For hotel and restaurant designer Thomas Schoos, the mastermind behind such hot Los Angeles-area restaurants as Wilshire, Koi and O-Bar, delicious food is just one aspect of a great party. "You need all five senses going nuts on you," Schoos explains at a dinner he’s hosting in the lush garden behind the offices of Thomas Schoos Design in West Hollywood, where he does most of his entertaining. Like many of his projects, the garden includes elements from around the world, with art and antiques from India and Africa, a koi pond and a half-dozen parrots and hyacinth macaws. All manner of flora from palmetto trees to yuccas grow there; rare staghorn ferns are whimsically mounted on boards, like hunting trophies, that hang from the aviary’s walls. "I feel like I’m on Gilligan’s Island," one guest comments. Gilligan’s Island with a flat-screen TV and full outdoor kitchen, that is.
Born and raised in Germany, the 39-year-old Schoos felt drawn to Southern California. "I was a palm tree in a cold climate," he claims. So about 12 years ago, he decided to plant himself amid L.A.’s iconic palms and pursue a career as a painter. But it wasn’t until a con artist absconded with all his savings that Schoos’s career got a real boost. Broke and behind on rent, he set up shop on a Studio City sidewalk and began painting. By the end of that first day, he’d made $6,000. Eventually, he attracted the attention of an art lover who loaned him $20,000 to open his own studio on Melrose Avenue. One fateful day in 1998, actress Jada Pinkett Smith wandered in. The two hit it off, and before long, Schoos was hired to decorate Pinkett Smith’s home. A few years later, another customer asked him to design a restaurant on the site of a former movie theater in New York City: Tao, a multilevel, 12,000-square-foot space featuring a 16-foot-tall Buddha, a reflecting pool and rows of bamboo. Schoos’s reputation has grown with each subsequent project, thanks to his trademark sexy lighting, inventive merging of indoor and outdoor space, and use of such luxe elements as mohair wall coverings and shagreen tabletops.
Tonight, Schoos is celebrating the opening of one of his latest projects, the Penthouse restaurant at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, with seven friends, including Michael Berman, his business partner. While Schoos makes a pitcher of caipirinhas, E. Michael Reidt—an F&W Best New Chef 2001 and the chef at the Penthouse—prepares dinner and puts finishing touches on the cocktails, including lime wheels caramelized on the grill. Sipping the smoky, sweet-tart concoction, Reidt says, "I’ve done a lot of late-night caramelizing experiments—the last one was with cauliflower. It works a lot better with limes."
Schoos is accustomed to working alongside chefs. He cooks often with Masaharu Morimoto, whose new restaurants Schoos is designing. And he’s collaborating on a style and entertaining book with chef Govind Armstrong of L.A.’s Table 8, a restaurant Schoos recently redesigned. Tonight, however, he leaves the cooking to Reidt. Along with cocktails—the grilled-lime caipirinhas and hurricanes spiked with rum and berry schnapps—the guests enjoy crisp flat-bread pizzas topped with smoked chicken and goat cheese. Then the group sits down to scallop seviche marinated in citrus, chile sauce and coconut milk. Afterward, they move on to grilled hanger steak served with a bacon-studded chimichurri sauce and a salad of grilled romaine leaves topped with roasted garlic-buttermilk dressing and shaved Manchego cheese. "It’s an interpretation of surf and turf," Schoos explains about the seviche and steak.
Although his garden sprawls out over 6,000 square feet, it feels intimate, thanks to its many cozy nooks and fabric-draped cabanas. "I’m not really into huge spaces," Schoos explains. "I like to design them; I don’t like to be in them." In a secluded area on the garden’s edge, near a carved-stone Buddha almost as big as a Mini Cooper, is the dinner table, which Schoos made a few years ago: a 10-by-4-foot glass slab resting on a pair of massive, hand-carved stones. Its centerpiece is a large wooden flower boat filled with white and chartreuse cymbidium orchids and cut moss.
After dinner, the designer brings out his prized hyacinth macaws, Molly and Rio, who sit on his shoulders and nuzzle him affectionately. Conversation flits from the hallucinogenic properties of the garden’s datura tree and the advantages of living in California versus New York to the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers that is found in nature, such as the spirals seen in the shapes of seashells and pinecones.
As the evening draws to a close, guests reminisce about the last dinner party Schoos hosted. "We were engrossed in a discussion about names for our new baby, and then we smelled something burning," recalls Joelle Warren-Lane, a teacher and executive at a nonprofit organization. That something turned out to be a guest’s sweatshirt, which had caught fire from a candle. "After the flames were put out and we knew our singed friend hadn’t been harmed, Thomas remarked that the burn-distressed look of his hoodie was kind of chic." Laughing, Schoos says, "To me, perfect is boring—it’s the imperfections that make something beautiful."
Pauline O’Connor, a Los Angeles-based writer, has contributed to the New York Times, Elle and the New York Observer.