With clients like Sarah Jessica Parker and Oscar de la Renta, British-born Serena Bass is one of the most sought-after caterers and event planners both in New York City and in London. She shares her recipes, anecdotes and wit in Serena, Food & Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day, due out next month.
Where do you buy your china? Jill Fenichell, Inc., in New York City has unbelievable stuff. That's where I bought my English ironstone "Indus" plates by Ridgway, from 1880 or so (from $200 per plate; 305 E. 61st St.; 212-980-9346).
What do you like to drink? I steep Balgin Turkish Apple Tea with cardamom seeds ($3.50 for 4.4 ounces at Kalustyan's; 800-352-3451).
What are your favorite wines? I have a few that I use all the time, like Domaines Ott's rosé from Côtes de Provence and Bin 555 Shiraz from Wyndham Estate in Australia. If I'm going to splurge on wine, I'll have Château d'Yquem. It's like drinking honey.
What kinds of food do you serve at dinner parties? I very much like taking classic dishes and perhaps making them more modern. It's a bit like what Ralph Lauren does with clothes, designing jeans in velvet instead of denim. For instance, there's our shepherd's pie—shepherds don't actually use porcini mushrooms in their pies, of course. The other day I made a Sauternes zabaglione with Calvados and served it with blackberries and apples, which is a very English fruit pairing. And it was so delicious.
It seems you prefer simple foods. Can I tell you how thrilled people are when they see they're having roast chicken? No crustaceans or cream involved.
Have you noticed any party trends? Instead of sit-down dinners, people are having cocktail parties with little plates that are more substantial than hors d'oeuvres. We did a party like that for Sigourney Weaver's husband's theater group. It gave people something to talk about—"Did you try the lamb skewers or the bourekas?"
What's the best party you ever gave? We once threw an incredible party in a private home. We set up a black tent indoors with a long table for 30 guests. When everyone was seated, we closed the flaps and turned down the lights. First a few tiny pinpoints of light started glowing, and then they got brighter and brighter. And we began playing Vivaldi, softly at first and then louder and louder. This party was the clotted crème de la crème of New York style.
What kinds of flowers do you use on the table? I adore the musty, citrusy smell of chrysanthemums. When we do a floral centerpiece, we mix in at least 50 percent leaves and berries and such. And in the fall, tall grasses are divine.
What about lighting for a party? Lighting is so important. If your overhead lights aren't on a dimmer, go for broke and install one. And votive holders on the table, like my nickel-plated lotus candle stand from the Stephanie Odegard Collection, make everything twinkle ($210; 212-545-0069).
What are your kitchen essentials? You have to have decent saucepans. Anolon's last forever ($380 for a 10-piece set at Macy's; 800-456-2297).
And what about ingredients? Olio Santo is one of my favorite olive oils ($17 for 17 oz at Williams-Sonoma stores; 877-812-6235). I like Gianni Calogiuri's fig vincotto, which is similar to balsamic vinegar ($8 for 8.5 ounces at DiPalo; 212-226-1033). The Dijon mustard I love, Amora, isn't bitter like so many other Dijon mustards are ($3 for 9.5 ounces at ethnicgrocer.com).
Do you have any cooking shortcuts? We buy pastry shells from Shellco ($13 for 20 at Dean & Deluca; 800-999-0306) and Dufour Pastry Kitchens ($9 for 12; call 800-439-1282 for stores). They're phenomenal, and we couldn't possibly be bothered to bake our own.
What's your favorite hostess gift? This is my brilliant new plan: I arrange flowers in a vase at home—maybe one of my pleated vases by Kim Dickey (from $100; 303-522-6062) or one of my bright ceramic and silver vases from Imports from Marrakesh (from $65; 212-675-9700). Then I lift the flowers out, wrap them in plastic and tie them like a bouquet so they're ready to be popped into the host's vase.
What's your catering philosophy? "Preparing a meal is like sending your child to kindergarten. Each dish has to stand on its own, be well-behaved and socially acceptable."
How did you decide to become a caterer? My first husband liked having lots of people over to dinner parties, and the moment the table was set and beautiful and everyone was seated, that's when I was ready to go to bed. The planning is the part I like best.