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A Toast to Good Hosts : Organization Is the Name of the Game When Orchestrating an Evening of Discussion, Dining or Diversion

December 09, 1988|PAMELA MARIN | Pamela Marin is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

"People who say they never entertain always have the same complaint: It's too much work! Of course, there is work involved. The trick is to be organized in the kitchen so that when the guests come you can enjoy yourself.

"That's the point of entertaining, isn't it?"

The speaker is Claire Burt, veteran hostess of soirees great and small.

The subject was entertaining--how to plan, who to invite, what to do and eat and drink and talk about with the friends and strangers we invite into our social lives.

This being the time of year for celebrations big and small, we checked in with three local couples to find out how Orange County throws a party.

We found three distinct styles of entertaining and three different goals. What the couples had in common was enthusiasm for the "challenge"--that word was used repeatedly--of pulling off a successful event.

And maybe that, finally, is what separates the world of happy hosts from the universe of chronic guests.

Claire and Mac Burt entertain frequently in their Cowan Heights home for the "opportunity to exchange ideas in a setting that just happens to revolve around a meal," Mac says. A few years from retirement, Mac Burt holds the lofty title of director of agricultural operations for Beatrice-Hunt-Wesson; he likes to refer to his job as "head farmer."

"What interests us about entertaining," he says, "is the people and the ideas and learning."

Not to suggest that the Burts take their food and wine lightly--far from it. On more than a dozen occasions the gourmet duo has been auctioned off as a cook-and-butler team--good for one elegant dinner for eight chez Burt--to raise money for their favorite charities. On those evenings, the Burts prepare and serve a continental-style repast to a group that may or may not include friends or acquaintances, and they eat their own portions alone together in the kitchen.

More often, maybe half a dozen times a year, they invite three or four couples over for dinner, usually a coat-and-tie affair.

Claire usually begins planning her parties a month in advance, giving herself time to decide on a menu (often printed and handed to guests as they arrive), brainstorm an "interesting mix" of guests (including "new people all the time," she says) and send out invitations.

When guests arrive, they're greeted with a glass of champagne and a wall-of-windows view of the San Joaquin Hills at sunset. The panoramic view, says the hostess, is a good "distraction" for newcomers.

"I guess the hardest part of entertaining is to make complete strangers comfortable in your home," she says. "Your house can help people feel more at ease by taking the attention off them, or off the worry about what to say."

Soon the party moves into the dining room, where the couple Claire has chosen to "feature" will be seated high-profile: husband on Claire's right, wife to the right of Mac. The other guests also are given assigned seats.

"I like to kind of have a plan for the evening, and that includes featuring one couple," says Claire. "It might be the couple we know the least well in the group, or maybe a couple just back from an interesting trip, and we hope to make that part of the discussion. It depends."

In addition to formal dinner parties and family get-togethers (Claire and Mac have three grown children), the Burts host three annual events of somewhat larger scale: a Christmas luncheon for 20, a birthday dinner for 12, and a "pickleball" tournament and potluck for 16 (pickleball being a hybrid of Wiffleball, badminton and Ping-Pong, sort of).

But large or small, parties at the Burts always include animated dialogue--the opposite, Mac says, of "gala chit-chat."

In his house, "strong opinions come out, people make their points, and there are definite differences. But everyone always respects one another's opinions."

To which he adds, with a grin, "of course, if we know the people real well, then we just start shouting at each other."

If there's any shouting at the small dinner parties hosted by Wanda and Ty Cobb, it must be the sound of voices raised in a chorus of amazement, delight and congratulation. The Cobbs plan a dinner party like Napoleon planned a battle. And they cover about as much ground.

Two or three times a year, the Cobbs host what they call a "progressive" dinner in their roomy Tustin home--a structure they remodeled 6 years ago "with the idea of having parties," Wanda says.

The four or six guests at these intimate dinners begin the evening in the Cobbs' wine cellar, a cold but cozy 58-degrees-at-all-times home for Ty's 5,000-bottle collection. There, Ty uncorks champagne, maybe a '75 Tattinger, and Wanda serves appetizers. Maybe: fresh salmon, light cheeses, potato skins with caviar and sour cream.

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