Danielle Rollins, author of ‘Soiree,’ has tips for entertaining

03/25/2014 3:19 PM

03/25/2014 3:19 PM

Danielle Rollins has co-founded and chaired several charities, mostly in the Atlanta area, where she lives. She’s a contributing editor to Veranda and Southern Living magazines, and has hosted more parties than you can shake a martini at. One of them was attended by designer Oscar de la Renta.

So it goes without question: Rollins knows a thing or two about entertaining.

In 2011, she wrote “Soiree: Entertaining With Style,” a 238-page, gorgeously photographed book that looks at 15 parties she has hosted at her home, ranging from small, casual affairs that involved pork chops and grits around a kitchen island to a Gatsby lawn party where guests dressed in period attire.

“Soiree” begins with advice on every detail of a party, from invitations and lighting to setting the table and planning a menu. It also has ideas for table settings, more than 80 original recipes and anecdotes illustrating how she graciously handled moments gone awry. There are also gobs of pictures of pretty people in expensive party wear.

Rollins will speak and sign copies of “Soiree” April 9 at Halls Plaza, 211 Nichols Road. We spoke with her by phone recently.

Why did you write this book?

My middle child had a tragic accident. A neighbor child ran into her accidentally with a go-cart and crushed her leg below the knee. She spent a very long time in the hospital with multiple infections.

Just prior to the accident I had agreed to do a fundraiser-fashion show for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and as you can understand, after the accident it became much more personal and emotional to support them.

I did a dinner prior to the fashion show for Oscar de la Renta, and he turned to me and said, “You should write a book.”

So I started thinking about entertaining and how it was critical to my life, because I wasn’t going out to restaurants, and how I was able connect so much more openly with friends at home. Holidays became a lot more important to me, and so did a sense of tradition.

What sets your book apart from others about entertaining?

There are plenty of books on recipes and table settings. But I want to know what people wore and what they drank and what everyone looked like connecting with each other, when there are no cellphones, and no hurrying and just people getting excited about dressing up and going to someone’s home and having dinner.

It’s seasonally oriented and simple enough that a novice can do it as well as a seasoned entertainer, with guidelines including to-do lists and ordering from a caterer. It’s really not what (food) you’re serving, it’s how you serve it and creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and relaxed.

What elements make the biggest impact on a party?

The most important element is the hostess making her guests feel good, relaxed and able to enjoy themselves. If you do that, everything else falls into place.

You must have an air of wanting your guests to feel like they’re the most special people in the whole world. You’re giving them the gift of your time and having a sense of graciousness.

Also, use your good stuff. Don’t save the china, crystal and silver for special occasions. Use it all the time.

If you don’t have enough of one set, mix them up. And mix high and low. Just put some effort into making it look pretty.

For centerpieces you can do fresh-cut flowers from the garden, you can do bowls of clementine oranges or lemons or potted geraniums or hydrangeas in the summer. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just something from nature that adds an air of specialness.

Everything doesn’t have to match. You can have different dishes and then one kind of flower that ties it all together and makes it attractive.

Can you talk about imaginative table linens?

You don’t have to stick with only tablecloths. I’ve used pieces of fabric like burlap and seersucker, shower curtains, dish cloths. I mix and match and layer. I’ve made napkins out of bandanas and scraps of seersucker.

Think about using things in ways that they weren’t intended. Sometimes the most simple elements don’t have to be expensive, they just have to look good.

Anything you should avoid when throwing parties?

Sometimes in an era of wanting to keep things easy, things don’t look appealing. Visual beauty and stimulation of the senses are important in entertaining and require just a tiny effort.

For instance, use bamboo plates rather than paper. They’re disposable but elevate things a bit. There are also great inexpensive melamine dishes.

I don’t like stuff to feel pretentious, I want it relaxed and easy. I don’t like dinners with odd food. I went to dinner recently where food was based on the five elements of design: line, form, value, color and texture. I thought, “That was a lot of effort for something so weird.”

There’s really nothing better than a good steak with potatoes, a nice bread and a salad.

One thing to think about is your guests’ comfort and are they going to be comfortable eating this.

What have you learned from your own mistakes? Do you have any anecdotes you’d like to share?

I had a dinner once where the food from the caterer was so bad, all I could do was laugh, scrape my guests’ plates and then make a simple pasta. It turned out to be one of the best parties I ever had. You have to keep a sense of humor and your composure.

I had a party where the bartender just got out of rehab and got drunk and another where the deejays decided to make out. I sent them home, plugged in my iPod then went and danced.

To prevent errors, plan every detail you can ahead of time.

I got a call from school a few hours before a dinner party that one of my children had lice. Well, I can’t give this child to the gypsies, I have to do something quickly. Thankfully, I had Post-it notes all over the place so others were able to help while I took care of my child.

You might think you have enough time to get things together, but you never know when something is going to come up.

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