In "The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining," Napa-based author Erika Lenkert owns up to some of her mistakesincluding the time she found herself up at 3 a.m. after 18 hours of cooking, trying to finish a towering croquembouche for her 30th-birthday party. She vowed never to repeat the experience. Today, her approach is all about finding smart shortcuts and coming up with zany, inexpensive ways to add style to any event.
What's your favorite hostess gift? There's a company in San Francisco called In Fiore that makes amazing natural beauty products. I give the body oils in the summer and the balms in the winter (from $25 at Studio at Fred Segal; 310-394-8509).
How do you set your table? I'm sentimental about Quimper china from France because my mom collects it. When I was a child, I looked forward to seeing the little man or woman beneath my food after I'd finished eating (from $62 from Quimper Faïence; 800-470-7339). But I mostly own lots of plain white dishes because they go with everything.
What are your favorite serving pieces? Lately I've been into using vintage cooking toys. I gave a party once where I set out appetizers in a 1960s Easy-Bake Oven that came with a mini spatula and mini cupcake tins. I put bite-size foods in the tins, and people served themselves with the spatula. I've also served nuts and wasabi peas in a kid's fondue pot I bought on eBay.
What are some inexpensive ways to add style to a party? You can do amazing things with paper. For one party I made place mats out of photosensitive paper; when you put the paper out in the sun with something on top of it, the object leaves behind a ghostly image. I created a great-looking montage with plates and silverware. For another party I served Asian chopped salad in Chinese take-out containers with chopsticks sticking out.
Who inspires your cooking style? My friend Hiro Sone, the chef-owner, with his wife Lissa Doumani, of Terra in Napa Valley, is brilliant at using uncommon ingredients in simple presentations, like in his cream of sunchoke soup with little grilled cheese sandwiches served on the side. Or his sushi-rice cubes topped with crab salad and sake-marinated mushrooms. Terra: Cooking from the Heart of Napa Valley is one of my favorite cookbooks.
What's your favorite drink? I love Knob Creek bourbonit's a big-girl drink, when you want something that's not froufrou. I'll mix it with ginger ale and a big wedge of lemon or orange. That's basically a highball.
What flowers do you like on your table? Whatever's in bloom in the garden by my pool: usually roses, gerberas or tulips. I never use large bouquets; I'd rather save my precious table space for tea lights and foodand crumbs.
What music do you play at parties? My mom's a jazz singer who warmed up the microphone for Billie Holiday back in the day, so I have a lot of jazznot just standards but all kinds, including European-style cabaret music from Italy's Paolo Conte and bossa nova from Antonio Carlos Jobim. I like to play world music that people might not have heard before, from singers like Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi. When I'm getting myself energized before a party, I sometimes play heavy metal or hip hop loud.
What foods do you keep on hand for entertaining? I always have veal stock in the freezer; I reduce it with red wine to make delicious sauces. I also stock my freezer with crabmeat and Minute Maid Limeade concentratemy secret weapon for margaritas. In my pantry I keep croutons, chicken broth, and fish sauce, plus something for kids to eat, like boxes of Annie's macaroni and cheese.
What are your favorite wines? I like good-value California bottles: the 2001 Heron Syrah, for $12; the 2002 Mason Sauvignon Blanc, for $16; and the 2003 St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc, for $18. I always kick off parties with sparkling wine. Roederer Estate Brut is only $20; I like Krug, but what I serve depends on my budget.
What are the best parties you've ever been to? My friend Robert Ell, a TV producer, gives over-the-top parties. One time he rented 75 rooms at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas for lots of his friends and had an Afrodisiac party; we all put on Afro wigs and then hit the city's restaurants, bars and discos. Another time he threw a Moulin Rouge party, with real trapeze artists.
What are your favorite travel destinations? Thailand, for amazing food, hotels, beaches and massagesand all so cheap! And Maui, because I used to live there. Red Sand Beach in Hana is one of my secret spots.
What are your favorite hotels? The Oriental in Bangkok, the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay in Bali and Auberge du Soleil right here in Napa Valley.