The Night Princess Di’s Chef Cooked Me Dinner

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Now when I hear people say they’ve had a meal fit for a king, I know that I win because I did, literally. Chef Darren McGrady has cooked for Queen Elizabeth and the Royal family. But most notably, he became the personal chef for Princess Di, and her sons William and Harry.

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He was in her employ on the night she died, and decided to move to America after the tragedy. In the states, he’s been a star chef, writing cookbooks and making appearances. Luckily he came to Richmond this week. I was honored to be a part of an intimate dinner for 20. Before we ate, he charmed us with a food demonstration peppered with royal gossip and funny anecdotes. The talented Catt Levesque snapped these photos while we indulged, and is credited with every amazing photo here.

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In the elegant and newly-renovated Mise En Place, he served recipes from his new cookbook The Royal Chef at Home.  We enjoyed a tangy kale quinoa salad with blueberries. There were Stilton and preserved fig canapes, served with fresh grapes. Fiery shrimp and grits, oozing with cheese. To top it off, a buttery bread pudding that’s so exquisite, my words would do it no justice.

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We ate like royalty, and he made us feel like royalty. This night was one for the books.

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Smoke on the Water

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Blade and Bow served smooth bourbon

It’s not often that I write about food and have no photos to show for it. But I was in the thick of it, eating ribs and overstuffed sliders. I was all sticky fingers.

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Even the chestnuts roasted on an open fire

 

Fire, Flour & Fork  returns to Richmond this week, and the series of (almost 40!)  food events include dinners, cooking demonstrations and plenty of booze. The theme this year? Globally Inspired, Locally Made. To kick off the end of a long work week, we attended Smoke on the Water, a Global Barbecue.

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Fall foliage on the James

From Jamaican jerk to lamb sliders, Vietnamese banh mi to low country ribs,  smoke filled the air as chefs served their own version of BBQ. Fall foliage lined the James River beside us, and a full moon rose over the skyline. Live music played as we sipped Belle Isle honey habanero moonshine to wash down the goodness. Thanks to The Virginia Beef Industry Council and other sponsors, this event was outstanding. Perhaps too outstanding, because ZERO food photos.

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oysters and vegetarian options made it an event for all

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Paisley and Jade warmed up the space

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Full bellies, full moon

a cue from the nora ephron playbook

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Nora Ephron was  more than a brilliant screenwriter and author. She was a legendary hostess. She was witty, and a ninja in the kitchen.

In fact, countless websites have posts dedicated to her quotes about food and entertaining. But she’s too funny for me to be satisfied with the Internet’s CliffsNotes. I’ve read every book cover to cover, and came away with some serious wisdom. One memorable dinner party tip: people love to play with their food.

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guests under our pergola, loaded with concord grapes

Whether it’s a mashed potato bar with all the fixings or a Bloody Mary bar with an endless array of hot sauces and pickled veggies, people like to play, build, switch things up.

Since Vietnamese is my one of my favorite cuisines, I decided to host a dinner party where guests could build their own bun cha bowl. Like Chipotle but tastier, and you have total control. We were celebrating the return of The Langes, who got hitched in our own backyard but moved to San Francisco soon after. It was a mini reunion with many of their attorney friends, and members of The Order of the Cincinnati Society, whom meet at our home every Wednesday night.

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When serving food others may find exotic, help them out with a little sign

Scented candles were lit, Chet Baker played on the stereo and after dinner, guests were treated to an array of Asian desserts. Everything from Pocky to coconut rolls. And here’s a tip: guests will feel luxuriously catered to if you pass around a tray with multiple options. The smile on their face when it’s their time to be served is worth a little heavy lifting.

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Hamilton going for the orange creme cookie

It’s my hope that this hospitality will bring The Langes back again as houseguests, and soon!

