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Holiday Tableaux : Kitchen? Library? Patio? Special meals are movable feasts that don't require a formal setting, says cookbook author Diana von Welanetz Wentworth. Friends and family are the key ingredients.


Is this the time of the year when you really wish you had a formal dining room with a large table to accommodate your holiday meals and decorations?

Don't sulk. Solutions are at hand.

Any area of your home can be set up for dining, says Diana von Welanetz Wentworth, co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories With Recipes From the Heart" (Health Communications Inc., $16.95).

She says family and friends have gathered around tables in many rooms of the Newport Beach home she shares with her husband, Ted Wentworth.

There are tables in the kitchen, family room, the library, garden and on the patio. "We eat breakfast at the kitchen table and dinner at the one in the family room. It just depends on the light," she says.

Her formal dining room table is in the living room. "We wanted to take advantage of our view [of the hills], plus I wanted to use the real dining room as my office," she says.

Wentworth's love of entertaining became a career in the '70s and '80s, when she and her late husband, Paul von Welanetz, conducted cooking classes, wrote six books--including "The Pleasure of Your Company"--and hosted a show on the Lifetime network, "The New Way Gourmet."

"I see people coming together to eat as a kind of communion. Holidays like Thanksgiving are particular favorites of mine," she says. "My mother's kitchen was always the safest place in the house--it was a haven. She loved to cook, although she was just a plain cook from a farm in Missouri. My grandmother also loved to cook and sew tablecloths and curtains. It's from them I get my love of entertaining."

Besides influences from her mother and grandmother, Wentworth says, she picked up a lot from her trips to France.

"I keep thinking about my Air France trip I took with my daughter, Lexi, in October. It really inspired me. I got lots of ideas about cooking, presenting seafood and table design at La Reserve de Beaulieu in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, the small luxurious hotel where we stayed between Nice and Monte Carlo on the French Riviera," she says.

"Lexi and I grazed our way through France and found the best bouillabaisse at Restaurant Bacon in Antibes, the most incredible lamb prepared in bread loaves at le Chateau du Domaine St. Martin, and we got to meet the legendary chef Roger Verge at his two-star Restaurant du Moulin de Mougins."

Remembering France, she has set her living room table with colorful provincial dishes and accessories, a large copper bouillabaisse pot and a bottle of rose wine from Domaines Ott.

"We had a picnic at the Domaines Ott winery in Provence. Their rose wine goes well with seafood and salads," she says. "One of the things you really notice about southern France is how easy it is to take ideas from there and transplant them here. We have the coast, the hills, the weather and the fresh food."

Wentworth's first trip to France was with her mother in 1959. She dated Elvis Presley, but, she says, meeting the King wasn't the most memorable part of her trip--a meal was.

"I was having dinner with my mother in Paris, and I ordered a steak, which is all I'd ever eat. It came with bearnaise sauce, so I tried to scrape off. I thought, 'Oh, yuck.' Some of it stuck, and when I tasted it I thought it was the most wonderful thing I'd ever had. When I came home, I started going to French cooking classes, eventually even at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. So it is really France that's always inspired me."

For the tea table she set up in the library, Wentworth used her mother's antique tablecloth, a doll dressed in satin, whimsical dishes by McKenzie & Childs and rose petal marmalade from Confitures Curtelin near Nice.

"The marmalade is fabulous. We visited the factory and saw how they made it from medium pink rose petals that grow in Grasse in May. I'm ordering more for gifts," she says.

In "Chicken Soup," Wentworth writes about a woman who gave her grandchildren tea sets so they could have little parties and tell her all about them.

"I like the idea of buying tea sets for children. Kids can lose the pieces, and it doesn't matter. You can invite pretend guests and real guests," Wentworth says. "Teas should be fun. In fact, I often entertain my friends at home with teas, since it's sometimes hard to get everyone together at night."

In her French-inspired bedroom, Wentworth set up a romantic table that is perfect for serving the Warm Valhrona Chocolate Cake from her book.

"I love the idea of having a small table in the bedroom with a sitting area," she says. "This romantic table was inspired by my stay at Le Parc in Paris. The hotel decor was done by British designer Nina Campbell and furniture designer Viscount Linley, nephew of the queen, so it combines the best of the English and the French."

For her bedroom table, she used an antique Alecon lace tablecloth from her mother, French napkins and gold and white dishes. She places the fork tines down, facing the table French-style, a custom that started centuries ago when men wore fancy lace cuffs that would otherwise catch on the forks.

But a setting doesn't have to be fancy to make Wentworth happy.

"One of my favorite days in the south of France was spent wandering through the colorful Nice outdoor market, looking at the different fruits and vegetables and trying some, like the little wild strawberries that grow in the woods there," she says. "Buying fresh food, preparing it simply and presenting it with love for your family and friends is what entertaining is all about. And you can do that anywhere."

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