MeMe and Bruce Pederson's guests know they've come to the right party. It's midafternoon on New Year's Eve, just about the time that hundreds of shivering tourists in Manhattan are squeezing into Times Square. Here at the Pedersons' house in Palm Springs, people are splashing around in a sunlit pool.
Inside, a dinner table is set for 14, with a shimmering green tablecloth, clusters of pink peonies and roses, and plates neatly laid. Oysters with grapefruit granita, short ribs, and warm pear crisp stand by, ready to roll. MeMe is totally on top of things.
Which isn't surprising. She's the co-owner of Taste, a San Francisco catering company that orchestrates an average of 700 parties a year ― everything from a company picnic for 10,000 to presidential dinners laden with protocol to intimate suppers for 10.
You'd think that on her time off, she'd just want to plop on the couch. Instead, MeMe entertains every chance she gets. "I like having people in my home. I love having my own music, my own wine, my own food, and thinking about how the table is going to look. I like the process almost as much as I like the dinner itself."
WHAT SHE'S SERVING
Oysters on the Half-Shell with Grapefruit Granita
This sparkling, vodka-laced granita has a peppery kick that sets off the briny sweetness of a good West Coast oyster.
Watercress Endive Salad with Blood Oranges and Pomegranates
MeMe Pederson often serves this bright and colorful salad with chèvre-stuffed dates.
Braised Spiced Short Ribs
These tender, rich hunks of meat pair perfectly with velvety but hot horseradish potato purée.
Horseradish Potato Purée
These smooth, creamy, innocent-looking mashed potatoes deliver an exhilarating hit of horseradish.
Pear Cranberry Crisps
When MeMe and Susana Muñoz serve these crisps as part of a catered dinner, the topping comes on the side for diners to sprinkle on.
Ginger Crème Anglaise
The spicy ginger flavor and thick, velvety texture of this sauce contrast well with the sweet-tart, crumble-topped crisp.
Glazed Pearl Onions and Baby Carrots
Pretty, easy, and excellent with meat.
Braised Lacinato Kale
So hearty it's almost meaty tasting, this is our favorite kind of kale.
6 EASY STEPS TO A STUNNING TABLE
Hint: Good design isn't about how much money you spend
1. Choose a color scheme It's the starting point for planning. MeMe Pederson took her cue from the pink, yellow, green, and orange lanterns hanging on the patio when picking out the table linens, flowers, and plates. Then she arranged bouquets throughout the house, filling it with the spirit of the party.
2. Go with a narrow table "You can actually talk to people across it," MeMe says. To seat 14, she put together two 2½-foot-wide, 6-foot-long folding tables and draped them with floor-length tablecloths ("to hide the ugly feet"). She always sets the table the night before.
3. Layer your linens MeMe and Susana Muñoz, Taste's marketing director, arranged a smaller tablecloth in bright green silk with an orange-and-fuchsia border over white-linen tablecloths. Both came from a discount store, and each cost under $30.
4. Vary the chairs You want them to match, but not too much: Different shapes of blond-wood chairs keep them from looking boring, like a typical rented set.
5. Pick low flowers Well-placed but low-enough-to-see-over bouquets of pink peonies, fuchsia spray roses, and green hypericum berries repeat down the table ― another big hit of color.
6. Show off the food The curved square chrysanthemum-patterned chargers came from Crate and Barrel's quirky CB2 line ($7.95 per plate). Square white dinner plates set on top provide a neutral background so the food shines.
PARTY PROBLEM SOLVING
Ask yourself: What would MeMe do?
Problem The grocery store is suddenly out of one or more ingredients you need to make the dish you'd set your heart on.
Solution If you don't have time to check another store, go with a similar ingredient. For example, you could substitute radicchio for Belgian endive in MeMe's salad recipe.
Problem Smoke is billowing into the dining room because, whoops, someone forgot to remove the chops from the broiler.
Solution If you stay calm, your guests will be more comfortable. Gracefully get up and open windows on both sides of the house for cross-ventilation. Even if you have to order pizza, it isn't the end of the world; open a couple of nice bottles of wine and have a story to tell later.
Problem One of your guests informs you, after arriving, that he and his wife are vegans.
Solution Anticipate niche eaters. "When I invite people, I ask if they have any dietary restrictions. This is not only so I can know about the vegans, but about allergies too, like to garlic," MeMe says. "For vegetarians, I usually have a box of pasta or good frozen ravioli on hand so I can whip something up. For a vegan, filo is good."
Problem A guest drinks too much and gets weepy, obnoxious, overly flirtatious, or maybe all three.
Solution With any luck, it's toward the end of dinner and you can offer, graciously, to get the person a cab. Draw the person away from the other guests and then ask if he or she would like some coffee, or perhaps to lie down.