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on the outside looking in

Rustic Picnic: An Uncommon Baby Shower

When media executives Rebecca and Mitul Patel announced that they were soon to be a party of 3, my friends and I jumped at the chance to celebrate the arrival of their son, Ander. Maybe it was the swarm of boho-style weddings that took over 2016, but my friends and I wanted to host a rustic picnic. Inspired by the rugged beauty of Griffith Park, we did just that.

The party hosts with new mom Rebecca, second from left.

I opted for a public place with a private feel. Wooded spots in Griffith park are so other-worldly, they book a year in advance. So began an intensive search of L.A. parks. Using Google Maps and satellite, I eliminated rental spaces that were too open, in a playground, too modern or in a dirt patch that passes for a park. I wanted magic. In Pasadena, I found an old live oak shading a wood shelter with a dark patina. I was sold.

Naturally, burlap and twine took center stage, and was accented with polka dots and pine cones plucked from Griffith Park. Fresh sunflowers sat in wine bottles wrapped in vintage lace. We served old-fashioned picnic food: fried chicken, egg salad sandwiches, watermelon, summer salad and an irresistable tower of white powdered doughnuts.

egg salad sandwiches, an American classic

heirloom yellow raspberries and feta made the salad

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It wouldn’t be a picnic without lemonade, which we served in ceramic pitchers. And a baby shower is never complete without booze, so bottles of Prosecco were popping!

As old friends reunited, they laughed over a group of baby photos clipped to branches with wood clothes hangers. Everyone had submitted baby photos of themselves prior to the shower, and were encouraged to write down who was who, for a chance to win prizes. The hosts, competitive people themselves, could not resist the lure of a good game, and the promise of prizes.

Baby Ander even made an appearance. People fawned all over his chubby cheeks and gummy smile.

beautiful baby Ander

Friends that hadn’t seen one another were so excited to be reunited, there was an impromptu 20-minute photo session as people said their goodbyes. It was an afternoon of comfort food, sunshine and laughter. Congratulations to Rebecca and Mitul Patel!

 

LoBrown Wedding Reflects A Few of Their Favorite Things

It all started with the invitation, where wedding details were engulfed by a swarm of Max and Carol’s favorite things: octopuses, motorcycles, milkshakes, Star Wars characters and more. A friend of the bride drew the original invite by hand. Without realizing it, the theme of this wedding became My Favorite Things.

The wedding ceremony was peppered with references to Star Trek, the Declaration of Independence, Emily Dickinson and other cultural references near and dear to the couple. As was the man who officiated; who is a close friend of the groom’s.

Carol is a local fixture, as she was once a baker at the Richmond institution Dixie Donuts. She literally has an art wall in her home, made of contributions from her admirers. She did not let her guests down, baking an array of home-cooked cakes and tarts. From a churro bundt to chocolate peanut butter cake, every dessert was labeled by a cross-stitched sign.

The groom is a bit of a Renaissance man, and handmade the wedding bands by amalgamating a variety of precious metals in his workshop. He also adorned the altar with a found piece of beach wood, which he branded himself.  Combining their names, it reads: La Casita LoBrown. One of his most popular contributions was a giant BBQ pork, pulled from the on-site smoker. To honor his Mexican heritage, he and his sister also made homemade chips, salsa and guacamole.

Though a backyard wedding allows for more casual dress, the event was not short on style. Refreshingly, the males stood out as statement-makers. There’s Southern rock and then there’s Southern punk rock,  and among the sea of beards and tattoos, there were playful nods to Southern gentlemen everywhere, with pastels and linen suits.

It was a summer wedding after all, and there were 4th of July poppers to explode as the couple made their way down the aisle…and zoomed off on a motorcycle.

There was a gourmet lemonade stand, with flavors like watermelon basil, and lavender – both 100% addictive.

Revelers were free to cool off in the living room, where the TV was removed and the place adorned with displays of the couple’s favorite things.

