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A Party Planner's Best Tips

Salty-sweet snacks and a clever Bloody Mary bar are the key elements to a holiday cocktail party with A-list party planner Bronson van Wyck.
Bronson van Wyck's Holiday Cocktail Party Tips
Holiday cocktail party tips from party planner Bronson van Wyck.
Photo © John Kernick.

Bronson van Wyck didn’t become one of the New York City society and fashion world’s most in-demand event planners just by throwing spectacular parties and creating buzz for his clients—a blur of names like Chanel, Ferragamo, Sean Combs and Bill Clinton. He did it by dreaming up experiences that keep people talking for years: For Ferragamo, he filled a room with naked models; for a High Line park benefit, he seated donors near a giant electronic replica of a rising and setting sun. But “for the holidays, you go back to tradition,” he says.

It helps that tradition, for van Wyck, is a constant source of inspiration. Raised on an Arkansas farm by a Southern mother and a New England–bred father, the 38-year-old, a descendant of 1800s NYC mayor Robert Anderson Van Wyck, describes his youth as “Balmoral meets the American South”—a mix of British blue blood and rural Dixie. In his world, tradition might mean draping a table in the tartan plaid of his mother’s Scottish clan and stringing up garlands of magnolia leaves.

Van Wyck has a knack for using his life experience as a source of ideas and new traditions. As a teenager, he’d watch relatives gather for dinner parties, the adults mixing Bloody Marys to their own idiosyncratic tastes. A post-college stint working for socialite and former US ambassador to France Pamela Harriman—who threw A-list bashes on a grand scale—enhanced his love of entertaining. And a little more than a decade ago, he and his mother, Mary Lynn, set up the firm Van Wyck & Van Wyck in New York City, planning big-ticket events and decorating private homes for the holidays. Now he’s taking his bespoke holiday-design skills public, launching a pop-up shop in Manhattan that runs until January. It sells custom-fit decorations like wreaths and magnolia garlands, monogrammed tartan tablecloths, vintage ornaments and his new line of cocktail mixes and salad dressings.

To debut his Bloody Mary mix and Caesar dressing, van Wyck recently threw a holiday party at an old friend’s historic house in Long Island, New York. The menu had some of his favorite party snacks and drinks and a laid-back, intimate vibe—a departure from his usual attention-getting extravaganzas. For a big Caesar salad served in a Parmesan wheel—inspired by the parties a Yale classmate’s mother used to throw—he encouraged everyone to scoop it onto pieces of garlicky char-grilled toasts. “I didn’t want anyone to need a fork,” he says. Candied bacon strips and spiced nuts were just salty enough to lure guests to his mix-your-own Bloody Mary bar, with ice cubes made from cucumber-basil and tomato-chile purees.

Even though his guests didn’t travel far, van Wyck acted as if they had, just as his parents used to when friends would drive to their farm to spend a weekend. “Hospitality in its truest form was always about giving respite to travelers,” says van Wyck. “If people have traveled to see you, you want to make it worth their while”—even if it’s just a few miles up the road.

Holiday Party Wines for Every Guest

Holiday Cocktail Party Sideboard
Photo © John Kernick.

NV Scharffenberger Brut Excellence ($20)

Made in the traditional Champagne style, this rich and creamy wine from northern California can be served throughout a meal.

2011 Domaine Daniel Dampt Chablis ($24)

Third-generation winemaker Vincent Dampt ages his wines entirely in stainless steel, resulting in this lively, fresh Chablis that can pair with practically any appetizer.

2011 Saint Cosme Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge ($16)

A medium-bodied Syrah blend from the Rhône Valley that is spicy and fruit-forward—great on its own or with food.

2009 Stags’ Leap Napa Valley Merlot ($33)

This is for guests who like full-bodied reds. Made with estate fruit, it’s aged in oak barrels for 16 months, giving the cherry- rich wine a compelling roundness.

Perfect Holiday Cocktail Party Snacks

Van Wyck’s favorite foods for a casual holiday party are fun to eat by hand, a bit decadent and a bit salty, which never fails to drive guests to the cocktail bar.

Bronson van Wyck and Phoebe Kemble
Photo © John Kernick.

Bacon Candy

“What’s better than bacon, except sugar?” asks van Wyck, who, with the help of his friend Phoebe Kemble, coats thick-cut bacon strips in brown sugar and chile powder, then bakes them instead of frying, “so a lot of the fat drains off.”

Sugar-and-Spice Nuts

Van Wyck’s sticky cashew-and-almond mix has it all: It’s salty, sugary, spicy and has a lovely thin crust, thanks to being tossed in egg white before baking.

Take-Home Style

Here’s what you’ll find at van Wyck’s seasonal pop-up shop, inside Manhattan’s Overbey & Dunn design store (19 Christopher St.).

Southern-Style Garlands
Photo © John Kernick.

Southern-Style Garlands

His garlands often feature magnolia leaves—some are gilded and others are flipped over to show the brown underside, a striking contrast to the dark-green leaves.

Bespoke Garlands and Wreaths

For customers who bring measurements, van Wyck’s shop will custom-make wreaths and garlands from magnolia leaves and other stunning foliage to fit individual spaces. From $300.

Christmas Trees

You can pick out a tree, then have it fitted with lights and hand-painted in amber by van Wyck’s staff. From $1,250.

Tartan Plaids

Tablecloths and napkins, some patterned after the tartan plaid of van Wyck’s mother’s Scottish clan, can be monogrammed in the store while you wait. From $100.

Signature Dressings and Mixers

Van Wyck bottled three kinds of salad dressings (two vinaigrettes and a Caesar) and two mixers (Bloody Mary and margarita) and hired Brooklyn design firm Madwell to create the retro labels. They are available online at vanwyck.net.

Published December 2012
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