Fashion designer Zang Toi is a man obsessed—by haute couture, Malaysian food and dinner parties. All three come together at his New Year's Eve feast.
It's three hours before guests are due to arrive for New Year's Eve dinner, and Zang Toi is busy in the kitchen of his apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The world-famous fashion designer has applied a greenish-white hydrating mask to his face, and he's wearing one of his signature short kilts (made by Kinloch Anderson, kilt-makers to the Prince of Wales; Toi owns more than 20 of them). Toi isn't in the kitchen because he's checking on caterers he hired to make dinner, though: He's doing all the cooking himself, sautéing julienned vegetables and soy-marinated shrimp and pork that will become the filling for his supercrispy House of Toi spring rolls. "The problem is, spring-roll filling is always cooked so long that it gets mushy," he says. "Cook the vegetables just until they're al dente—like pasta. That's the trick."
Toi is known for evening gowns that evoke Marie Antoinette, gorgeously tailored suits and a client list that includes actresses Eva Longoria and Gong Li and Melinda Gates (wife of Bill). But he is as eager to offer cooking tips for his favorite native Malaysian dishes as most fashionistas are to discuss their latest juice fast. He started cooking when he was a student at Parsons design school in New York City. "I got homesick, and thank goodness I have a good memory for the food my family cooked," he explains. But after launching his House of Toi line, he was too busy to spend time in the kitchen. "For the first 10 years, I ate out almost every single night," he says. "But now, I cook again. My friends always plead with me to make Malaysian food, because it's hard to find in New York."
Can a Marie Antoinette–inspired style sensibility and Malaysian food really coexist at a dinner party? Says Toi, "I want my clothes to be different; I want my food to be different." He continues: "The French have a flair, and Marie Antoinette personified that. My Asian food has a flair, too. It might look simple, but there's so much construction behind it. Like my suits."
While Toi is cooking, he explains the menu. He says the secret to his glorious chicken-and-lemongrass curry is a chile paste made with nuts, ginger and garlic that he sautés to intensify the flavor. Then he offers another tip: The curry is best made a day or two ahead. "Cook it, then don't touch it," he advises.
Just before the first guest arrives, the designer puts on his House of Toi tuxedo. He likes friends to dress up for his dinners—so much so that he'll sometimes outfit them in his own designs. One friend, model Ling Tan, who's also Malaysian, wears a strapless sheath gown with draping on the sides and oversize pink flowers, part of Toi's 2011 spring collection, "Lone Star Cowboy & the Texas Rose." Not accidentally, the flowers on the dress match the rose-petal garnish on Toi's crème caramel, which has coconut milk stirred into the rich custard.
Toi's old friend Bill Yosses, the White House pastry chef, brings vividly colored, homemade rose petal–scented pâtes de fruits, or fruit jellies, to the party. The jellies, like Tan's dress, add rare splashes of color to the apartment's black, white and silver color scheme (the apartment's extravagant design takes its cues from Versailles, home of Marie Antoinette). "I usually ask my friends to wear colors that match my apartment's interior; this is one of the only times someone gets to break my rules," Toi laughs. "Because it's not just a dinner party. It's not just a fashion show. It's New Year's Eve."
Zang Toi's Fashion Party: How to Set a Table
When he entertains, fashion designer Zang Toi loves using silver serving trays and gold-accented plates. Here's how to re-create his luxurious style.
Courtesy of Bailey Doesn't Bark
Bailey Doesn't Bark sells handmade porcelain plates decorated with 23-karat-gold dots. $32; baileydoesntbark.com.
Courtesy of Christofle
Toi loves using silver trays like this one from Christofle for everything from drinks to hors d'oeuvres. From $295; christofle.com.
Courtesy of Global Views
The 24-inch Caroline silver candleholder is ideal for holding rose topiaries. From $219 a pair; globalviews.com.
Courtesy of ABC Home
Porcelain flowers placed next to guests' seating cards reference the blooms on Toi's spring 2011 dresses. From $50; abchome.com.