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Summer Food: The Dinner Dance

Elegantly choreographed, meticulously stage-managed, played with finesse and humor, a fête is a performance. Party artists Han Feng, Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler, Nina Griscom, and Clodagh share stage secrets.

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TEXT BY MAURA EGAN
Additional reporting by Nan Parry.

Han Feng
Fashion Designer

"People always thought I knew how to cook because I was Chinese," says clothing designer Han Feng. "They would want me to cook for them. I met a lot of my friends through food." Nowadays, her career and her social life are nearly seamless. Her parties are as much an expression of herself as her clothing, and both tend to inspire rhapsody. "I would say Han Feng gives you a way to be who you are," says performance artist Anna Deavere Smith. "I've always joked with her that she should dress her guests, and then it would be perfect.!"

Lives of the party: Opera diva Jessye Norman, actress Susan Sarandon, designer Norma Kamali, restaurateur Anne Rosenzweig. "It's like a fabulous club," says caterer David Ziff. "She brings eclectic people together -- fashion people, photographers, musicians, food and media people." "There are always interesting people," echoes Susan Sarandon. "Often of opposing philosophies."

That's entertainment: Feng's decoration -- and even her cooking -- is laden with hidden meanings, codes to be deciphered. Near the entryway of her spare, elegant flower-district loft is an arrangement of rocks and pebbles, which she imported from a beach. "In Chinese, there is a saying: 'See the rock, feel the mountains,' " says Feng. "It's a nice reminder in the city." At an engagement party, the table setting included live goldfish, two to a bowl, signifying love (no, they weren't meant as hors d'oeuvres). For her mother's 65th birthday, she served a meal featuring long noodles -- long life, of course.

Hostess gifts: "She has grace under fire," says Sarandon. "I once went over with my children and she taught us how to make dumplings in one of those teeny little kitchens. She doesn't seem to get the least bit harried or crazy or anything, because the rest of her apartment is just completely calm and serene."

Table manners: Feng sets her table with an array of china, glassware, and silver of disparate provenance, all of which seem, mysteriously, to have been made for each other: Jade napkin holders from Henri Bendel, plates with a Chinese-country motif that she found at a flea market, set against gold-rimmed glasses from Morocco, all lit by candles set in bamboo candleholders from Japan. "Her sense of style is so organic to who she is," says Sarandon. "Her food is an extension of that, too. She's constantly experimenting and improvising -- the way you would hope as an actor you could do."

Nina Griscom

Nina Griscom wants you to know that she is not a socialite: "I hate that word. I like food, and I have a lot of friends, and I bring them together." Actually, that's putting it rather mildly. Her themed tent parties at the turn-of-the-century Southampton beach house she shares with her husband, noted plastic surgeon Dr. Dan Baker, are the stuff of A-list legend. More often, she serves lunch or dinner on her terrace, with an easy grace that makes you forget that a butler serves the drinks.

That's entertainment: "I like theme parties because it shakes up the norm," says Griscom. "People will let their hair down more when they are sitting on pillows." She likes to keep the guest list to about 80. "You don't want it to become a charity event," says Griscom. Inspirations can come from her travels -- she'd been to Morocco several times before reliving the experience on her lawn. And sometimes, all it takes is a tent. "A friend has these embroidered tents from India. I may pitch them and get some sisal flooring and fans and have some kind of Asian-inspired party this summer. I'm still experimenting, though. I have this one with salmon-colored mosquito netting that I have pitched. I just might keep it up for the summer for my own family to eat in. I could see a really interesting Chinese lantern and this could lead to a party idea."

Lives of the party: Felix Rohatyn, Ahmet Ertegun, Alfonse D'Amato, Patricia Duff, Jay McInerney, Vera Wang, Billy Norwich, Matt Lauer, and many, many, many others. "Nina is the only Park Avenue hostess I know whose world extends way beyond the 10021 zip code," says Jay McInerney. "Whether I've been invited for Sunday dinner in the kitchen or a grand soirée for 7,000 of her closest friends, I always approach her parties with a keen sense of anticipation and I always leave them very reluctantly."

"My favorite guests are Ahmet Ertegun and Alfonse D'Amato," says Griscom. "They're fun, they enjoy themselves, and they're game for anything. Plus they'll dance; a lot of these guys don't."

