Friends and blog followers know that I entered my “Wicked Wine Tasting” party in a contest to be named The Ultimate Host by Sterling Vineyards. There were four separate challenges (Girls/Guys Night In, Wine and Dessert Pairings, Music and Wine Pairing, and the final was Host’s Choice) – I submitted an entry for the fourth challenge. Although I put quite a bit of effort into my entry, I must say, I didn’t think I would ever possibly win. Well, much to my pleasant surprise, I did win. All four semi-finalists would be flown to New York to create the ultimate party in a 12×12 space for 150 people they did not know. The entries were judged by a panel of four judges; the head judge was Padma Lakshmi (of “Top Chef” fame).
So, I recently competed in the finals in New York, but was not lucky enough to take home the $25,000 prize (which also included a trip to Pebble Beach for the Food and Wine Expo, and a trip for two to Sterling Vineyards). While I am disappointed, it was a great experience overall. I really feel honored to have been a semi-finalist and it is awesome to be recognized for what I love to do which is to entertain and cook for people. Ironically, there were no cooking facilities at the site where the contest was held, so I had to order all of the food.
For those of you with whom I have not personally shared the details of my “party,” here’s a summary:
First, let me begin by saying that many of my ideas come to me when I am walking Humphrey; in fact, on some walks I have even found some items to use for decorations. So, I spent many an evening walk trying to come up with a theme for my party. (Note: the semi-finalists from earlier challenges did not have the two week crunch). Almost all of last year’s contestants did some kind of winter wonderland theme (the winner had a great apres ski party at “Mt. Sterling”), so I knew I would avoid that. One of the chapters in the textbook I use for my ESOL class describes the Chinese Five Elements and the need for balance in those elements. Since I teach mostly Asian students, have travelled extensively throughout Asia, and love to cook and eat Asian food, I thought I should try to do a party themed around the Five Elements. When I think about the most revered cuisines, all take into account balancing flavors and textures. Eg. Thai food always incorporates sweet, hot, sour, and salty. Everytime I cook, I think about balancing flavors. Certainly when one thinks of a good wine, one thinks of balance. Haven’t you noticed how wine descriptions will say something like “big and fruity with a hint of spice”? And then, think about pairing wine and food and you think about balancing the elements so that they are comlimentary. So that’s how my “Sterling Zen Den” evolved.
With my theme in place, the rest sort of just came to me (on my evening walks with Humphrey). I knew I would have to incorporate the Five Elements (Fire, Water, Earth. Wood, and Metal) into my booth and think about food that would fit the theme. Showcasing Sterling Vineyards (last year’s winner did Mt. Sterling)seemed like it should be a priority. I thought what if I could incorporate all of the elements into one memorable feature in the booth. I had a vision for a large S and a large V hanging on the wall with little shelves that held lit votive candles so that the SV resembled a marquis. Huge advantage for team Katherine – his name is Bryan. I tell him what I want, and he finds a way to make the perfect thing. The day after I learned I was a finalist, I went over to my “dear friend’s” house (yes, the one whose cat is the subject of Chronicles of an Ordinary Cat Sitter ) and we started brainstorming. She suggested incorporating birch since it is wood, popular in Asia, and also is kind of wintery. We found some cool rustic tables with birch legs, and you can probably guess what the next step was…ask Bryan to make one. Coincidentally, Bryan had brought back a bunch of birch logs from a recent fishing trip up north. Unfortunately, using the logs meant that “dear friend” would have to sacrifice her birch reindeer which he promised to make her. But she’s was OK with that – I am probably indebted to her which will involve me catsitting again. So, needless to say, Bryan built a beautiful birch legged table.
Each contestant was given $3000 to put together the whole party, and you could not go over budget. If you wanted to use an item you already own, it would have a value attached to it. So, I had to keep “Mr. Open the Wallet” in line. I decided I should have a waterfall to incorporate the water element. I was going to look into renting a waterfall in New York, but Bryan, who also has inspired moments while walking Humphrey, suggested that he could make a waterfall – or two, for that matter. He came up with the idea of a waterfall with a shelf that showcases a bottle of wine – brilliant, but sounded complicated and probably not in the budget. Well, it turns out that Bryan was able to get a small remnant slab of granite from his stone supplier for free – yes, it did involve dumpster diving, but he was OK with that. So, I now had a piece that incorporated water and stone – why not try to include one more element? Bryan suggested that the water should flow into a galvinized steel tub (inexpensive at Tractor Supply) filled with rocks. Again, brilliant, but believe it or not, rocks are expensive, unless you collect them yourself from the shores of Lake Huron at your in-laws cottage. So, on our trip up to pick-up our Heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, and our lamb, we stopped by and collected rocks.
