The holidays are here, and I wanted to up my entertaining game, so I attended the first annual Culinary Academy hosted by the Charleston chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
They are all about lifting up fellow food and beverage women and in this all-day event at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, they shared a bit of their holiday magic.
The first lesson is to use the good stuff.
Paige Crone of Charleston Protocol Y’all, Tanya Gurrieri of Salthouse Catering, and Emma Lesesne-Booth of Duvall Events, served us tiny puff pastries stuffed with traditional Meeting Street Crab Dip as they talked about how to pretty up your place.
Start with classy invitations – it sets a different tone than the casual “Y’all come” email or phone call.
If it’s a morning event, consider a Bloody bar so people can put together their own Bloody Marys.
“You always want to label the ingredients,” Crone says. “You’ll want cheese straws, of course, and you can do some fun Charleston-themed things like pickled okra or maybe pickled shrimp.”
If the event is at night, a bartender is a good person to have on hand.
“I like to hire a bartender because you don’t want to have to worry about filling out everyone’s drinks,” Crone says. “You don’t want people thinking, ‘She is tight on the booze’.”
Gurrieri says a flat buffet is boring, and she demonstrated how to add height by disguising boxes or crates under a tablecloth with the edges tucked underneath.
“The better it looks, the better people think the food is,” Gurrieri says.
She shared a couple of catering tricks to make the buffet look fancy, like wadding the plastic wrap that covered the food and using it as a non-slip base to tilt a basket of muffins or rolls to enticingly face the diner, and standing cocktail forks on end, using the tiny tines to hold placecards.
Crone says to get out that china languishing in a cabinet, polish it up, and use it, even if you don’t eat from it. She showed us a tiny Christmas tree festooned with old silver pieces and sparkling white lights.
If you don’t happen to have family heirloom silver lying around, all of the women urged visits to discount stores like T.J. Maxx or Marshall’s for cheap decorative items that can spruce up the table, like little ornaments that can serve as “cirsea,” the Charleston tradition of giving guests a little something to take home with them.
In a workshop on appetizers, we were served a killer combination of deviled eggs, a large mushroom and sausage meatball swimming in a killer bourbon-bacon-aoli sauce, and smoked trout over blini.
Chelsey Conrad, Butcher and Bee’s chef, said the key to the deviled eggs is to heavily salt the water so the shells slip right off the hard-boiled eggs. She then brines the eggs overnight in water colored by beet slices so they come out a pretty rose color the next morning.
Kelly Franz, executive chef of Magnolia’s, makes her own mayonnaise for the aoli sauce, but says Duke’s will do in a pinch.
Michelle Weaver, Charleston Grill’s renowned executive chef, whose blini were amazingly crisp on the outside and tender inside, said these first bites “are the first impression in a party, and a great way to get started.”
Because it’s Charleston, no event is complete with day drinking.
The Culinary Academy was no exception, but, of course, we drank in service of knowledge.
Sarah O’Kelley, wine director of Edmunds Oast Exchange, talked at length about the pros and cons of different wines for the holidays.
A sparkling Gamay from Beaujolais, was the product of a female winemaker who was discouraged from going into the – how do you say “chauvinist” in French? – champagne wine culture. Her defiant sparkling wine is delightfully astringent.
“Bubbles make you feel alcohol more quickly,” O’Kelley says. “What they do in your mouth is they scrub your palate clean. You salivate because your body is working to neutralize the acidity of the wine and that acidity cuts through richness.”
O’Kelley also served a dry Riesling – anything above 10% alcohol is likely to be more dry – that goes well with spicy foods.
The final wine she served was a yummy red Gamay, that was light and neutral like a Pinot Noir.
She advises to look for smaller producers and, rather than spend money on wines that come from expensive regions (like Champagne), look for region-adjacent wines that are often just as good and grow in similar soil, but don’t have the price tags of their better-known sibling wines.
The day ended with a ginger martini made with Chai Vodka from the new Cannon Distillery in West Ashley. Delicious!
Will I be able to class up my next holiday gathering?
Probably – now I just need the classier friends to appreciate it!