Used to be, it was the Brentwood and Malibu parties that everyone looked to as the closest thing to a high level social scene in California. Not anymore, or at least they’re getting competition from the parties up north. Silicon Valley is driving business, social and often political influence these days. Entertaining is now part of its portfolio. And if Susan MacTavish Best is any indicator, the A-list dinner party is a whole different animal.
As a newcomer to San Francisco not that long ago, MacTavish Best started asking people she met to share a meal at her San Francisco home. In those first years she befriended some who would become Silicon Valley’s most successful thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors in technology. In a way, MacTavish Best took these guys under her wing–young men, mostly, who knew how to start a software company but weren’t great at starting a conversation.
Your first clue that MacTavish is tweaking the “rules” is a slightly worn long-pile carpet that serves as backdrop to her visually driven Tumblr site. Step on in and be comfortable, it says. Be authentic, shed the bullshit. You’re in a room of friends who don’t about the last movie you starred in or directed. They just want to know what book you’re reading, how your hike on Mt. Tam went. Maybe even listen to some live music, at one of MacTavish Best’s much anticipated House Concerts.
MacTavish Best embodies the new generation of young geek-chic entertainers who eschew pretense for conversation, haute couture for hand made sandals. She counts as friends many of the preeminent Bay Area start-up royalty who live in jeans and live for her seemingly effortless get-togethers punctuated with fresh, simple edibles. There they talk, laugh, sip and eat, often soliciting MacTavish Best’s advice on art, home furnishings, what to put in their pantry.
We spoke to MacTavish Best recently. She runs a PR firm called Best Public Relations, divides her time between San Francisco and NYC and has firm opinions about what makes a successful (or rather, enjoyable) dinner party today.
Toque: You represent a lot of things to a lot of different people. Do you feel that your style of renaissance entertaining is ushering in a new generation of lifestyle personalities, post Martha Stewart and Alexandra Stoddard?
SMB: The world is always ready for new personalities, I’m not certain now is any different from any other time. That said, I do feel that people are hungry to spend time with their friends and family in person rather than merely by text, email or IM’ing. Food is a great way to get your friends and family to slow down with you, and to enjoy each others’ company.
Toque: When faced with a big party, how do you pull your menu together? What are the steps you take?
SMB: I consider how much time I have to prepare–one day, one week…then begin. The most important thing for me with a big party, or any party, is to make sure that my guests enjoy themselves and are relaxed, and that I enjoy myself and that I’m relaxed.
I use my time while I’m on a run to think through menus, and how I will organize the party.
I like to get the cocktails and drinks sorted out first. As long as you have some drinks prepared as guests arrive, and at least one nibble, then the party will go well.
I consider who’s coming; is this a very casual gathering of friends for brunch, or is this a networking event? Living in San Francisco, we’re fortunate to be able to use the BBQ almost year-round, so when I’m there I like to try to include some grilled foods. Also, some guests like to participate in the cooking out on the deck; the BBQ lets them do that.
In New York, my kitchen is much smaller, so I try to make as much food in advance as possible. But in both locations, the kitchen is the center of the home, so there are always people around while I’m cooking.
I like to use fruits and vegetables that are in season, so I’ll plan the menu around that. And to make things easier on myself, I’ll try to order many of the staples online so I can have them delivered. I’ll pick up the fresh fruit, veggies, meat and fish myself at various markets.
I always make sure there is veggie-friendly food, meat-friendly food, and kid-friendly food.
If friends ask if they can bring something, I tend to be very specific. People love to be included in the putting on of an event, and I love the help!
Toque: Has this talent for table-sharing been with you since an early age? Did your family nurture your talent?
SMB: My family has always eaten well. I went away to sleep away school in Scotland at a young age so when I came home from the holidays I really loved trying out new recipes. I was definitely encouraged by my mom.
Toque: Do you ever get sick of cooking and being in your kitchen? What do you do to get away from it all?
SMB: Rarely. I find cooking for a crowd very relaxing. But I do love to take a break from the kitchen and go running out on the trails in Northern California, or go running along the river in NYC.
Toque: What is something that does NOT come naturally to you, something you work your butt off to perfect?
I really don’t work hard at perfecting anything as I feel aiming for perfection merely leads to disappointment. That said, I tend to be someone who doesn’t measure much when I’m cooking thus baking doesn’t come to me naturally.
Toque: How are PR and social media influencing the way people eat, and cook, and choose where they will dine?
SMB: I think PR and social media are tools to listen to our friends’ recommendations and our friends of friends. They’re fun to use for exploring new places to eat and new recipes to try. They’ve helped create communities online, but they haven’t replaced the offline communities that already exist; they’ve simply added to them.
Toque: What was the most impressive cookbook you’ve read in the past five years, and why?
SMB: The Flavor Bible. It’s not a cookbook, but gives you direction regarding what ingredients taste well together.
Toque: What is your take on the crowded, frantic food media world that we live in here in the US? What do you like most and loathe most?
SMB: I’ve never watched food TV shows. I’m more of a DVD person. I’ll settle down and watch an entire season of something like The Wire.
Toque: Where do you see yourself retiring and what will you do to keep yourself busy
SMB: I have no idea .. that’s decades away!
Toque: How can ordinary people use their love of cooking and food to build their circle of friends? Will food clubs replace book clubs?
SMB: When I moved to San Francisco after college, I barely knew anyone. But I did love to cook and I’d invite the people I met over for food. Most people do like to eat and drink so I came to meet many people over the years in my kitchen. One doesn’t have to cook ornate dishes when inviting people over. Keep it as simple as you need to keep it so that you’re not stressed and yet…do it often.
I don’t think food clubs will replace book clubs. I’ve been in a book club but never in a food club. I love books and food. And they often go rather well together.