Your Guide to Outdoor Entertaining
Top tips for taking your party outside
Photos by Shannon Cornman
Photo by Aaron Snow
Entertaining outdoors in the 405 is a breezy, sunny joy … if done properly. In our beloved, weather-fickle Oklahoma, it also can just as easily be an overheated, windblown, buggy nightmare, or a frigid test of your guests’ mettle, no matter what month of the year. While we prefer the former, we’ve inadvertently unleashed the latter upon ourselves and our family and friends a few times. Never again, though!
“We’ve done really large events, like the opening of the Devon Tower and Open Streets OKC, which was for 40,000 people,” says Brian Ferrell, founder and president of 110 events. “We’ve also done smaller events like Starlight Supper for DOKC.” With bona fides established, he says, “Holding any event outdoors means you have to have a Plan A, B and C. And sometimes you go straight to Plan D or E.”
Ferrell is one cool, unflappable cat with a bit of a Cheshire smile, and his preternatural calm is a trait he says comes naturally to him. That certainly makes his career choice seem logical. His expertise and tactics, although largely earned by executing huge, complicated events, can be applied just as easily to your Fourth of July bash. “The best way to stay cool under pressure is to have a plan, and to communicate that plan with the people involved in making your event happen. That way, when something changes, you can go into execution mode instead of crisis mode.”
His best preliminary advice is to literally walk through your space from the perspective of your guests. Is your front door well lit and, more importantly, unlocked? Will your guests be in your yard? Have you turned off the sprinklers and sprayed for mosquitoes?
“Think about all the logistical details. The wind is something people don’t always factor in, and it can make or break your event,” he says. “Disposable plates and cutlery are great, unless they’re blowing all over your yard. It may behoove you to rent dishes instead, and you may want to invest in stemless wine glasses, which are much less likely to tip over.”
A low vase filled with pebbles and succulents makes for a pretty, wind-resistant centerpiece. Adding sandbags under the table may be necessary, and for linens, there is a fantastic new innovation: spandex table coverings – effectively Spanx for your table!
THE POWER OF 10
For the last four years, the crew at Downtown OKC Inc. has hosted 400 or so of their closest friends at the outdoor gala Starlight Supper. It’s inspired by outdoor farm-to-table and slow-food trends, and guests are seated and served family style in early April of each year.
“Outdoor dining events are so different from events held indoors,” says Staci Sanger, DOKC marketing manager. “Guests walk in, grab their seats and then they are up and moving. They trade seats, sit in [one] spot for the entrée and mingle around. Starlight Supper, in particular, feels much more like a family event. We learned not to even try to assign seats.”
Another tip from these pros: “Salad will blow away if it’s windy. Long garlands of flowers are a great centerpiece choice,” says DOKC Marketing Assistant Riley Cole. “We now use heavy metal chargers and tuck the napkins under them. We’ve completely ditched candles because it’s impossible to keep them lit, and we’ve contemplated going stemless for our wine glasses but have opted against it so far because stemmed glasses are more elegant.”
Recently the group attended a conference on placemaking, and learned about the power of 10, Sanger says. “For someplace, or for an event or even a dinner in your backyard, to become a place, meaning someplace people will want to linger, there need to be 10 layers, 10 touches. You know when people have reached that point because things happen: shoes come off, there’s lots of laughing and showing of affection and people will be on social media and taking lots of pictures.”
The power of 10 is simple. Think of it this way: Three courses plus wine and a small takeaway gift gets you to five. Add a great cup of coffee, scrumptious dessert, great music, comfortable seating, beautiful flowers and maybe another ambiance element like a portable fire pit or a little uplighting and you’ve dialed it up to an 11.
Kindt Steven Myers, whose events business Kindt Events handles more than 50 events each year, agrees. “You can get a DIY kit for lighting that comes with six uplights and gels for about $100. Special lighting really creates ambiance for your event, especially if you’re outdoors, in a backyard or by a pool.”
In the summer, Myers encourages his staff to focus on keeping guests cool, and his tricks of the trade easily translate to the at-home host or hostess. “Cooling towels are wonderful and refreshing for an outdoor or poolside event. You can buy multi-packs of small white towels – choose white because they look freshest and cleanest on first use. Fold them in half and roll them tightly, then submerge them in a chest filled with ice water with a little bit of mint essential oil in it. It’s an upscale touch that’s easy to do.”
He suggests cooling your house down early, like six or seven hours early, and incorporating lots of fresh fruit into your menu. “Twenty people will really affect the temperature of a room,” he says. “Start cooling your home early in the day and cool it to the point of being uncomfortably cold. You’ll be glad, and your guests will be glad.”
Fresh, whole fruit makes a pretty centerpiece display and can double as dessert. “Soak fresh fruit in a sinkful of water with just a tiny drop of dish soap in it and a few alkaline drops, which you can get at Whole Foods. It will keep the fruit looking fresh and keep pests away from it. Just a 10-minute soak will do it. Alkaline helps balance the body, and diseases can’t grow in an alkaline environment.”
Since pot roast and potatoes appeal to almost nobody when it’s 90 degrees, Myers says to focus on fresh. Melon salads made sophisticated with a sprinkling of feta, drizzle of good olive oil, dash of Himalayan salt and a chiffonade of basil feel hearty and satisfying but are also refreshing.
