7:15 p.m. It's less than an hour before dinner guests arrive and the kitchen in Jesse Browner's Manhattan loft is immaculate. A vase on the polished black-granite island is filled with lush viburnum branches; an almond tart has been dusted with confectioners' sugar around the silhouette of a small child's hand. The hand belongs to Browner's six-year-old daughter, Cora, who scoots across the kitchen floor on her favorite pear-patterned pillow. Browner's wife, Judy Clain, lights beeswax candles on a half-wall near the dining table.
Born in New York City and raised there as well as in Switzerland and London, Browner is a novelist and historian who spends his days as a translator for the United Nations (he speaks French, Russian, Spanish and Italian). He's standing near the stove, the red oven mitts on his hands splayed like lobster claws. "Don't let me forget about the polenta," he says anxiously, opening and shutting the oven door. "Every five minutes I forget it's in there." The polenta, which is broiling in two pans, will soon be heaped with wild mushrooms sautéed in garlic, anchovies and white wine, and served with a baby arugula salad.
"Will someone please have a drink?" Browner says to no one in particular as he pours himself a glass of vermouth in the kitchen. "I just need to wind down." Not surprisingly, considering his attention to detail, Browner has prepared the rest of the meal in advance. "It's hard to entertain in a loft," he says. "I don't like people to see me work, because it ruins the illusion."