I haven’t hosted an event since my own wedding. It’s something I’ve thought about and awkwardly tiptoed around, but there was never anything pushing me to actually do it. That push came about 2 months ago when Dan Wu, Lexington’s resident MasterChef Season 5 competitor, sent me a message on Facebook telling me that when Elizabeth Cauvel (one of his co-MC5 competitors) found out he and I knew each other, she told him she’s been a huge fan of offbeat for a while and it’s what inspired her food styling aspirations! I can’t accurately explain my reaction to that news. “Giddy” is the world’s biggest understatement right now.
I had only started watching season 5 recently to keep tabs on Dan, but when I switched on those first few episodes, I did what I always do when easing into a reality TV show addiction — size up the cast and pick favorites. There was one girl I loved immediately. I remember pointing at her and saying, “Yep. I want to be friends with her.” It was the adorable redhead. I didn’t know her by name though, so right after Dan messaged me, I Googled “Elizabeth Cauvel”, saw her picture and flipped out. My fantasy friend!!
I told Dan that she needed to come to Lexington like, yesterday. It was imperative that we meet. Then it hit me like a truck — we needed to have a dinner. The three of us could plan the menu together, they could prepare it, I could style the event and enlist the help of some super talented Lexington friends, and it would be wonderful. I had even recently met with Marc Puil, owner of Le Deauville (my beloved downstairs-neighbor-bistro), and he showed me the rooftop garden above Columbia’s Steakhouse next door, where he grows produce for the restaurant. It needed a little love, but the potential was huge. I had visions of it cleaned up and draped with twinkle lights, with a long barnwood table set for a hungry crowd at dusk. Magic!
Elizabeth was in. She booked a ticket to Kentucky, the date was set for August 16th, and the planning began.
When SOUTH weekend arrived, we entered a whirlwind. There were errands to run, big things to haul, last minute emergencies to tend to — but in the end, everything worked out. Suddenly, I found myself standing on a breezy rooftop, pinning strands of twinkle lights just like what I imagined. Hannah Maple and Beth Kirby were perfecting the place settings, and guests were starting to arrive.
From that moment on, it was a beautiful blur. People settled into the garden lanes and conversations bloomed. Dan and Elizabeth brought up the first appetizers — pork belly bites, a colorful watermelon salad and delicious cornbread with fresh ricotta and herbed local honey.
Beth and I lingered with our cameras, ready to capture the moments and details as they unfolded.
When everyone migrated to the table, the guests received their gifts — beautiful leather wrap bracelets made that morning by Matt Cook of Borderstate. They were individually stamped with “SOUTH 8.16.14” — the date they were crafted, and the date of the gathering.
Then, the moment we were all waiting for. Dinner! Braised Pork & Cauliflower-Parsnip Puree…
There was eating, drinking, laughter, Maggie Lander‘s angelic music, and community.
Adam Kuhn captured the atmosphere so perfectly with this video…
The beauty of this event wasn’t rooted in the twinkle lights, the rooftop or even the food. It was in the people — the individuals that came together on a summer evening and shared themselves with each other. It was in Dan and Elizabeth sharing their love for cooking, Matt Cook sharing his passion for creating, or the people who couldn’t even attend, but offered their hearts to us anyway like Fable + Flame with the decor, or Scout Antiques with their vintage chairs. Everyone was connected and so carefree that even the rain that fell as the Summer Fruit Galette was being served was welcome.
