Michel Benasra entertains friends in the ultimate indoor-outdoor kitchen

If more than a week or two goes by without an invitation from Michel Benasra, his friends will call him to ask, "What's wrong?" And after receiving assurances that all is well, the second question is invariably, "When's your next dinner party?"

Their enthusiasm is scarcely surprising, for Benasra, creator and owner of Baby Guess and Guess Home Collection, is not only a genial host, he's also an accomplished amateur chef. Add to this the fact that he cooks out of what must be one of the most appealing outdoor kitchens in southern California, and it's easy to understand why Benasra's friends so anxiously await his summons.

Benasra's outdoor kitchen has become such an important part of his entertaining style that it's hard to believe it is actually a fairly recent addition to his home. In fact, the kitchen-- which he designed himself-- fits so seamlessly with the rest of the house in a graceful L that it seems as if the kitchen has always been there. Or as if it had been transported in its entirety from Benasra's birthplace in southern France. Which is the point: "I like things that look and feel comfortable, as if they've been around forever," Benasra says, a personal philosophy that could be said to extend to the casual, lived-in fabrics and furnishings of Guess Home.

When Benasra sets the table in his outdoor kitchen, he usually begins with a pair of quilted cotton runners from Guess Home, which he transforms into a tablecloth. On top of that he places Guess Home napkins, with naps that have been softened nearly to the feeling of silk, and plates that are a mixture of antiques and his company's designs. Often, Benasra will scatter dozens of glass or brass candlesticks, the bounty of his frequent flea-market forays, down the length of the table.

Benasra's approach to entertaining is always low-key. Though he delights in giving parties, he is loathe to orchestrate anything that might be labeled an event. "I can't stand pretension," he says. "I like to spend time with my friends, enjoying good food and good conversation." Toward this end, he tends to cook much of the meal ahead of time, opting for lemon chicken, lamb stew or other simple Mediterranean-inspired dishes in which the flavors improve over time.

Benasra serves most of his dinners buffet style, allowing his guests to wander at will, eating and talking: "Everything is easier with an outdoor kitchen. Everything is right there where I need it. I can even give parties for 50 or 60 without a problem."

All we can think of is the number of people who will be calling Benasra after each party, asking when the next one will be.