Friends of the couple learned to play a few songs that were meaningful to Max and Carol. When vows were exchanged, thunder rumbled. At the reception, silent heat lightning illuminated the sky. Never had I been to a wedding so personalized, with the happy couple leaving their signature on every detail. It was truly a night to remember.

 

Taste of Richmond

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A true bon vivant relishes good food, and the inaugural Taste of Richmond did not disappoint. While the event took place weeks ago, I figured it was better to post late than never. The historic John Marshall Ballrooms were packed with the top restaurants in Richmond. Many were still riding the wave of romanticism surrounding New Southern cuisine, which has swept the nation. There were gourmet samples of shrimp and grits and pork belly macaroni and cheese.

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But to further prove that Richmond is a foodie town beyond Southern fare, there was 14 carat gold-flecked sushi. And the best amuse bouche was being dished out by the stellar Indian restaurant Lehja. I can’t remember what they called it. But it was heaven.

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It was a way for Richmonders to sample all the places we’re been meaning to try but hadn’t had a chance to. There was a cooking show by Comfort’s Jason Alley, winestopper party favors and that overall glow from being well-fed.

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Ecuadorian Feast

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“Friends with benefits” should include friends that cook. When my friend Jackie entertains, guests are spoiled rotten. Picking up your finished plate will earn you daggers.

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First, you’re served a hand-muddled cocktail, made with small-batch tequila, lime and sugar.

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While you sip, you can linger in Jackie’s spotless kitchen and steal plantain chips fresh out of the fryer.

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Buen provecho! Shrimp ceviche, home-fried plantains, tortillas and homemade salsa are served fresh.

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After the meal, guests are offered shots of  MamaJuana, an earthy libation from the Dominican Republic that’s said to cure any ills, from digestion to libido.

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Dessert is a tres leches-style cake with fresh fruit. The creaminess tempers the heat from our spicy meal. Not too sweet and 100% delectable.

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Every time we leave Jackie’s home, we’re left wondering what we could have done to deserve such star treatment. But we keep that to ourselves. We wouldn’t want Jackie to start wondering that too.

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Cheers!

Prom Night in No Man’s Land

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What happens when the band plays Freebird

If one wants an edge when navigating fashion, they need to learn how to mix the high and low. If one wants to eat well, they’ll appreciate a white truffle pate as much as a street taco. And if one wants to live a good life, an appreciation of the high and low is also necessary.

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This isn’t the ballet. This is a true tale of a commune in the California desert. Off the grid with no electricity and running water, it’s a refuge for those fleeing regular society. Not even the police monitor the activities in Slab City, which got its name from the giant slabs of concrete on the ground. It is the site of a former military base. Barbed wire still blocks off the edge of town, which is said to have been a bomb test site.

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Chris McCandless, the young man who inspired the true story Into the Wild, lived in Slab City for a spell. Sean Penn even visited this collective of trailers and man-made dwellings to direct the film version of the book, using the real location and residents for authenticity.

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On Saturday nights, Bill the Builder flicks on a generator, and residents begin to shuffle into the center of “town.” As the desert heat gives way to cool air, they gather at The Range, built by Bill the Builder. He’s the unofficial father to everyone there. There’s a stage, and seats torn from Greyhound buses.  A string of lights hangs above the live band, diffused by plastic paint buckets. Residents drink hooch and sing prion songs.

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Inventive seating at The Range

Retired “snow birds” from cold climates drive down in their RVs to ride out the winter in California, and they often pull in to enjoy Saturday nights with the locals. But the year-round residents can seem menacing on paper. They’re often ex-convicts and people suffering from mental illness. But most are kind, scratching out a living off the refuse of others. Fences are made from mattress springs, and they all bathe in the nearby sulfur-tinged hot springs.

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“Slab City Carol” reigns as prom queen!

How I found this place is another story. I’m here to share prom photos. Once a year, people come far and wide to dance to the live band’s rendition of Freebird with reckless abandon. They dress up and take prom photos. They drink Wild Turkey and wait for the king and queen to be announced at the end of the night. It’s a bucket list event for adventurers, road trippers and of course, les bon vivants!

