How to Set a Table Like Valentino
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By VANESSA FRIEDMAN DEC. 3, 2014
A few years ago, I attended a dinner at the Château de Wideville, Valentino Garavani’s country pile outside Paris. It was a gala, full of famous guests and gowns, but the part of it I remember most was the sight of the rolling green lawn spread out beyond the grand maison, bordered by ribbons of white pebble paths that were being raked, just so, by a host of tuxedo-clad men.
It was the first time I had seen actual men raking such paths, and I remember thinking I probably would never see it again – not in fashion, at least. Increasingly, the life that a successful designer once led, full of Picassos and Biedermeier and Feadships, seems like a memory from another, preindustrial time.
As Mr. Garavani knows. He was, after all, the subject of a 2008 documentary entitled “The Last Emperor,” and last month published a book, “At the Emperor’s Table,” both artifacts conceived to memorialize a lifestyle that is being lost. But while the former is all about what was, the latter, full of recipes and elaborate table settings, is more of a how-to for what still could be.
“Once upon a time it was usual to give beautiful dinners, in the 1980s, the 1990s,” Mr. Garavani said, when I asked him about the book, “but now it is all seen as less important. It is unfortunate. A beautiful, interesting table is an expression of a joy and respect for your guests, or just yourself. Even when I eat alone, I always have the table set in an amusing way.”
This made me wonder: Did I feel joy when I ate? I certainly had never considered my table setting “interesting.” Had I fallen victim to the dinner party equivalent of athleisurewear? Were my dinner parties actually leggings?
This was not a happy thought.
Maybe, I decided, it was time to test the Valentino approach. It was the holiday season, after all. A super-fancy table would not stick out that much. My husband and I would recreate Wideville in Brooklyn, minus the pebble paths and staff, and taking into account the fact that our wedding china and silver had been put away years ago in favor of child-and-dishwasher-safe plastic. I would use the book as my guide.
Immediately it was clear there were going to be problems.
Mr. Garavani, as the sumptuous photographs show, likes to adorn his tables much as he adorns his evening gowns, but instead of lace and paillettes, he uses Meissen, porcelain asparagus and silver waterfowl. Also many different kinds of linens.
I do not own any tablecloths, nor do I have many decorative objets. A quick survey of our breakfront yielded: one duck-shaped china egg-warming tureen that my husband had sneaked onto our wedding list as a joke, thinking, in his misguided youth, that no one would buy it (it was the first gift that arrived); and some bulbous glass grapes I bought at a flea market in a fit of nostalgia for my grandmother.
Then there were the menus. Or lack of menus. Instead of organizing his book by meals, Mr. Garavani organized it by his homes (Gstaad, London, New York, the yacht, Wideville), which made it hard to even understand what was a first course and what was an entree. Also, the photos, while gorgeous, were difficult to deconstruct.
Was that salmon actually cooked? It looked awfully …smoked. Maybe Mr. Garavani believed in only two courses? Maybe this was a skinny fashion thing, where the food was less important than the styling?
(Mr. Garavani, the book makes clear, is into healthy eating: All the pasta he recommends is whole-wheat Kamut pasta, and his desserts mostly use Xylitol, a natural low-calorie sweetener. Of course, the torte I ended up making uses three sticks of butter, but it’s all relative.)
We were clearly going to need help. I called Mr. Garavani.
“Always three courses,” he said. “It’s tradition.” O.K., then.
In the end, we chose the menu mostly according to accessibility of ingredients and equipment (a lack of a soda siphon pretty much mitigated against the beet cream), as well as efficiency: vegetable tempura (made by my husband), salmon stuffed with spinach and egg and covered in zucchini scales (made by me) and chocolate torte (made in advance by me and my older daughter). The recipes were a little vague. The zucchini, for example, looked a lot like cucumber in the picture, and there were no details on whether to sauté or boil the spinach (just “cook the spinach”), but this was not Mr. Garavani’s fault, as he told me he does not cook. His chef cooks; he creative-directs! On to the creative directing.
“It is absolutely not enough to have plates, glasses, some flowers,” he said. “You need to give people something to look at. You need to mix things up. It is not possible to do a spare table. Hundred-year-old saltcellars are fun. I have a mania for china. I have been collecting for 40 years, going to auctions at Sotheby’s, Christies.”
“What if you don’t have that much china?” I asked tentatively.
“Color,” he said. “I always do some color. A table is an expression of the person who is setting it.”
Now we were getting somewhere. Color I could do. Mix I could do. Just one more thing: tablecloths?
“I like a beautiful wood table,” Mr. Garavani said. “It is nice to eat on top. But you need a wonderful napkin. If you do the napkins nicely, it gives the effect the owner of the house knows what’s going on.”
That, it seemed to me, was a good tip.
The table took about as long as the torte and the salmon combined (including baking time), in part because it involved scouring the house for any potentially “fun” objects that could double as decorations, and in part because I had to get all sorts of stuff out of storage.
Out came the silver. Out came the crystal (glasses of many colors). Out came china salad plates. Out came some silver-plated charger plates my mother gave me that I had stared at puzzled and put away. With them, my striped plastic dinnerware and water glasses of assorted shapes and patterns, since we had broken so many that we didn’t have more than six of any kind. I am being high/low, I told myself.
A paper floral sculpture I had bought from a party at Milan Fashion Weekwas liberated from its Perspex box to be the centerpiece, mixed with some real flowers, two glass candlesticks, bowls of real grapes from the supermarket and the glass grapes from the flea market, and little dishes for olive oil (Mr. Garavani believes in olive oil) and pesto.
Oh — and the napkins? Ripped from a MYdrap roll, as perfectly starched and crisp as if I had ironed them myself. As if I knew what was going on.
It was as more-ish a table as I had ever set, and while it looked (to me, anyway) a little over-the-top, it also felt satisfyingly fancy. It reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago at the Met Costume Institute ball, when the Valentino brand was my host and had insisted I wear a long dress, even though I never wear long dresses (I was married in a short dress), and I ended up in a floor-length seafoam green A-line gown. Though I felt like a ship skimming o’er the waves as I moved, everyone I met said: “Wow! I have never seen you like this,” in an ultimately very pleasing way.
My guests had much the same reaction when I asked what Valentino might have thought.
“I think they would have given the food and décor a good rating,” said my friend Sally, who knew of what she spoke, having once been a guest at Giancarlo Giammetti’s house, at a party for Elizabeth Taylor (Mr. Giammetti being Mr. Garavani’s longtime business partner). “But possibly they would have liked the wait staff to be in house livery,” she added, referring to my 9-year-old son, who had butlered coats.
“It was a bit of a surprise in your house, but it didn’t feel entirely inauthentic,” agreed Siddhartha, who has worked at fashion brands from Paris to New York. “There was no mozzarella on the menu, no Gwyneth or Anne Hathaway, but there were stimulating discussions on literacy, gender, being a New Yorker and the West’s distorted view of Islam.”
(I’m not sure how Mr. Garavani would have felt about that, but some things it’s hard to change.)
“Why don’t we use this stuff more?” my daughter asked later, when we were wiping down the crystal. An unexpected bonus to dipping into the Valentino world without the Valentino staff: Though it definitely requires serious prep and cleaning time, it can be a bonding experience.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Good question.”
And I wonder why, I thought, I have never asked it before?