Flower: The Wall Street Journal called you the “very best host in the world.” That’s high praise! Tell us how you got into entertaining.
Alex Hitz: It came from my mother. She was a Francophile who went off to school in Paris and fell in love with food. Nobody else in her family knew how to cook, but she came back to Atlanta (where my family is from) and brought those exacting European standards with her. She joined forces with our family cook, Dorothy, and together they produced the best food in the South.
So you learned through osmosis? I’m imagining a little boy sitting on a kitchen stool or peeking through banister rails.
My stepfather was the conductor for the Atlanta Symphony, so my parents constantly hosted dinners for visiting artists like Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Leontyne Price. There was such excitement, such a sense of theater. Even now, whenever I smell strong coffee brewing, I’m back to being 4 years old.
“Don’t let them see the table as soon as they walk in. Don’t talk about the menu until it’s time to eat. Leave something to the imagination.”—Alex Hitz
You took the cuisine of your childhood—Southern food with a French flair—to Los Angeles and began trying it out on your California friends. What was their reaction?
They went crazy! I would serve things like shrimp and grits, pimento cheese, ham biscuits, and fried chicken to these people who would eat a lettuce leaf every other Tuesday, and they would devour it.
A few years ago, you were in charge of the Swan House Ball benefiting the Atlanta History Center. Was it fun to return to your roots?
That party was special because my mother was intimately involved in the Atlanta History Center when she was alive. I wanted the event to feel authentic, like an old spring garden party in the South, so I designed the party to reflect that, from the flower arrangements in old silver to the menu of chicken potpie.
At the Swan House Ball
Speaking of menus, what guides you as you plan the food for a party?
Kipling had a great line about being able to walk with kings yet not lose the common touch. So if you have a really fancy first course, then have a really simple second course and dessert. There was a woman in New York who entertained beautifully and always served foie gras for starters then meat loaf and mashed potatoes for dinner.
Comfort food and relaxed elegance will always be in style.
What are the most important things a host can do to make a party a success?
The first is to figure out what’s appropriate for the occasion. It sounds elemental, but people can get it so wrong. If you’re having a barbecue, don’t send out engraved invitations. If you’re having a beach party, don’t have a symphony orchestra. And always include an element of surprise: If you’re having people over, don’t let them see the table as soon as they walk in. Don’t talk about the menu until it’s time to eat. Leave something to the imagination.
Then I assume you’re not a fan of asking guests to chop vegetables when they arrive, which seems to be such a trend these days?
Absolutely not! If you’re a host, everything must be done ahead of time. Entertaining is never effortless, but it has to look effortless. Think about it: Are you at ease watching someone stress out trying to get dinner to the table? Hosting is like winding up a watch and then letting it go. There’s a point of no return. Oh, and never stop smiling.
If you were giving advice to a novice host, what would it be?
Start simple. Turn the lights down; serve chicken potpie and good French wine. If you feel like you’re trying to do too much, there’s too much pressure. You have to finger paint before you’re Picasso. And for the record, no one ever died reading an etiquette book.
You think people need to brush up on their manners?
The rules exist because they make people more at ease. Etiquette stems from good manners, and good manners stem from kindness. Everyone needs to make an effort. A host has responsibilities just as guests do.
What are a guest’s responsibilities?
Don’t tell us your troubles, don’t show pictures from your phone, make conversation, and enjoy yourself. They used to call it ‘singing for your supper.’ And say thank you when you leave.
For more from Alex Hitz, check out Flower magazine’s review of his new book, The Art of the Host: Recipes and Rules for Flawless Entertaining (Rizzoli New York, September 2019).