Chef and author Marguerite Henderson invites us into her garden, offering tips for hosting an outdoor midday soirée.
By Val Rasmussen | Photos by Leah Wright
Warm days and greening gardens—it’s time to head outdoors and celebrate the season over a leisurely lunch with friends. Marguerite Henderson agrees.
This Brooklyn-bred Sicilian cooking instructor has brought sass and class to her students’ kitchens around the Beehive State for over 30 years.
Today, she invites us to her Salt Lake City garden where she shares party-throwing know-how with a group of eager-to-learn lunch guests. Sit back, relax and let the meal—and lessons—begin.
Bring the Indoors Out
With spring’s arrival, we all want to take our parties outdoors, but Henderson saves her shatterproof plastic and paper napkins for picnics and concerts. Instead, she opts for fine china and glassware. “I always use my china,” Henderson says, “and my nice linens. Whenever I buy new items, I assume I’ll be using them outside, too.”
Sit a spell for a midday multicourse meal. Henderson considers dining an experience not to be rushed. She evenly paces the courses, allowing guests time to mingle in between. She also prepares ahead of time so she, too, can mingle and relax.
Set the Scene
Forget matchy-matchy décor or a forced theme. Instead, Henderson creates an inviting mood using personal touches like her collected tea tins, planters and mixed china pieces.
“My style is elegantly simple. I use china and silver, linens and fresh flowers. And, when possible, I include the best of the garden bounty: herbs, roses, grape leaves or fig leaves,” says Henderson. “I insist that each plate is garnished with some sort of fresh herb or flower. Nothing frilly, just enough to make guests feel special and know that I really want them to join me at my table.”
Simple flowers, playful ribbons and mismatched yet coordinating pillows yield a high return for a breezy affair loaded with personality. Henderson’s trickling fountains add to the relaxed ambience, as does soft background music.
Move It Around
Inside or out, no one wants to sit in the same spot for three hours. Henderson’s guests enjoy a variety of places to perch throughout the luncheon. Lucky for them, Dean Anesi from The Urban Garden Co. recently redesigned Henderson’s garden with this in mind. Appetizers are served in a far corner of the yard beneath a new pergola, cocktails are enjoyed on a porch swing or wire garden bench, and lunch is served under a canopy of grape vines covering the main patio.
Take It Easy
Know your limitations. “Do what you know,” Henderson suggests. “People watch television and think menus need to be complicated, which is not true. Just be confident in what you’re making.”
Planning ahead is also key to Henderson’s keep-it-simple approach. In the weeks leading up to an event, the desired party vibe should influence the menu. “The food should be as casual as the setting. Then you’re as casual as the food,” she says.
Serve with Strategy
Large or small, dressy or casual, outside or in, every party benefits from carefully considering how to best serve guests. “When you have eight to ten people at a table, family style works great,” Henderson suggests. “Beyond 20, you want to consider a buffet.” Thoughtful presentation is essential either way. Whether she’s traveling to food-centric places like Napa or Italy or zipping around Salt Lake preparing for classes, Henderson is a year-round scout for platters, bowls, linens, napkin rings and ribbons, many of which made it to this party.
Sip on Something Light
Cocktails at noon? Why not? And make them pretty. “Some people may opt for a vodka soda or a cold, shaken martini,” Henderson says, “but I prefer chilled Prosecco mixed with a splash of fruit puree—like peach, raspberry or blueberry—and garnished with the fruit.” Of course, don’t forget a non-alcoholic alternative like pink lemonade with a mint garnish. And serve plenty of chilled water.
Make Some Shade
Utah’s midday sun can sizzle, so keep an eye out for places where your guests might not be protected from it. If pergolas, umbrellas and canopies don’t provide enough shade, there are some fun options. As Henderson proves, sun hats make a whimsical party display, in addition to being practical. Small paper umbrellas or colorful fans—also fun party favors—provide other solutions. Feel like getting the guests even more involved? Have them bring their own garden hats. Kentucky Derby, anyone?
Click here for Marguerite’s take on strawberry and rhubarb crisp.