“Smoked salmon is great, chilled and served with capers and crema. Serving your meal on platters is smart,” he says. “Always include some dollar rolls when you do, so guests can make a little sandwich if they’d like. Be sure to have plenty of water. Plenty. And lighten up your cocktails by making a classic spritzer, or in the case of sangria, by replacing the fruit liqueur with a fruit juice. Batch your cocktails and do everything in advance so you can enjoy your guests. Dolley Madison said if you are able to greet your guests at the door, you’ve done it right.”
That’s the skinny on food, but what about décor?
THINK OUTSIDE THE VASE
Le Fleuriste’s Master Florist George Catechis jokes that the most challenging thing about having an outdoor event in Oklahoma is “that the event is outside. Just kidding. Oklahoma weather is so unpredictable that you can try to have a plan for event day, but just know it may not work. The weather constantly changes, so you have to be prepared with a back-up to your back-up plan. We’ve had plenty of events get delayed due to floods and tornadoes, but we always make it happen.”
When planning your tablescape, be clever but also be realistic. “Heat and flowers don’t really mix, so succulents and air plants are great options – and smart, since they can take the direct sun,” Catechis says. “If you really want to use colorful flowers, make sure you put the arrangement outside right before your party starts to avoid as much wilting as possible. Once you put the centerpieces outside, you will have two to six hours before they aren’t looking so fresh. The hotter the day or the more direct the sun, the shorter your time window will be. For best results, keep your flowers out of the sun and make sure there is plenty of water in your container to keep the blooms hydrated.”
He also encourages you to think outside the vase, as there are endless possibilities when you entertain outside. “Team Fleuriste is definitely into hanging objects anywhere we can, and I mean from anywhere! We’ll use the patio, trees, pergola and anything else we can to create a ‘wow.’ Think unconventionally. Adding touches like glass that glistens in the sun or LED candles will enhance the look of your party. Don’t forget to look around your yard and find things from nature that you can use to accent your décor.
“Vines from your garden can become a napkin ring, branches from your backyard are the perfect centerpiece base, and you can even create a placement out of leaves,” he says. “If you have a tree stump or two, they are great to use for additional seating or side tables. Oversized planters are also great ice buckets for your drinks! Don’t limit yourself … trust yourself to experiment and have fun.”
► 3 Ways to Keep It Chill
Want to keep you and your guests as cool as a Yeti eating frozen spaghetti?
Try these tips on for size.
Serve cold things. Nobody wants to sit outside in July and eat a hot plate of lasagna. So cool it, and serve things at room temp or lower. Gazpacho, savory salads, chilled shrimp, cold sliced tenderloin and plenty of fresh fruits make for a make-ahead, low-stress, crowd-pleasing menu.
Taste-test the margaritas. It’s OK, you’re still a responsible adult. Nobody is saying you should swim to the door to greet your guests, but a great way to mitigate pre-event adrenaline, or to make the transition from organizer to socializer easier, is to enjoy a little wine or a small cocktail while you’re getting dressed.
Let things unfold as the universe chooses for them to. Within reason. Have a rain plan, or a snow plan, think about the wind and its effects on your centerpiece choices … and once you’ve done that, take a tip from Elsa and let it go.
► Tip, Tip Hooray
A few notions to set your mind awhirl. Take them and run with them.
Maximize your fun by doing things you can only do outside. Set up a few yard games such as corn toss or croquet.
If you have a fire pit, do a sophisticated s’more for dessert. Do a coconut-peanut butter-Sriracha s’more by swirling a little (or a lot) of Sriracha into some all-natural, chunky peanut butter. Sandwich a dollop of the spiced-up mix, a toasted marshmallow and a sprinkle of sweet coconut flakes between plain graham crackers for an upscale version of campfire comfort food.
Go au naturel – with your décor, that is. Work with what’s on hand. River stones and a Sharpie make for clever place cards. Muddle some mint, straight from your herb patch, into ice-cold water for a bracing refresher. Give each guest a tiny tomato plant in a diminutive terra cotta pot to take home and enjoy.
Think inside-out. “A huge trend right now is bringing traditional indoor furnishings outside,” Ferrell says. Center a beautiful Oriental rug under a tree and hang a chandelier from a branch. Bring your antique buffet out for some fresh air and enjoy the energy that juxtaposition will bring. Whimsy is a beautiful thing.”
► As Brenna Sees It
The See family has lived in Heritage Hills since 2014, after a seven-month restoration of the property made it a showcase – in fact, it will be a featured home on the upcoming Heritage Hills Home Tour in September. Brenna See loves to entertain outdoors and uses every inch of her home to make her guests feel welcome.
“We truly enjoy entertaining outdoors at any opportunity,” See says. “We’ve hosted wedding showers, baby showers, birthday parties and – of course – dinners with family and friends. It’s always been my priority to make our home inviting and welcoming for our guests. One thing I love about our backyard is its unique layout. Our outdoor space allows us the flexibility of entertaining friends and family in settings that can handle large or small groups of people.”
Her enthusiasm is contagious. “Nothing says summer like dining al fresco! Our favorite time is when we can fill up our table with friends while watching our kids swim in the pool and play in the yard.”
For her, making sure her home and yard are at their very best is one key to being a great hostess. “My husband Ross and I both thoroughly enjoy working in the yard. I think we both come by this naturally, as both of our mothers do, as well. I have to say that they, too, deserve some of the credit. There is something special about making your home look beautiful together. Even our little ones help with the veggie garden.”