Hosting a Virtual Dinner Party–Let’s Call It “Quarantaining”

California Cooking an Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca

With the reality of the Corona quarantine settling in, so are we. Not getting together like we normally do, means getting together like we normally don’t: virtually that is. And hey, it’s not all bad. Being in good company is proven to boost your immunity, plus there’s very little washing up afterward and no need for a designated driver. (Still, drink responsibly, as emergency rooms have their hands full at the moment.)

A printed copy of my Paperless Post emailed invitation to Dinner à la Zoom.
A printed copy of my Paperless Post emailed invitation to Dinner à la Zoom.

If ever there were a time to re-acquaint with the comforts and cooking of home, it is now. And if ever there were a time to gather, it is now. We are all in this together, and we need each other.

We–Chef Stephanie Valentine and I–have spent the last few weeks preparing to promote our new book “California Cooking and Southern Style” on a “spring entertaining” segment scheduled for March 19 on KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, which like everything else, was cancelled. Worse still was missing a get-together with old friends in LA afterward. Booo. But then my clever friend Leslie Klotz suggested we meet up anyway, virtually. We said Yes! In which case we could also include a couple of NYC friends who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to join us, on account of they have not yet learned to apparate. LA people, like, can totally already apparate.

The plan was for me to send a ZOOM link to all at the appointed hour, they’d all be at table with their dinner, and we’d chat. 

And since we had already apparated our table, sorta-kinda, for the TV shoot, I thought we might as well share it.

California Cooking an Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
We created a garden party theme and centerpiece, despite the unusually chilly and rainy weather outside. Sunny Southern California, wtf.

Honey I am all about high-low decorating, and the same is true for my tables. I wanted a fresh spring garden look without spending a lot, especially now in these uncertain times. So instead of a new tablecloth, I bought a few yards of fabric from a discount fabric store and an inexpensive solid polyester (I know but you barely see it….) underneath. The rest is cute tin picnic plates on china chargers, silver goblets with vintage wine glasses, and grocery store flowers plus a few pretty locally grown ranunculus because that’s what I could get my hands on this week.

California Cooking an Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
This much simpler-than-it-looks centerpiece resembles a whimsical spring garden. How-to in separate post to come on this blog.

The pretty foliage I pilfered from everyday houseplants, also from the grocery store. I was the only one in there not buying toilet paper.

Meanwhile, Chef Stephanie Valentine is working away in the kitchen preparing a no-fuss, quarantine-friendly menu that combines pantry items with a bit of fresh: Chickpea Soup, Roasted Asparagus, and Bruschetta. 

California Cooking an Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
Chef Stephanie Valentine hard at work in the kitchen at Rancho la Zaca
California Cooking and Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
Ingredients at the ready for our luscious and savory Chickpea Soup. Recipe in California Cooking and Southern Style, and in a separate post to come on this blog.
California Cooking and Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
Gaw, I’d forgotten how good this soup was…. Creamy (but no cream) Chickpea Soup with bits of pasta and potato, onion, parmesan, and chickpeas of course, from California Cooking and Southern Style
Bruschetta - California Cooking and Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
A simple bruschetta is a colorful and tasty accompaniment and a snap to make: Toasted baguette brushed with olive oil and rubbed with a fresh cut garlic clove, topped with chopped cherry tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and basil. Yum-city.

Oh, and seriously scrumptious super rich brownies, to which she added an EXTRA CUP OF CHOCOLATE CHIPS and ICING, because, yeah. Chocolate, duh, is like the best thing for whatever ails you. That is well known.

Seriously scrumptuous super rich dark chocolately Brownies from California Cooking and Southern Style.
Before baking Stephanie added an extra cup of chocolate chips to these already seriously scrumptious super rich Brownies from California Cooking and Southern Style. Recipe in California Cooking and Southern Style, and in a separate post to come on this blog.

Brava, Steph!

My co-author and national treasure Chef Stephanie Valentine created and wrote the recipes in California Cooking and Southern Style
My co-author and national treasure Chef Stephanie Valentine created and wrote the recipes in California Cooking and Southern Style
California Cooking and Southern Style at Rancho la Zaca
Chickpea Soup, Roasted Asparagus, and Bruschetta – the perfect quarantine-friendly menu, combining pantry items with a bit of fresh. These cute tin plates are from Au Bain Marie in Paris.

As it was getting close to 5 and almost time for our guests “to arrive,” I took my place at the table, put on my lipstick yes ma’am I did, positioned my laptop, and waited for the doorbell to ring. Funnily enough, when people sign in to a Zoom call it actually makes a doorbell sound. Little did they know… or maybe they did… There is also an “enhance appearance” button. LOVE that. I’m looking into putting one in my bathroom mirror and my driver’s license photo.

California Cooking and Southern Style - Virtually - at Rancho la Zaca
Hey everybody! Unlike the conversational chaos at some of our dinners at home, video-conference dinners pretty much compel a single conversation and one speaker at a time, which is both challenging (more for some than others, ahem) and gratifying. The format itself compels you to listen, and everyone is heard. 

We thought it might be interesting to hear from everyone a couple of ways in which their lives have changed, and what if any silver linings they’ve discovered. I know that for me, creating this gathering of friends, and knowing we can do it again, with parents, children, nieces, nephews, sibling, friends, is a huge silver lining for me and for all of us. And it isn’t just an on-the-fly chat, but a real gathering with purpose and connection. This might even herald a welcome shift in our culture, a remembering of what our real priorities are, and putting our technology where our truest and highest intentions are. We will see.