I still hadn’t come up with a menu, but that would be the easy part, and all I had to do for wine pairings was to go talk to my friends at Kakos Market. I did learn that most of last year’s contestants did supply a party favor. Before I settled on birch as the main wood, I had considered bamboo, so I had bamboo on my mind when I remembered seeing mini live bamboo plants as give-aways somewhere. Sure enough, they are a popular favor at weddings and parties and you can purchase them in large quantities on-line from Eastern Leaf . My 150 mini bamboo trees arrived safely despite our recent cold weather. Note that I am not referencing the bamboo as lucky…well, for obvious reasons. I decided I would set the bamboo in a galvinized tub filled with rocks (I was overzealous in my rock collection effort). After much consideration (at one point I thought I shouldn’t have all Asian food, but that just didn’t make sense), I decided to serve California rolls (everyone loves sushi and I was competing in a wine event), Thai summer rolls, and beef satay. I also had a bowl with some rice cracker snacks, wasabi peas, and peanuts. I found a cute little Zen fondue pot on-line (what could be wrong with chocolate fondue?). While in Florida for my daughter’s lacrosse tournament, I discovered these chocolate rocks (candy cover chocolate that look like little rocks), and I figured those would be perfect. I also had a local bakery, Love and Buttercream make sugar cookies with a yin yang symbol frosted on top. Those I carried on the plane with me to NYC – the other items (except for the sushi, summer rolls and satay) travelled by truck with Bryan. I went on-line and was lucky to find great restaurants that offered catering service – Sushi Zen prepared excellent California rolls (the restaurant itself is lovely) and I am grateful to Aceluck for delivering the spring rolls and satay right on time.
As Bryan was in the process of crafting the birch legged table, he cut some extra pieces of birch which I could use for pillar candle stands and to put under my serving trays to add some dimension. By the way, if you’re in need of candles, I highly recommend Quick Candles – inexpensive, good quality candles and votive holders delivered…you guessed it, quick (ly). Since I still had some extra rocks, I decided to write food and wine quotes on rocks and place those about the table. Someone actually stole one of my rocks during the show – come on, it’s a rock with a quote written on it! I also had to contend with “invitations” to give to the judges upon their arrival. I bought five specialty papers that represented the elements and then crafted an invitation for each of the judges that said why I chose that element for them (it was a stretch because there’s only so much you can learn about someone from their blog or website).
So, my dear Bryan loaded up his truck and drove out to NYC with his brother. I flew out the next day with my cookies and we enjoyed a lovely dinner at Tao (yes, even our night before dinner out fit my theme) which is where I went for my 40th birthday. The day of the event was a little stressful; we were to start unloading at 1:00 PM, but that was delayed by an hour because the space wasn’t ready yet, and we were to have our booths completed by 5:00 PM and ready for the party promptly at 6:00. Due to the late start, they gave us extra time. I changed clothes and put on make-up at 5:50PM. I was so impressed with all of the other competitors and everyone was friendly and gracious (good qualities to have if you’re trying to be the Ultimate Host). It was amazing how different all of our themes were, and I was in awe at how much detail was taken into consideration. For the most part, except for those who devoured handfuls of sushi, the ones who stole things (bamboo pens, rock, wine glasses), the guests (approximately 400 of them) were wonderful. I enjoyed meeting new people, relished in the compliments, and felt very relaxed and at ease in my Zen space. By the time they announced the winner, I just desperately wanted to take off my killer bright red high heels and have a glass of wine. You can check out pictures of the other competitors booth on the Sterling Facebook page (you may have to scroll down a bit). You can check out the judges Blogs at: Catch My Party (Jilliam Tohber Leslie) Dine and Dish (Kristen Doyle) and Fab Femme (Eryka). Thanks to all who supported me in so many ways!