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Kim Burke-Connors (pictured left) and myself pose under the prom arch.

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Laissez les bon temps roulé!

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As the night goes on, more clothing is lost.p

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Never leave yourself vulnerable in Slab City!

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Residents pull out their hidden daggers, just in time for the photo!

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The local lothario, who invites girls to his “temple”; an upturned septic tank from the military base, which is shaped like a temple.

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

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If you’re throwing a holiday party, rest assured yours will be one of many during the season. What can you do to make your party stand out? Everyone will have cocktails and a nice spread, but I’m all for an activity that keeps people engaged, whether they’re laughing or crafting. A cookie decorating area with to-go bags add more to do and an instant party favor.

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The Spiked Peppermint Cocoa was adorned with a candy cane in each cup.

This year, I put together a photo booth at my Christmas party. Holiday-themed props are easy to come by; Santa hats, reindeer andlers, red nose etc. I threw in a couple of converation pieces, such as a plastic butcher knife from Halloween. It guarantees funnier photos.

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And along with my friend Jules, we hosted a Yankee Swap (or, a White Elephant Exchange). All guests were encouraged to bring a wrapped present, unmarked. All presents were piled under the tree, and people drew numbers. Guests took turns picking out a gift, and the following players had the opportunity to steal a gift they coveted.

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Grinch santa hats

From stacks of lottery tickets to a box full of DVDs, guests laughed, lamented and stole items from one another – multiple times. From the next room, it almost sounded as if I had a movie theater in-house, as all the reactions were loud and silumtaneous. As the exchange got more heated, I passed out slices of pumpkin pie and refilled drinks, such as Jules’ spiced mulled wine and my spiked peppermint hot cocoa.

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Happy holidays to all!

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Hamilton helping with the set-up

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Part of the fun is destroying him

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Canapes: Mexican polenta bars and artichoke parmesan spread over toasted baguette slices

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Yes, someone brought a case of beer to the Yankee Swap

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The Yankee Swap gets heated!

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Before I die: The Grand Bal

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Marlene Deitrich at the Waldorf-Astoria’s annual “April in Paris” ball in 1951 – Paris’ 2000-year birthday

Much ado has been made of the world’s response to our dear City of Light being terrorized. Support has poured in worldwide, but some question why our response to Paris being attacked is so emotional, when things like that happen in other parts of the world all the time. These critics are right, but one must acknowledge that the world has always had a love affair with Paris.

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The Imperial Grand Bal in St. Petersburg, 1903

The French brought us lingerie, croissants, Coco Chanel, the ballet and much more. Even in Paris’ darkest hour since World War II, nothing can vanquish the City of Light. I’d like to bring attention to one of the many things that makes Paris so brilliant – Le Grand Bal.

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An Asian-inspired theme – the food and costumes must have been to die for

What is a Grand Bal?

It’s the party of a lifetime. It’s an event you tell your grandchildren about. While it’s always black tie, the best ones are costumed or masquerade balls. It started centuries ago when Louis XIV held a Grand Bal at Versailles to demonstrate his power. Noblemen and dignitaries far and wide gathered to pass messages and spread influence.

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Louis XIV’s Grand Bal costume

Czars in Russia did it, and during the gilded age in New York, Caroline Astor hosted them. The tradition may have jumped from royalty to socialites hosting charities, but the goal is the same: establishing social and political power. Truman Capote held a black and white ball and these were so influential, that uninvited couples left New York for the weekend, so to appear unavailable for the invite. Famous hostess Elsa Maxwell (who lived in the Waldof-Astoria for free) hosted the annual April in Paris Grand Bal on-site. It was the place to see and be seen.

One day I’ll throw one as well. Costumes, Champagne fountain and other Gatsby-esque frivolities. My theme will be the roaring 20s.

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Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball