French courtly dinners were once served as buffetsuntil, some say, Napoleon stole the idea of course-by-course feasts from Russia. A party given by a historian of hospitality updates that tradition.
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."
That desire to seemingly conjure a feast from thin air is part of what drove Browner to write his latest book, The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality. In it, he explores the entertaining philosophies of figures as varied as Louis XIV (who kept thousands of courtiers loyal and fearful by forcing them to live with him at Versailles, where he plied his captives with sumptuous meals and entertainment) and Hitler (a vegetarian who fastidiously accommodated his guests' dietary needs).
As a host, Browner's deepest desire is to "try to create a Garden of Eden where everything is provided magically by a benevolent spirit, where you can forget everything except who you're with and what you're eating." In the book, Browner explains his philosophy further: "I am saying: 'This is my vision of a perfect world. This magnificent chicken potpie, this charming Ivy League professor...all produced for your pleasure without any apparent effort on my partare the shibboleths of my desire.'"
8:00 p.m. When guests arrive at the door bearing Champagne and chocolate truffles, Browner greets them with affection, enthusiasm and a tinge of nervousness. "It's divine!" he tells psychoanalyst Lynn Zeaven as she hands him a handblown bottle of grappa. "My God, you smell so nice, what is that?" he asks while hugging Catherine Chermayeff, a photographers' agent. While his wife pours Prosecco, Browner sets bowls of olives on the counter ("I don't want to ruin anybody's appetite") and slices the polenta into wedges. He continually offers tastes to guests, passing a spoon around for them to sample his homemade orange-and-fig compote, which he'll serve later with a dollop of soft, sweet Gorgonzola cheese. (An unabashed double-dipper, he's that rare neatnik who doesn't fear germs.)
8:30 p.m. Drinks in hand, the group migrates to the living room area. Susan Lehman, an editor, writer and longtime friend, recalls, "The first parties they had in New York, Jesse and Judy would invite 50 people. The apartment was tiny, but that was their magic," fitting in all those guests without the space seeming crowded.
The conversation hopscotches from the best mashed turnips on Long Island's North Fork to economic problems in Africa to the origins of buffet dining. "That's the way people ate in courtly situations," Browner explains. "Servants would bring food out on big platters. At a medieval wedding in Europe, there might be 50 dishes all at once." He says he prefers to serve meals "à la Russe, or one course at a time. Napoleon's armies learned about the style and brought it back to France."
9:00 p.m. Clain invites everyone to take a seat at the rough-hewn wooden dining table, which she set before going to work that morning. "The plates are chipped, the napkins have holes and the wineglasses are from a restaurant-supply store," she says, because she and Browner don't feel the need to impress with fancy linens and china.
Right on cue, the lights dim. It's all part of the plan, Browner explains: "You want to make the world recede even further by creating a bubble around the table, a circle of light."
10:00 p.m. As Browner ladles out an aromatic stew of rock shrimp, sea scallops and tilapia simmered with white wine and saffron, guests push back their chairs and form social triangles around the table. "I just had a vision: saffron broth," he says of his inspiration for the main course.
When Browner learns that a guest is allergic to scallops, he promptly (and discreetly) tosses a salad of fava beans, hearts of palm, baby arugula, pea shoots and shaved Parmesan. "A cook should always have a few good ingredients around the house" for emergencies, he says.
More important, Browner believes, a good host should never upstage his guests. Once dinner is served, "it's not my job to be right in the thick of it," he says. "When people are talking animatedly, I look around, and if someone seems to be left out, that's who I take care of."
When the guests gather in the kitchen after finishing their seafood stew and ask to dip chunks of bread into the leftover broth, Browner beams with pride. "Of course!" he cries. "That's what it's there for!" ("Oh, please do!" and "More wine?"are some of his other refrains.)
11:15 p.m. After everyone finishes the sweet Gorgonzola with orange-and-fig compote"Scott Conant [the chef at Manhattan's L'Impero] suggested I use wine instead of honey to cut the sweetness of the figs," Browner explainsthe host takes a break before serving the tart to slow down the pace of the meal. "It's about control," he says. "It's no great coincidence that my two great passions in life, entertaining and writing, are areas where I can exert absolute control over my environment." To that end, Browner hates it when guests offer to help and chastises them when they try.
The wait for the tart is worth it: a crumbly, creamy blend of almonds, lemon and ricotta cheese. Browner passes around grappa and chocolate truffles. "I think anybody would prefer to be the host, not the guest," he says. "You can re-create the world the way you think it should be."
Jennifer Tung is a contributing editor at Allure and writes for the New York Times.