Al fresco luncheon inspiration from expert hostess Jen Huang Bogan
Written by Anna Constantino
Photos by Jen Huang Bogan
Summer on the California coast bodes an irreplicable sense of bliss. My fondest memories are characterized by sunsets over salty water, dripping yellow nectarines, and sunshine dancing through olive branches. The season serves as a nudge to embrace the natural elements and share these experiences with others. Warm weather and longer days allow the luxury of spending more time outdoors, whether it’s relaxing poolside or sipping in the garden.
Al fresco's literal Italian translation reads "in the cold." Modern interpretations outside of traditional vernacular refer to food, art, or a location. In the context of gathering, we adopted the term to refer to a meal enjoyed in the fresh air, often involving elegant tablescapes paired with a hospitable atmosphere. In recent years, the concept has continued evolving into a practice of redefining the conventional dining experience.
My inspiration and interest draw from a recent luncheon I attended at the esteemed Santa Barbara House. The space–or dreamscape–is a historical landmark residence in the heart of downtown, home to intimate gatherings and the daintiest tree swing I've had the pleasure of sitting on. In May, I visited the grounds for the first time, welcomed by twin cypress trees and the gracious proprietor, photographer, and planner Jen Huang Bogan. Jen, alongside event planner Nina Moore and floral designer Jenn Sanchez, brought the Gather & Give: Ikebana Luncheon to fruition.
Ikebana is the Japanese art and practice of flower arrangement, roughly translating to "making flowers come alive." Presenting a plethora of colorful and unique flowers in one space results in a sculpture-like form, encapsulating the artistic expression of the practice. "I need to remind myself when to stop; that is the hardest part sometimes," laughs Jenn as she arranges her demo to whimsical perfection. I resonate with her statement, as the perfectionist in me seldom knows when to let things be. I place my base in a shallow, repurposed Jenni Kayne Home cereal bowl, and begin to snip Florabundance florets. Alongside this practice (in patience), I mosey to-and-from the Riviera Sips bicycle-turned-wine cooler assemblage to refill my engraved coupe with more rosé. Guests admire eachother's arrangements over small-talk–the imperfections and perfections alike.
Lunch catered by Bettina follows. We gather at tables adorned with tomatillos and foliage, pairing well with the floral accented tableware. I slice into burrata and strawberry, a cool breeze drawing the scent of pepperoni to me. The afternoon fades to a hot summer blur, accompanied by laughter, endless bites, and new friends. The luncheon is one of many gatherings benefitting local non-profit organizations, focusing this time on 4 Kids 2 Kids, which provides transitional housing for young, at-risk women rescued from human trafficking. As I bask in the company of many selfless, talented, and creative women, it is an understatement to say the afternoon is pure magic.
As an ever-curious mind (and perhaps an event planner in a past life), I reached out to Jen for advice on upping one’s hosting game in an affordable, chic, and fun fashion.
Setting the table
"Place settings don't have to be over the top to look beautiful," Jen shares. "For me, it's about the visual feast–the colors, tones, textures, and of course, the light." It all comes down to layers, so a simple salad plate over a dinner plate with linen napkins suffices wonderfully. "Water and wine glasses with varying heights and a few blooms or garden herbs in the center for eye candy should do the trick," says Jen. It can be challenging to source tableware, so utilizing a rental company such as The Ark takes the stress off your plate (literally) while allowing for creative leeway. Purchasing glasses and plates from a secondhand shop is another alternative to buying full-price or renting, and the mismatching of glasses and decor adds a touch of whimsy.
Reimagine your space
A traditional dining set with table and chairs is a simple, classic setup–but if you don't have outdoor furniture at your disposal, it’s okay. Creating floor-style seating is a fun way to transform family-style gatherings and picnics into an intimate, eccentric setting. Many small businesses and shops discard wooden pallets, so sourcing and repurposing these makes for an understated ground-level alternative. Pallets are easy to transform by adding a linen tablecloth, a runner, and an assortment of blankets and pillows around the space for guests to lounge on.
The beauty of most things lies in the details; hence, quaint attributes like lighting make all the difference. "Overhead lighting from cafe lights and landscaping lights is beautiful, but the trick to getting a dinner to linger into the night is cozy candlelight." Jen suggests using combinations of taper candles and votives to create that layering effect. Be sure to locate glass hurricanes to keep your candles from blowing out with the breeze (and keep them burning longer). Jen reccomends getting tapers from The Floral Society, as “they offer a variety of styles in calming, neutral colors that match everything.”
To cook, or not to cook
Cooking at home shows affection–after all, there's no better feeling than people falling in love with your signature dish. Regardless, making food for a large crowd can become a fumble rather than a feast. "It's okay to enjoy yourself once in a while and let someone else take the reins," says Jen, adding, "I'm not a natural cook, so I love to supplement the main course with an array of starters, salads, and easy-to-share dishes from a local restaurant." Choosing a spot that serves seasonal dishes with a variety to please everyone is ideal. Family-style dining with serving bowls and boards across the table is not only visually appealing, but adds a charming social aspect to sharing a meal.
Hosting is a special opportunity to tap into your creative side, plan an itinerary, and relish in the fruits of the summertime. Whether or not you take charge or let vendors and friends help cover your bases, the outcome is sure to leave a lasting impression. After all, the most rewarding aspect of gathering is spending time with the people you love.