Affairs to remember: Her Moroccan party three summers back featured belly dancers and carpets borrowed from their Park Avenue apartment. As a near-hurricane raged outside, almost blowing down the tent, shirtless waiters in fezzes served drinks. Her Cuban-themed affair last summer featured a flock of live parrots under the tent -- though, wisely, not positioned directly over the diners. Designer Vera Wang, for one, was swept away by the experience. "Her husband comes in looking like Che Guevara," says Wang. "Dr. Baker! He had this black beret on, green army fatigues, and a big mustache. He was so seductive. I said I'd follow him anywhere. Someone from Women's Wear Daily must have overheard. And they printed it!"

Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan
Potter and Barneys New York creative director

Simon Doonan's madcap tableaux in Barneys' windows often made passersby laugh out loud. Jonathan Adler's home furnishings, on display at his store on Broome Street and a new one in East Hampton, are more subtly witty. But dinner at the apartment they share on East 9th Street demonstrates that their creative skills extend far beyond pottery and mannequins -- although not, it must be reported, into the kitchen.

That's entertainment: The whimsicality that Doonan and Adler bring to their professional lives is given freer -- much freer -- rein at home. "We entertain like college kids," Adler says. "We don't really cook. Simon leans toward almost a macrobiotic diet, unintentionally, when he cooks. And I think it tastes like dirt, so we don't cook that much. It's always takeout from Cafe Spice, Japonica, and fried chicken from Mama's Food Kitchen. Then we spread it out in front of the television." TV, though, isn't the real centerpiece at a Doonan-Adler fête. "They're both so funny," says Talk contributor and noted hostess Nell Campbell. "A witty person complements anybody. But to have two funny people together, I mean, you've won the lottery."

Lives of the party: John Bartlett and Mark Welsh, Susanne Bartsch, Nell Campbell, Hamish Bowles, Jason Weisenfeld.

Table manners: "If I were not a potter," says Adler, "we would eat out of the cartons, but we usually serve on my hand-thrown Brasilia dinnerware, because the stackable plates can double as lids. Couture tupperware for leftovers."

Dinner theater: For Adler and Doonan, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, even a new episode of Friends or Will and Grace is reason enough for a dinner. "We cram any necessary conversation during the commercial breaks," lies Adler. In fact, they are the theater. "This endless badinage, this nonstop dissing repartee between the two of them, is incredibly funny," says Vogue's Hamish Bowles.

Guests behaving badly: "I went to an extremely entertaining party there once that had some unscheduled entertainment in the form of a stripper entertaining a stag party across the way," says Bowles. The guests ignored their dinner as they watched. "Given the nature of the crowd chez Adler and Doonan, it was particularly inappropriate," he adds cryptically, "but it was incredibly funny."

The after-party: As guests take their leave, Adler and Doonan relax to sounds from their Sharper Image Sound Soother. "You know, Tropical Rainstorm, Jungle Birds, and then the Sea," says Nell Campbell. "We usually go through them all. And I'm just left there nattering away!"

Clodagh
Interior Designer

As an interior designer and architect with an international A-list clientele -- she's doing a house for Robert Redford and 80 of Elizabeth Arden's Red Door salons worldwide, among many other projects -- Clodagh gets many opportunities to shop: hand-carved bowls from New Guinea, wooden trays from New Zealand, woven place mats from Java, nettle mats from Kathmandu. "My pantry of dishes is like the U.N.," she says, and she uses them as a canvas on which to improvise her edible assemblages. Clodagh has the decorator's gift of making artfulness seem effortless. Actually, giving dinner parties seems to be relaxing for her. "My architectural and interior projects take a long time to complete," she says. "But the cooking process can be completed quickly. It's a creative spurt for me."

That's entertainment: Formality is banished at Clodagh's frequent dinners -- except when it comes to her geometric, often stunning arrangements of food. "I frequently serve buffet-style, so people can help themselves and dig in. I like to be generous with food -- it may be part of the Irish country-cooking heritage." The rest of her table is far from her home country (though she does have a lingering affection for potatoes). Rows of artichokes or stuffed peppers or tomatoes are arranged with Mondrian-like precision on her collection of ethnic serving vessels: "I like the background to be neutral," she says. "The food provides the color."

Party science: "Always keep all surfaces clear," advises Clodagh. "Then you can talk and cook as the guests arrive. Always have something they can eat or drink immediately. Never wear shoes that clack or click."

Hostess gifts: Flambéing couldn't be simpler -- some high-proof liquor and a match -- but its effect is explosive. "I like the fire ritual," she says, "and people go crazy for the kitchen spectacle."


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