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AT HOME WITH VITA x Jill Donenfeld

AT HOME WITH VITA is a monthly interview with artists, designers, and friends who inspire us.

Jill Donenfeld is a hospitality expert with over a decade of experience as a private chef, caterer, cookbook author and restaurant veteran, and is the co-founder of  The Culinistas, which offers easy and accessible in-home chef services in New York, The Hamptons, Aspen and Los Angeles. Jill has written four cookbooks, including “Better on Toast” (Harper Collins, 2015) and “Party Like a Culinista” (Lake Isle Press, 2011), as well as international cookbook titles in Madagascar and India. Her writing has been featured in Food & Wine, Men’s Journal, The Huffington Post, TimeOut and National Geographic. She previously ran the kitchen at Villa Lena, an artists' residency and hotel in Tuscany, and has also lived in Japan, Sweden and India for culinary research, but currently calls the Hamptons her home!

What are the keys to creating a sustainable dinner menu?
Jill Donenfeld: I consider sustainability in terms of (a) using what one has on hand, and (b) easy repetition. I think about a menu that will play with my collection of ceramics, in terms of color, texture, size, and material. I think about what I can use that is already in my pantry & fridge. I think about what fresh ingredients I have easy access to, which in my case it is bivalves. I like to host a lot so I think of a menu that will be fun for me, easy to give attention to guests while preparing, and filled with ingredients that I am craving. And, I consider mostly what will make my guests feel really great; the best dinner ends with people not wanting it to end and waking up the next morning wanting to come back soon. I brought this same philosophy to The Culinistas, the in-home chef platform I co-founded: we make the art of planning a dinner party easy, accessible, and fun.

What are your essentials to setting a seasonal table at home?
Jill Donenfeld: It has been very important in growing The Culinistas that we always have a chef shopping, directly, for each gathering so that she can assess what is at the market not only for cooking but also for display. If we find stemmy citrus in the winter, it fill the table well. In the winter, we eat after the sun goes down, so everything leans towards flickering candle light. Summertime meals hit at sunset, so the table should look good against a backdrop of pinks & blues. I can skew Surrealist when it comes to treatment of objects, mixing found artifacts with heirlooms, the permanent with the impermanent, and treasures I collect from the natural world with manufactured & hand built items. I make a lot of the porcelain plates that I use. I collect textiles & turn them into napkins. At minimum, I think it is pretty playing against a feast. My birthday falls around the Hindu Ganesh festival so I am able to find strings of jasmine and that has become a requisite each year now. I love how it marks the time.

What are the keys to creating a sustainable dinner menu?
Jill Donenfeld: There are two principals for pulling this off:

First, choose dishes that have easy prep work so that when your guests ask “what can I do?”, you can direct with little worry they will eff it up. Think taking smoked trout out of a package & “flaking it”, peeling whole carrots to roast, rinsing berries.

Just as important, decide on one dish that is the show piece and then augment with little items that take no time. Today I made clams & carrots on the fire pit as the main then The Culinistas’ Think Pink Salad (recipe below) & the oysters. I made the focaccia too but that was not last minute. Or make a Spanish tortilla and serve it with a big romaine salad (I like romaine!).

Alternatively, skip the sit down meal and serve many apps & snacks. Do this without looking thoughtless by serving high end, thoughtful foods that you know your guest will love. My antennae points to mollusks as well as blanched vegetables & yogurt-y dips.

What are your go-to restaurants in the Hamptons?
Jill Donenfeld: Il Buco is one of the few I frequent. Too on the nose? I love always the Chutney.

What does a seasonal menu look like and taste like for you? Any specific recipes?
Jill Donenfeld: I like when a meal grounds me to a place & time. That is why I am eating so many oysters & clams these days & using the firepit that sits right against the water in front of my house. I think winter I almost always serve potatoes. I find myself craving them. I always get Mont D’Or from France and have a few dinners with that as the centerpiece. It’s a creamy cheese that gets cooked in it’s wooden box and served on top of potatoes. Needs to be cold out for this dish to be fully enjoyed. In summertime, I become 80% made of watermelon. I serve it at every meal. And I love all the shoulder & short season finds: favas & agretti in spring, delicata in the fall.

What local organizations in the east end do you work with/are you passionate about?
Jill Donenfeld: This year I start farming oysters with the East Hampton Town Shellfish Hatchery & it is a win win win. I get to learn about my second favorite bivalve, cultivate a nearly unlimited supply of oysters to serve to my guests (& stop relying on my neighbor!), and do my little part to filter & keep Long Island waters clean. I am lucky also that the oyster farm is directly outside of my home.

Describe your entertaining style.
Jill Donenfeld: The more the merrier but with a seating chart. I will move things around if you want to bring someone! My dining room is a pillow room – everyone gets recliney around a large low steel table. I live in Lazy Point after all.

Who inspires your entertaining style?

Jill Donenfeld: My favorite PARTY is in Shampoo, but in my two decades living in small spaces in Manhattan, I always wanted my parties to feel like Holly Golightly parties. Now I am so into the firepit that maybe I am leaning more towards Francis Mallman! Wherever I am, the idea is informal & fun, delicious & communal. I am grateful when clients of The Culinistas share pics from their dinners because sometimes they are so special & inspiring!

No meal/party is complete without:
Jill Donenfeld: A seating chart, a game, a party favor. And, ice! Cold drinks go down smoother.

Where was the most memorable tablescape you’ve ever seen?
Jill Donenfeld: I had the fortune of being invited to stay with an American woman in her 80s who had moved to Rome with her friend Cy Twombly (!!) in the 60s & retired to Porto Ercole, where the famous il Pelicano Hotel is. Every meal that I had at her house was abundant, casual, and filled with various family members across three generations. There was so much stuff on the table at each meal – linens, glassware, wines, salads, pasta, sardines, prosciutto, bread, cigarettes, flowers – in a sunroom stacked with plants growing from everywhere. It was effortlessly decadent & filled with love and joy.

Who features heavily on your entertaining playlist?
Jill Donenfeld: Hard question because I am ravenous for music so it is changing changing changing. This year it has been much Al Green. The Bryan Ferry-Television-T.Rex trifecta seems to go over well with most age groups & types though. Fela Kuti finds his way maybe most consistently; he gets everyone feeling so good and peppy. Right now fifty years ago (1972! The best music year!), The Grateful Dead would be touring Europe so I’m throwing an anniversary party playing every single concert back to back.

Whose home would you be the most excited to be invited to for dinner, and why?
Jill Donenfeld: This is important to me because seeking out delicious ingredients informs my creative & culinary direction of The Culinistas. On trips to the city, I shop Chinatown for most of my greens & mushrooms. I load up. I get dates sent to me from a farm in California. I get almonds sent to me from a place called Vision Sprouts. Out east when I buy fish, I buy from a well respected fisherman on Church Lane in the Springs. Honey from that little place on Hog Creek in the Springs, too. Buy the expensive wine at cheap wine shops & the cheaper stuff at the expensive joints.

Whose home would you be the most excited to be invited to for dinner, and why?
Jill Donenfeld: I have a profound admiration for Jeong Kwan. She is a Korean monk extremely dedicated to vegetables & creating meals that manifest the lifeline of growth, cultivation, and consumption. It would be a deep bow honor to be invited to eat with her!

Who would you love to have as a dinner party guest in your home?
Jill Donenfeld: Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Plato, Socrates, Stanley Kubrick, George Harrison but everyone is dead so looks like it’ll just be me, Jim & Steve.


Check out Jill's recipe for the perfect spring salad!