Cole-Smith rolls out suppers in her Connecticut barn well into November, with her catering company, Picnic. Here she shows us how cooking for crowds at home can also be enjoyable for the host.

Photography by Kerry Michaels.

1. Delegate, even the greetings.

You don’t have to do everything: Phoebe has a team, one of whom greets guests on the driveway and walks them up to the barn, while another calm and cheerful person introduces them to the idea of a seasonal specialty cocktail: “Thankfully, the kitchen is in a different building to the dining room-barn.”
Above: You don’t have to do everything: Phoebe has a team, one of whom greets guests on the driveway and walks them up to the barn, while another calm and cheerful person introduces them to the idea of a seasonal specialty cocktail: “Thankfully, the kitchen is in a different building to the dining room-barn.”

Phoebe’s two front-of-house regulars, Laura Mulligan and Nick DeBrock, are also staff farmers at nearby CSA farm The Hickories, “so they can comment on the food from that perspective—an added bonus for our guests.”

2. Have a sous-chef, with whom you get on.

“It makes a big difference to work with a trained chef versus a cooking enthusiast,” says Phoebe. “My sous-chef Kelly Tyrell and I have worked out a really good system. She is a more recent graduate of the International Culinary Center, and helps me in the garden and with administration. I am incredibly lucky with my crew.”
Above: “It makes a big difference to work with a trained chef versus a cooking enthusiast,” says Phoebe. “My sous-chef Kelly Tyrell and I have worked out a really good system. She is a more recent graduate of the International Culinary Center, and helps me in the garden and with administration. I am incredibly lucky with my crew.”

3. Serve variations on a theme.

“All of my barn suppers share the theme of seasonal and local food,” says Phoebe. They have more specific themes as well, such as edible flowers or clean eating.
Above: “All of my barn suppers share the theme of seasonal and local food,” says Phoebe. They have more specific themes as well, such as edible flowers or clean eating.

“The Honey Brunch was a collaboration with Marina Marchese of Red Bee Honey and involved using different varieties of honey in prepared drinks and dishes, as well as learning all about the honey bee,” says Phoebe.

4. Grow what you can.

“Even if you are not a gardener who grows flowers, you may grow pots of herbs, or edible shrubs,” says Phoebe. “To be able to add that last finishing touch, from right outside the kitchen door, allows for inspiration at your fingertips.”
Above: “Even if you are not a gardener who grows flowers, you may grow pots of herbs, or edible shrubs,” says Phoebe. “To be able to add that last finishing touch, from right outside the kitchen door, allows for inspiration at your fingertips.”

5. Plan shortcuts.

“I serve oysters regularly, mostly because shellfishing is the largest agricultural endeavor in Connecticut, so they are very farm-to-table,” says Phoebe. “I switch up the mignonette to reflect what’s in season; recently I made it with pickled lovage stems—so good.”
Above: “I serve oysters regularly, mostly because shellfishing is the largest agricultural endeavor in Connecticut, so they are very farm-to-table,” says Phoebe. “I switch up the mignonette to reflect what’s in season; recently I made it with pickled lovage stems—so good.”

The oysters (always from Copp’s Island) arrive freshly shucked, to save time; they are stored in their own liquor, with the shells in a separate bag. When it’s time to serve, the oysters are returned to the deeper bottom shells. More liquor is spooned over them before Phoebe and Kelly add the mignonette.

6. Ask about food issues.

“Before each event I contact my guests to to give them an opportunity to let me know if they have any food issues,” says Phoebe. “But even with so may current trends in eating, it’s surprising to see that most people are game for whatever I come up with.”
Above: “Before each event I contact my guests to to give them an opportunity to let me know if they have any food issues,” says Phoebe. “But even with so may current trends in eating, it’s surprising to see that most people are game for whatever I come up with.”

7. Use free decorations…

“Even if you do not grow many flowers, a branch from a crab apple tree, or some wild asters from along the road, are all that’s needed with candles and gleaming flatware and wineglasses,” says Phoebe. “A little really does go a long way. Keep clippers in your car or in your pocket on your daily walk.”
Above: “Even if you do not grow many flowers, a branch from a crab apple tree, or some wild asters from along the road, are all that’s needed with candles and gleaming flatware and wineglasses,” says Phoebe. “A little really does go a long way. Keep clippers in your car or in your pocket on your daily walk.”

8. … and best-quality produce.

The extra expense is always worth it, says Phoebe. “Local, seasonal food is healthier, better tasting, better for the local economy, better for the planet. Why bother otherwise?”
Above: The extra expense is always worth it, says Phoebe. “Local, seasonal food is healthier, better tasting, better for the local economy, better for the planet. Why bother otherwise?”
Local vineyards and breweries get a look in too.
Above: Local vineyards and breweries get a look in too.

9. You can’t go wrong with a twinkling room.

“Presentation is almost everything,” says Phoebe. “In addition to dimmed bistro lights overhead, I use softly lit lamps in the corners of the barn, and candle lanterns and votives everywhere. We always have the firepit lit outside.”
Above: “Presentation is almost everything,” says Phoebe. “In addition to dimmed bistro lights overhead, I use softly lit lamps in the corners of the barn, and candle lanterns and votives everywhere. We always have the firepit lit outside.”

Linens are from local weaver and textile designer Elizabeth Eakins; ceramics are the work of Phoebe’s neighbor, Frances Palmer. “I love the place where we eat to be bountiful and beautiful but not fussy. It’s a barn after all.”

10. Document the event.

Phoebe’s long-time friend, the photographer Kerry Michaels, was on hand for this event, though too often the important aspect of documentation is overlooked. Says Phoebe: “It’s too bad because I make every effort to send out a pretty plate.” She also makes a pretty menu, which everyone can keep.
Above: Phoebe’s long-time friend, the photographer Kerry Michaels, was on hand for this event, though too often the important aspect of documentation is overlooked. Says Phoebe: “It’s too bad because I make every effort to send out a pretty plate.” She also makes a pretty menu, which everyone can keep.

N.B.: See more of Phoebe’s garden in Homeward Bound: My Childhood Connecticut, Only Better, at Dirt Road Farm. And for more tips on easy entertaining, see Compost Dinner: A Zero-Waste Menu at Brooklyn Grange Farm and DIY: Instant Wine Bar.

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