February 25, 2016

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Gracious Dining with Lee Ann Thornton

A Californian vibe imbues the style of Greenwich designer Lee Ann Thornton's home. 
The inviting waterfront Connecticut home of designer Lee Ann Thornton is a place anyone would be happy to live in. Her aesthetic is informed by her childhood on the east coast and the years she lived in the mecca of casual cool California. Today these elements combine to make her a sought after designer in Greenwich, where she has recently launched her first bespoke home collection based on her designs.
Her easy chic style is evident through the home but comes really to life in the dining room on her beautifully appointed table laden with delicious food. The designers philosophy of gracious and generous entertaining would ensure that anyone lucky enough to get an invitation to her home would long for another. I am thrilled that she opened her house and shared her secrets for all to know.

Designer Lee Ann Thornton
Tell me about the occasion and meal you made.
I call this meal Love and Linguine. I have made one of my signature dishes of linguine and clams, a radicchio salad with blue cheese and toasted hazelnuts and homemade lemon shallot dressing and herbed garlic ciabatta grilled bread. I love the idea of casually elegant food, pairing the highest quality, fresh, beautiful ingredients to create something special and unexpected but at the same time familiar and cozy. Whether I am celebrating my family coming together or just spending time with close friends, cooking and entertaining, for me, is the ultimate expression of love.  

Nothing makes me happier than gathering around a table, laughing and sharing over a great meal. 
With my daughters grown and in many places now, I am always thrilled when we are 
under one roof, sitting around a table with gorgeous food and reconnecting. 

Lee Ann used matelasse placemats instead of a more formal tablecloth for this dinner.
What influences your menu choices when you entertain? Do you have a signature dish 
that you make? 

I have a signature style: it is usually driven by the season and whom we are hosting. No matter the occasion, I love cooking with fresh herbs and creating foods that have balance and a lot of flavor. We mainly host casual Saturday night dinners. Winter is all about warm, cozy food in front of the fire and in the summer I will serve lighter fare on our porch overlooking the water. 
It seems like we are always celebrating someone’s birthday at our house and my triple chocolate cake is definitely one of my signature dishes. 
A side table in the dining plays host to a serve yourself bar complete with chunks of
parmesan cheese and chips to nibble on. 
Who or what has most inspired your entertaining style? 

I take inspiration from many people and places but Martha Stewart, Lee Bailey cookbooks and of course Ina stand out for me. I also think that my years of living in California influenced my appreciation for casually elegant entertaining and the love of entertaining outdoors. I am a traditionalist at heart so I love the formality of cocktail hours and proper hors d’oeuvres served in the living room, dinner using all of my crystal and china that I have been collecting for years, beautiful linens with tons of candles and amazing flowers and then back to the living room for homemade dessert around the fire with after dinner drinks, games and laughs. More times than not the California girl in me comes out and I am in jeans and barefoot but it is that relaxed mood that creates the perfect balance between formal and casual that defines who I am. 

A medley of blues sets the color theme.
Tip – Keep a well-stocked kitchen, pantry and bar, I recently hosted an impromptu snowstorm dinner and fortunately had all of the ingredients on hand to pull together a cheese platter, a lovely butternut squash risotto and the same herbed garlic ciabatta grilled bread I am serving tonight. A box of puffed pastry provided the inspiration for Italian puffed pastry cookies. That and a great bottle (or two) of wine and we were set. All of my neighbors who attended were so appreciative. 
Beautiful flowers and accessories make a table sing. Pierced bowl filled with limes for color and beautiful
flowers in William Yeoward vases.

Has there been a single experience or aha moment that has set your entertaining style? 

Yes. It happened at the Ivy restaurant in Los Angeles. I had that perfect moment when I was being served gorgeous food on these rustically beautiful hand painted ceramic plates in this insanely romantic and comfortable room, filled with pitchers of garden roses, vintage oil paintings and floral pillows everywhere. There was this special refined bohemian air that, to me, was perfection. I have been following that inspiration of serving delicious but casual food in lovely inspired settings ever since.

Clam Linguine with garlic bread makes for a classic dinner entree.
Do you have a favorite china or tabletop item that you collect? 

Asking me to pick a favorite china or tabletop item is like asking me to pick my favorite child. I love so many and I decided years ago to use everything. There is nothing I own that is too precious or special not to be pulled out for a casual gathering on a Saturday night. I have been collecting for many years. A few of my favorites are: Asiatic Pheasant dishes, Ivy ceramics from Indigo Seas and William Yeoward.
Tip – Choose a menu that you are comfortable making. You want to be able to relax and enjoy your guests. Nothing kills the mood of a gathering more than a stressed out hostess. 
Dessert is always homemade in the Thornton house and decorated with fresh flowers.
Tip – While guests are having dinner around the dining room table, I like to have the living room cleared of appetizer plates and glasses. Fluff the pillows, stoke the fire and set out everything you need for dessert, after dinner drinks and a fun game. 

The yummy Banana Cake waiting to be served.