Architect and interior designer Mark Zeff and his wife, Juli B., founder of the e-zine julib.com, love to entertain at their Hamptons home. Here, they answer questions about some of their outdoor party essentials, from an insider’s British gin to the best German safari lanterns.
How often do you entertain?
Mark: We throw a party at least once a week in the summer. At our country house in Bridgehampton, New York, we have lots of interesting options in terms of where to entertain. We just set out a dining table in the garden, where we like to eat in the open air. There’s also a screened-in living room adjacent to the kitchen with a wood-burning fireplace that we use quite a bit for cooking. That fireplace often inspires what we’ll make for a party.
How do you decide what to cook?
Mark: We’re very spontaneous. At the last minute, we’ll look at each other and go, "Hmmm, steak, fish " and get in the car and go to the market. We’ll put fish or steak or chicken onto Brazilian skewers that are about 20 inches long, with a handle on one end—a Brazilian chef friend gave them to us. There are holes drilled into the back of the fireplace, and we stick the end of the skewers in the holes and turn them like spits. We also have a fantastic garden—there are no flowers, it’s a green garden— so sometimes we’ll do just salads and vegetables. We have this big wooden salad bowl we bought in South Africa that is 24 inches in diameter and two inches thick. Juli does an incredible lardon salad. She also bakes these killer fruit tarts, with a crust that’s paper-thin like a pizza. I’ve seen people on strict diets cave the moment they see them.
How many guests do you invite to a dinner party?
Juli: We’ve had 12 at a time. We usually look at each other and go, "We’re at eight already, what difference does it make if we have 10?" Then, all right, let’s just do 12 instead and fill up the whole table. Mark: And to be honest, it’s easier to cook for that number of people than a smaller number. Also, it looks better to have a lot of stuff on the table than a little bowl of food for six people.
How do you like to set the table?
Juli: Our dishes in the city are the really ornate red-and-white "Balcons du Guadalquivir" pattern from Hermès ($375 for a five-piece place setting; 800-238-5522 or hermes.com). The rest of our stuff is pretty low key. We mix everything. Mark: We’ll put three different kinds of glasses with each place setting. We’ll mix a charger from Hermès with something simple, like a set of "Hultet" bamboo bowls that we bought at Ikea ($4 each; 800-434-IKEA or ikea.com). We love to use those big soup spoons from Chinese restaurants, and we’ve gotten some strange looks when people have to use them to eat something like ice cream. I don’t think we’ve ever set the table the same way twice. If we’re inviting bohemians, the table tends to be more traditional, just to give them a kick in the jaw. And if it’s the other way around, we tend to go very organic. It’s not about showing what we own; it’s about how we’re feeling. It’s not about a brand; it’s about a sense of style.
Have you ever created something special to decorate the table?
Juli: We’ll do something a little more inventive at Thanksgiving. Last year, for example, we cut little slivers in chestnuts and used them as place-card holders. It’s just an easy, really inexpensive way to do something in five minutes or less.
Do you ever use paper or plastic for outdoor entertaining?
Juli: Never. No plastic, no paper. We always use cloth napkins—we probably have seven or eight different sets of napkins and place mats. Everything from grandmother’s lace that was given to us to beautiful Japanese lacquered plates. We’ll use our orange linen napkins ($28 from Loaves & Fishes; 631-537-6066 or landfcookshop.com) with straw place mats and then mix it up the next day. And I love these great wood-handled Chateaubriand steak knives from Alain Saint-Joanis, which look like antique bistro cutlery ($25; 011-33-4-73-51-42-97 or alain-saint-joanis.com).
Do you have a signature cocktail?
Mark: We’ve been making a Tom Collins using a gin called Martin Miller’s ($30 for 750 ml; 212-213-9777 or millersgin.com). It’s English and very hard to find in the States. We were in London last year at 43 South Molton (011-44-20-7647-4343 or 43southmolton.com)—you know, it’s one of those English supper clubs. It’s very offbeat. So we were at this lounge, and we said to the bartender, "You probably don’t know this and you probably don’t have it, but do you have Miller’s by any chance?" And this 22-year-old kid looked down his nose at me and said, "Well, which strength would you like, sir, the regular or the extra-strength?" We had the extra-strength, and we lasted only an hour before we had to go back to our hotel.
How do you create ambience when you’re entertaining outdoors?
Mark: We have these Petromax kerosene safari lanterns from Germany. You have to cut the wick and light them—they’re really complicated, but they last for seven hours ($120 from Lehman’s; 888- 438-5346 or lehmans.com). As for music, we just hit shuffle on the iPod and hope that it lands on something good. There must be some little guy in there playing the songs we like, because it really works.
What are some of your upcoming restaurant projects?
Mark: I’m working with chef Zak Pelaccio and restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow on a couple of things. One is Borough Food & Drink, a Manhattan restaurant that will feel like old New York (12 E. 22nd St.; no phone yet). It’s going to have really grungy wood, gas lanterns and tiled walls—very 1910 or 1912. Little of it is custom-made; it’s all found objects. We’re also planning a group of restaurants around the country called Carpe Diem, inspired by coffee shops with the same name in Malaysia. Because Malaysia was colonized by the Brits, you can buy ham and eggs or a noodle dish there; our restaurants will have a similar mix of English and Asian food. I’m also collaborating with Jeffrey and chef Tom Valenti on West Branch, a bistro-style place that will hopefully open next year in Manhattan. It will be all about people having a drink in one area and then moving to a table in another and having dinner, or maybe going into the lounge and sitting with a girlfriend or husband in a little nook in the back. It’ll be like the lobby of an old, gentrified hotel—very comfortable, lots of paneling. Not paneling in a "ye olde English" way, but with wooden floors and tiled walls.