How you all are gathering and creating closeness and community in this crazy but TEMPORARY reality? I–we–would all love to hear from you. Meanwhile, stay safe and stay well.

Grace to you, FS

Order California Cooking and Souther Style here. Order CCSS and The Bee Cottage Story Here. All proceeds to charity.


    1. You are welcome Karen! Miss you! Are you going to add a new feature to your own brilliant blog and callit “What to Wear Nowhere” ?! Funny no funny! You all take care and hope our paths cross soon, x, Frances

    1. YES! Exactly. You can totally stay in your pjs, just add lipstick and pearls 😉
      Love to you MaryAnne. Times are tough for your biz, and I am holding you in my heart especially. Love, Frances

  1. Zoom is awesome! Had a virtual dinner party with my daughter and her friends; not quite as elegant as yours tho! A zoom Pilates class and a zoom lunch chat with 10 people. Loved your dinner and table setting! Thanks for sharing! I’ll be perusing your book! Patty Evans

    1. There you go Patty! You are inspiring us all! I expect you are in great demand for tutorials… Thanks so much for writing, and stay well. xo Frances

  2. Such a wonderful idea, Frances! A beautiful example of the way perilous times can encourage creativity. Congratulations to you and to chef Stephanie. I can hardly wait to read your book!

    1. It is my pleasure, Suzy, thank you for writing. We all have ways to contribute, don’t we, according to our gifts. I continue to look for my own ways, as I am sure do so many of us. Stay well, FS

  3. Brilliant, Frances! I’ve shared this idea and have a Zoom dinner party set up “in” Paris for tomorrow night. Close friends there who are extraordinary hosts with an empty table agreed we would dine together twice a week and bring our children in NYC and Boston too.

  4. Thank you Frances – this made my day! LOL and inspiring – can’t wait for my book to arrive for even more inspiration. I did not know about Zoom and have been wondering how to have a virtual get together with now cancelled Moroccan travel group.

    1. You are welcome, Clare and your book is on the way! Facetime also works, but I think Zoom is more group friendly and more elegant, somehow. FS

  5. So cute! Did your guests all make the same dinner with your recipes or simply what they wanted? This would be so fun to do if you could send everyone a make-our-own same meal kit! Similar to what Hello Fresh or Blue Apron offer by subscription but send to a small group of friends on the same day for the same night’s dinner.


    1. Hi Win and we did not but what a great idea!!! Would be so fun to compare notes and tips. I’m betting some never-ever cooks out there are thinking to try their hands now, and this would be a fun way to do it. Cheers to you! Frances

  6. what a fabulous dinner idea! We have a Friday afternoon “tea with the grands” a 6mth baby boy in Dubai and an 18mth grand daughter in Berlin. We sit with our tea/coffee and chat and interact with our family.. Skype dates are important to us, we get to see a little of their cuteness and after 15mins or so, we say goodbye and leave them to get on with their respective lives.

    1. So cute, and and wow with your (and many!) families scattered far and wide, this really lets you build histories and memories together. Thanks for the inspiration Noreen. I bet many like you will take it to heart and join the fun! xo FS

  7. I love this post; and your new book!! Cooking more (and recipe reading) have become silver linings for me in this situation. It is calming and productive at the same time. And keeps me away from the jellybeans at least half the day. I find myself not in the toilet tissue aisles but in the Easter candy areas! I commented to you long ago after I had spent a wonderful weekend reading all your former blogposts: I’m so glad to be reading them again. Stay safe and stay sane!

  8. Dear Frances… you are an inspiration to us all. I relish every word and picture that you post. How amazing you are… I must assume your mother was also a great inspiration to you. I would love to see a picture of her and you and a recipe you have saved and treasured from your past. I have wanted to publish all of my mothers recipes in a book called, Pasta For Peace, seeing she was the co-founder of Another Mother For Peace whose emblem was War Is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things. You can read about here:

    I wish you the healthiest and joyful time during this hopefully brief respite. I would love to have you enjoy my table as a reality when this passes.
    All the best with to you for your divine inspirations. Nancy Chuda

    1. Dear nancy how lovely of you to write and with such heartfelt words. I will soooo look forward to reading YOUR post about your amazing mother. And meanwhie – why don’t you start putting those recipes of hers together… and I will look for a photo to send you…And yes when this settles would love, would be honored to be at our table, and to have you at ours. So good to hear from you. Love, Frances

  9. This is so great Frances!
    Love your posts . In the midst of this times , every little bit counts .
    Pleas continue to inspire us .
    Thank you
    Your new approach, the recipes are great.
    Much love ❤️

    1. Dearest Dana, so glad to hear from you. Have been thinking of you and your family and hope you are all well. Love and grace to you dear friend, Frances

  10. Last night we held our first Zoom dinner party. We are 4 couples all living within 5 minutes of each other so our plan was to each prepare a meal for two (entree and side) then deliver the meal and a 1/2 bottle of wine to one of the other designated couples. Then at a preset time, the host opened the meeting. When all had arrived, a welcoming toast was made to the group. We had planned for the 40 minute time limit, but actually had to reopen the meeting twice more. Lots of good discussion about our food and other lively topics. A few glitches for the 1st time, but looks like this will become a frequent event. Glad to see others Zoom partying too!

    1. Well Bravo YOU!! This sounds like the perfect gathering for our crazy times, and you all are the perfect hosts and lucky friends to have one another! I love hearing this, and moreover am impressed by your discipline with the 1/2 bottle of wine… 😉 Keep the faith and keep gathering, however you can. Warmly, Frances

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