This is where I have to hand everything off to the amazing people and businesses that made SOUTH the beautiful thing it turned into. So here it goes…
Marc Puil and the crew at Le Deauville French Bistro
They did so much to make this happen. They provided all of the ingredients that Dan and Elizabeth needed to pull the menu together, they offered their kitchen all day Saturday for cooking and food prep, they let us borrow their drinkware, water pitchers, flatware and dinner plates, and they cleaned the roof so we could set up the morning of the event. They were angels. They did all of it out of a love for this community, and Marc who was running the busy restaurant that night, escaped for a few minutes just to pop in, say hi and make sure the garden was still looking fresh. How can you not love these people to death? [Facebook/Instagram]
Hannah Maple was the first person I reached out to about helping me style the dinner. She has such a unique aesthetic with a refreshing edge, and her work has always blown me away. She’s a talented curator, stylist and designer, and I was so honored to have her on this project with me! [Instagram]
Matt Cook, overall winner of Garden & Gun’s 2012 Made in the South Awards, is an incredibly talented leatherworker and designer. He not only helped plan, but handcrafted 25 leather bracelets the morning of the dinner and stamped each with “SOUTH 08/16/14”. These were the guest favors, and they were absolutely gorgeous. He also made the clipboards we used to display the menus! Matt is a huge advocate for Lexington’s small business and creative communities. Keep an eye on him because there will be much more coming from his corner of the city in the near future! [Facebook/Instagram]
Longwood creates some of the most beautiful reclaimed wood tables and furniture I’ve ever seen. They have stunning installations all over Lexington, so when I reached out to them about using one of their tables for the dinner, I knew I was going to get something good. They generously offered two tabletops with bases which provided the perfect backdrop for our meal. As a photographer, I’m always on the hunt for surfaces that shoot well and complement food items and decor nicely, and Longwood nails it. [Facebook/Instagram]
I’ve been friends with James Snowden, owner of F+F (previously FindersKeepers Market), for a few years now. He’s one of the kindest, most generous and creative people I know. His eye for design is impeccable, and his shop represents his talents beautifully. He provided all of the decor for the event and made the whole thing truly enchanting. [Facebook/Instagram]
Scout is such a cool shop. They carry an array of vintage goods, ranging from traditional antique furniture to mid-century modern pieces and jewelry. I can never spend less than an hour in that place. It’s a treasure trove. They just so happened to have a slew of awesome chairs salvaged from an old pizzeria sitting in their warehouse that were exactly what we needed for the dinner. They were perfect! [Facebook/Instagram]
West Sixth is the first local brewery I visited when we moved to Lexington. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but anyone who is will tell you this is the place to be. The atmosphere at the brewery is so much fun. They’re always either hosting an event or contributing to an event. They’re huge supporters of Lexington’s small business community, and their product lives up to their awesome reputation. They generously supplied all the beer for the evening — the famous IPA in addition to their Amber and Lemongrass American Wheat. [Facebook/Instagram]
Joseph Hillenmeyer introduced us to Kelly Nursery when we told him we were looking for some small trees to hide an AC unit on the roof. Kelly loaned us 5 beautiful plants that ended up completely transforming the space.
The rooftop garden is right above Columbia’s Steakhouse. This place is a Lexington landmark and has been in operation since 1948. We were thrilled when they supported our use of their rooftop (which houses Le Deauville’s garden) for the dinner. Greg and Lisa Penn, owners of the building, even stopped in to say hello and try some of Dan & Elizabeth’s amazing food! [Facebook]
Liz and Doug Brantley are such a generous, hilarious and talented couple. Their new studio just opened which showcases some of their beautiful hand-painted furniture and custom wall finishes. They’re the only supplier of Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in Lexington and they even teach workshops on how to refinish your own pieces. They live in the apartment right next to the rooftop garden and kindly offered us extra chairs out of their own dining room and let us trek across their deck all day Saturday while we were setting up. I was so excited that they were able to attend that night! I seriously never laugh harder than when I’m hanging out with this couple. [Facebook/Instagram]
Beth Kirby of Local Milk
Beth is the most talented baker, photographer, writer and stylist I know. She’s a dinner-hosting veteran and author of Local Milk. I invited her to SOUTH so that she could see Lexington for the first time and actually attend a dinner instead of having to work! Well, food and photography run in this girl’s blood, so when crunch time came, she whisked in and worked her magic by helping me finish the place settings and then took stunning photos all night long (most of the photos in this post are Beth’s!). I couldn’t be more grateful for the rich time we had while she was in town. What a beautiful soul! [Facebook/Instagram]
I’m amazed by these people! I can’t wait to do it again…
To see more from the dinner, check out #SouthDinnerLex on Instagram!
I’m so curious to know if gatherings like this are happening in your own city! How have your communities been supporting and celebrating each other? Please share in the comments below! I can’t wait to hear from you!!