The way we celebrate the holidays at home in 2020 is making a major shift, moving outdoors into the space traditionally reserved for summertime gatherings. Seeing as this may be the first year you’re hosting the holidays in your backyard, it may seem a little daunting, so East End experts are here to share their sage advice on topics ranging from outdoor space design to catering, so your relatives and friends can spread out, be safer, feel a bit more at ease and still celebrate in style.
As you foray into outdoor hosting, the first thing to consider is the overall intent of your space. Will it be used only for small family dinners or large catered parties in the future? What else will your backyard be used for? “COVID was like the Big Bad Wolf that went into New York City and scared everyone into their backyards. So now you have people in their backyard who have not necessarily had any time to value family time, to enjoy the pool that they go to work 17 hours a day in the city to pay for,” says Michael Gotowala, owner of Outdoor Kitchen Design Store, which has a showroom in Southampton Village. “People want some outdoor Zen space. They want to design and set up areas for the holidays where they can entertain, so a good design and a good comprehension of what you want to do in your backyard is the catalyst for how it should all lay out.”
Outdoor kitchen designs have gotten so complex, Gotowala explains, that he’s now able to offer clients built-in ice makers, beverage coolers, ice drawers, cabinets, pizza ovens and a revolutionary workstation called a Galley sink, which has a horizontal layering system so colanders, cutting boards and drying racks can slide laterally, with dirty dishes down below.
With holiday dinners traditionally taking place into the night, proper lighting and heating are essential to creating a comfortable outdoor space. “Because these parties are hosted well after the sunset into the darkness of the night, you really want the area to still feel affective, so outdoor lighting is [key],” Gotowala says. “When you have an overhead structure, you’re able to maximize your strategy because you can go up in those structures and do down lighting, you can create zone heating—if everybody is warm that’s another attribute when you’re designing outdoor space for the holidays.”
The market has a wide selection of outdoor heating options available today—from patio heaters and freestanding heaters to outdoor fireplaces and firepits—but when it comes to heat output, propane-fueled heaters have the edge over electric options. This increased power comes with a need for additional caution, however, as one common mistake can result in fireballs and burns. Should the flame of your propane barbecue or firepit be blown out by a strong wind, it’s imperative that you don’t throw a match on the escaping propane. Instead, turn off the tank and wait at least 15 seconds for the gas to dissipate. After that, you should be safe to turn your tank back on and ignite your barbecue of firepit.
Now that you’ve begun to conceptually shape your ideal outdoor hosting space, it’s time to think about catering. One of the most common mistakes that Erin Finley of Sydney’s “Taylor” Made Cuisine has noticed is that people tend to order by quantity without understanding how much of any given food is likely to be eaten by each person. “Tell us how many people and what items you’d like, and we will figure out the quantities,” she recommends. “There are people who say, ‘I just need one pound of this,’ which never works. We’ve been doing this for 25 years, so what we like is for customers to tell us how many people there are and to choose their menu items, and we will develop the quantities that we know people eat.”
While some catering companies and restaurants opt for holiday dinner packages that feed a certain number of people, Sydney’s offers about 50 different Thanksgiving menu items for people to choose from, with several meats, desserts and sides. “We we have six different stuffings so [a package] would be an impossibility. We have about eight different potato dishes and 20 different vegetable dishes,” Finley explains, adding that some of her personal favorites are the baked oysters, turkey off the bone, crown roast of pork and breast of veal.
While ordering pickup day-of or day-before means you can skip the prep and just pop dishes into the oven, hiring a catering staff allows you to fully enjoy your holiday with your friends and family. However, as we enter the season of giving presents and giving thanks, it’s vitally important that we continue to think about the safety of our fellow man, and that includes the catering staff.
“You can’t have a mask on when you eat, but you can have proper social distancing. Otherwise my staff is at risk, and I’m just not interested in that,” says Jack Kelly, founder of JKC Collection and Pro-Eats. “There’s still such a weird ignorance that is out there. Like, ‘We’re all friends,’ well that doesn’t matter! You just can’t track what 20 people’s social habits are…. I think it’s our social responsibility to take care of everyone.”