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Savoring the Season: Get pro tips from event designer Blake Sams for casually elegant alfresco entertaining

Savoring the Season: Get pro tips from event designer Blake Sams for casually elegant alfresco entertaining
October 2022
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Plus an inspired fall menu of recipes from Lexie Webb of Harvest Catering





Like any gracious guest, when fall arrives in the Lowcountry it does not come empty-handed. The season carries with it a singular gift, one that coaxes eager Charlestonians from their homes to relish its splendor. This simple offering, a much-welcome respite from the sultry summer, is reason enough for event planner Blake Sams to gather a group of friends in his sun-dappled downtown courtyard for an alfresco dinner party.

The fashionable founder of Gregory Blake Sams Events is known for creating bespoke experiences, and the bashes he throws in his own backyard are no exception. Joining him on the food front is Lexie Webb of Harvest Catering. Together with her business partner, Ryan Sullivan, Lexie crafts menus that are grounded in the bounty of the Lowcountry. As seasoned party pros, Blake and Lexie approach events with a simple ethos: entertaining is about creating effortless experiences where everyone—guests and hosts alike—can truly enjoy themselves. Here, they let the rest of us in on a few of their secrets.

(Left) Blake channels autumnal abundance with organic elements that bring weight and drama to the tablescape; (Right) A giant decorative clamshell brimming with ice is the perfect vessel for local oysters. “The big scale makes it fun for a party,” Sams notes. “It’s great for Champagne bottles, too.” 

Creature Comforts

In Blake’s book, even the most lavish of soirées should feel personal and intimate. “Regardless of all the pretty things we do, a great event is always about one thing: bringing people together,” he says. That’s why his party planning starts from the guests’ perspective, anticipating their flow throughout a space and considering how he can place everything at their fingertips. “We want all events to feel comfortable—just as if you were at home,” he says.

Party Like a Pro

  • A spirited start. Greet guests with a beverage station near the entry and allow their natural flow to steer the rest of the party’s layout.
  • Help guests serve themselves. A spread of snacks in an open corner of the courtyard encourages noshing while mingling.
  • Skip the fuss. Bold, chunky garnishes—think whole lemons and pieces of produce—can be surprisingly elegant in an appetizer spread. Plus, they won’t need to be thrown out when the party ends.
  • Candles equal instant ambiance. Aim for one or two touch points of candlelight in each room. (But avoid scented candles near the kitchen and around food.)
  • Dim it down. Every switch should have a dimmer, Blake says. Just when you think it’s dark enough, drop it a little lower—take a cue from the autumn sky and keep dimming throughout the evening.
  • Music, made easy. Spotify and a wireless Sonos speaker make perfecting party tunes a breeze. “Just type in the mood you’re going for, and you’ve got a killer playlist at your fingertips,” he notes.

(Left) The abundant array on the snack table includes pickled shrimp, citrus olives, crudités, local oysters with cucumber mignonette, a mushroom tart, and a selection of breads and cheeses. (Right) Rolls of raw washed linen and antique sterling cutlery pop against the Kaneko Kohyo “Rinka” dinnerware. Courtyard cuttings of rice paper plant, sword fern, coneflower pods, and tendrils of jasmine vine unspool in an effortlessly stylish display.

The Mix Master

Blake finds the beauty of building a tablescape in the thoughtful mixing of textures and styles that collectively set a tone. “I buy special items as I find them—a slightly addictive habit! Come time to set a table, I always have a trove to pull from,” he says. “And those same items can be mixed to create a different look every time you use them.”

For Lexie, the menu should always feel like a natural extension of the evening’s established mood and style. Here, pale scalloped bowls beg to be filled with Harvest’s equally elegant cucumber gazpacho, while the bright hues of her gem lettuce salad and pomegranate-studded sweet potatoes further enliven the already lush tablescape.

Build a Better Table

  • It’s in the details. For Blake, organically sourced items—often scooped up while traveling—all have stories to tell. “It’s so much more interesting and fun when you buy things as you find them,” he says.
  • Keep linens simple. Neutral, natural fabrics make even the most refined china feel approachable and easy.
  • A batched cocktail is best for parties. Mix it up ahead of time in a pitcher that doubles as a conversation starter.
  • Find your inner forager. Blake skips flowers in favor of textural greens and fall foliage on the dinner table (and on the bar, appetizer spread, you name it). “I’ll literally walk around the block and do some ‘community pruning,’” Blake says, “with neighbors’ approval, of course!”
  • Presentation matters. Playful pops of color and simple garnishes go a long way. “Remember, we eat with our eyes first,” Lexie notes.
  • Consider how dishes will be served. Family style works great for small dinner parties, but leave space on your table for additional wares and avoid heavy platters that are difficult to manage.
  • Treat yourself like a guest, too. Make sure to set aside time to start the tunes, pour a glass of wine, and get into party mode before everyone arrives, Lexie advises.

(Left) Seared strip steak, Braised fennel bulbs with shaved Parmesan & Gem lettuce salad with a white miso vinaigrette; (Right) Tucked inside the entryway, a well-stocked bar and the evening’s batched honey-basil margarita sit atop an antique sideboard.  



The Lowcountry Larder

“We are so spoiled to have amazing produce well into the fall,” says Lexie. Combined with the all-star community of food folk who haul in fresh seafood, bake fragrant breads, and source artisanal cheese on the regular here, she finds all the menu inspiration she could ever need in the local landscape. Whether she’s catering a dockside oyster roast or a wedding for 300, each of her menus start the same way: getting to know the host. “I ask questions like, ‘Where do you eat in town? What did your grandma cook?’ Our story, in my view, always comes from food,” she says.

From there, she lets seasonality take over. “October is a fun month to entertain because you can focus on communal dishes and beautiful fall foods—mushrooms, sweet potatoes, oysters—without getting too holiday-ish,” Lexie explains. Tonight, the season shines in the form of fall vegetable crudités with green goddess dressing, braised fennel bulbs dusted in Parmesan and bread crumbs, and a seared strip steak served in cast iron.

One Smart Spread

  • Check on dietary restrictions and allergies. Both will inevitably shape your menu.
  • Keep recipes simple. Dinner parties are not the best grounds for tackling a complex new dish.
  • Go off-script. Lexie favors using recipes loosely and encourages home cooks to spruce dishes up based on preferences. “I always love more garlic, lemon, and fresh herbs!”
  • Serve make-ahead friendly, room-temperature food. “Who wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen? This way, you can sit down and enjoy your guests,” Lexie says.
  • Outsourcing is okay! For Lexie, dessert is one dish best left to other pros. Here, she serves a rich chocolate cake from Flying Tricycle bakery, dressed up with homemade chai Chantilly cream.

Menu

Snack Table
■ Oysters with cucumber mignonette
■ Citrus olives
■ Pickled shrimp
■ Crudités with green goddess dressing
■ Mushroom tart
■ Assorted cheeses and breads

Dinner
■ Cucumber gazpacho
■ Seared strip steak
■ Sweet potato salad with pomegranate
■ Braised fennel bulbs with shaved Parmesan
■ Gem lettuce salad with a white miso vinaigrette

Dessert
■ Flourless chocolate cake with chai Chantilly cream