On a recent Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, a small group dressed in colorful prints and stripes sipped John Dalys from paper straws in the foliage-filled backyard of a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. On the grill, lobster tails sizzled, while laughter trickled out the French doors that led to the kitchen. A few feet away, Chris Benz, creative director at Bill Blass and host for the afternoon, tended the barbecue in a wide-brimmed hat and crisp blue apron, looking every bit the grill pro as he flipped skewers of new potatoes and chatted with the friends who gathered round to watch. Fragrant charcoal smoke blew softly around the yard, while Benz’s dog lazed beneath a lounge chair nearby. It was about as idyllic a summer afternoon in New York City as one can hope to get.
“I wanted to create a fantasy of ‘city summer’ for my friends,” says Benz of the occasion, which included guests Cuba Gooding Jr., Eddie Ross, Andrew Bevan, and Kelly Framel. “I also wanted plenty of lounging around and socializing throughout the house and garden where people could be surrounded by as many fresh flowers and greenery as possible. My Brooklyn neighborhood is just far enough outside of Manhattan that people feel like they’re in the country, so keeping the dream of a classic American picnic feel was important.”
To create a menu that suited the traditional theme, Benz sourced a bounty of quintessential summer ingredients: lobster tails from Greenhead Lobsters in Maine, Bird in Hand rosé, Fried Chicken from Peach’s Hot House, grilled peaches and burrata crostini, and grilled maple-glazed bacon-wrapped carrots—a surprise hit. In the dining room, the designer set out a healthy-yet-indulgent spread of fresh vegetables and nibbles that included a massive platter of crudité culled from an early morning farmer’s market run, pimento cheese dip, a French potato salad with mint, a pickled radish and cucumber salad, and grilled watermelon with feta. “I have always enjoyed the idea of cooking, but have spent quite some time over the past few years stepping up my game,” the designer explains.
But for Benz, the best part of hosting a fete is the opportunity to catch up with favorite friends: “Everyone I know lives such fast-paced and busy lives. If I can corral as many of them as possible, it’s always a terrific time.” To that end, Benz offers this advice: “Invite only fun and interesting people! As RuPaul says, ‘if you wanna be invited to the party, you must have something to bring,’ so invite only unique, delightful people who will get to meet one another. It’s the best party trick of all.”
Below, the designer shares a few more tips for creating the kind of backyard soiree that guests won’t want to leave.
Get Personal“Get organized about inviting people, especially following up on RSVPs. I think being invited to a party should make the guest feel special, so always send personal save-the-dates, emails, and a nice follow up reminder a couple days before the event. No blind-copy email invitations, please.”
Timing is Everything“For a BBQ, plan an early start time. All people really want to do on a Sunday is sleep late and then go directly to a party. I started at 2pm, but could have easily kicked off by noon. Plus, an early start time keeps the party from going too late on a school night.”