At Your Home, Without Me: Alexandra Morris’ Own Guide to Reinvent Parties
— Note that Tastings and Vranken Pommery America, along with the French Institute Alliance Française, will host a webinar / food, wine and Champagne tasting next June 29th at 630pm EST. Although limited to FIAF Young Patrons, you sill could participate by registering through Tastings Website (Click Here) | limited spots available, fee applies for dinner, wine and champagne delivered to your doorstep in New York City (60USD per person all included) —
The New York restaurants were asleep, all of them, when thousands of miles away, the godfather of dining, of elegance and the signature behind the crême brulée discreetly passed away in his native hilltop Tuscan village of Montecatini at the age of 88. Sirio Maccioni, the founder of the legendary Cirque, had defined an era of New York cuisine. Sirio was not a chef, but a Maître D’, a master in welcoming the rich, the famous, the Sinatras, and and the rest of us, the invisible food lovers. When he was in Manhattan, Sirio sat at the entrance of Le Cirque everyday faithfully, until its doors were finally closed in 2018. Sirio hired the best chefs from around the world, and was notorious for stealing them from other kitchens, which is how he came to find Daniel Boulud in 1986.
To Alexandra Morris, the glamorous, mischievous, somehow reserved, founder of Tastings–one of New York’s most renowned catering companies, as well as two restaurants in East Harlem, Maccioni was a legend.
When restaurants eventually wake up from the Covid pause New York, the landscape will be an uncharted territory. The elders perhaps will recall Maccioni’s tales and wonder what he would have done to adapt to the new gastronomic scene and to the disappearance of flamboyant cocktails and galas for a while. Alexandra Morris has already started to imagine her new tasty relationship with her clients, the restaurant at home and the digital parties. She calls it, ‘Tastings 2.0.’
Thank you for not welcoming me to your home Alexandra. Restaurants and bars are closed. No more events, private or public. The dining world of Sirio, your world—you own two restaurants in Manhattan and a catering business—has been shattered. This has been a time for creativity and inventing new ways to bring people together through cocktails and dinners.
Right after the stay-at-home policies started, and while restaurants and non-essential retail stores closed, my husband, my son and I decided to confine ourselves at our Florida pied-à-terre where my company is also operating. My team and I refused to check in panic mode. Instead, we started zooming every day. We patiently reviewed our options, one by one. None of us was either scared or shy. It was more like, ‘let’s embrace this thing.’ We designed a few concepts and retained a project we named ‘Tastings 2.0,’ a catering program to match the virtual friendly or business meetings.
The food and wine companion to a Zoom Video!
People are now used to meeting through digital screens, either for an aperitif among friends or with colleagues. We set up a special service to provide them with a full cocktail, a dinner even, with wine, champagne, and flowers, so that the experience is more equal, inclusive, fun and easy. Everyone can share the same meal, and one person can actually turn a group invitation into a feast by having us deliver them the same day safely prepared meals. A simple idea that, after a few attempts on cooking and delivering, we have been able to engineer
Adapting is the verb that everyone should have in mind here.
This is a time for individuals and companies to adapt. We are trying to do so. Our clientele, business and individuals, has not disappeared, and they are hurting personally and professionally exactly the same way we are. They too have to adapt: how is luxury retail going to engage its employees and its own clients? How are people going to host one another or experience an out-of-the-box dinner now that they have to spend more time at home, even after restaurant business will resume? New Yorkers live outside; now they have to adapt to a more ‘inside and distanced’ way of life.
This is a time for individuals and companies to adapt.
It took you a long time to join and open your own restaurants, Gaudir and Mountain Birds!
I had no idea at first that I would eventually move into the restaurant scene myself. I have never drawn a career path. I have always moved on, driven by the people around me more than just trying to walk up a ladder. I need to bounce ideas with the people I trust and work with. One thing involved another, and one day, in addition to Tastings, there was one, then two restaurants.
Furthermore, into a challenging, upcoming Manhattan neighborhood, East Harlem.
That was unintentional as well. When my husband Blake found a building on East 145th street where we could both install our offices and our new kitchen, we knew we were not using the facility to its full capacity. So, with one of my long-time chefs, we opened a pop-up restaurant in this very authentic neighborhood.
I love France. The French are so loyal – and they keep traditions alive… Vive la France.
The Payard restaurant, where you started and which opened in 1997, was an Upper East Side sensation for a long time, even featured in then HBO number one show, Sex and the City, when Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) lunches there with her girlfriends and says, ‘The day after, over dessert, I was still not over the fact that my shoes had deserted me. These were new Manolos, I didn’t even have a full lap around…’ For sure, Payard Bistro did. How did it give birth to Tastings?
The head of Longchamp Olivier Cassegrain, then you as well—when you worked for the French Cultural Services—came to us and said, ‘maybe we could have Chef Philippe Bertineau’s foie gras and the canapés as they do them in France for some of our events’. It was all serendipity. Normally caterers are just caterers, but we devised a catering company out of a restaurant. The French Embassy was very influential as first clients, and from then on, my French and Upper East Side clientele, 20 years later, have remained to this date my strongest supporters. They are keeping me going and checking and making sure that everything is okay. For that, I love France. The French are so loyal – and they keep traditions alive… Vive la France.
There are so many great memories of the work we did together in the early 2000s at the Payne Whitney mansion, the gilded-age architect Stanford White’s last work on 5th avenue between 79th and 78thstreet, home of the French Embassy Cultural Services and Albertine’s bookstore. I remember how you adapted to our desire to host a Stanford (White) party there to celebrate culture and our American friends. Everything had to be… white!
At that time, caterers were very traditional, and people were hosting classic cocktail events and straightforward seated dinners. The White Party was ahead of its time in New York, that’s when we realized we could compete with bigger household names.
People want a blank canvas to reinvent themselves.
Soon, you gained the confidence of your clients to host parties for very high-end politicians!
Tastings won the bidding to host an event for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, that meant 3,000 guests—instead of the more normal 200 we were usually tending to. We had to staff 350 people, interview, train, and put them through French protocol. I had a small baby at home and was so nervous about the whole thing, but we made it through. We also hosted events, public or private for President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Bush daughters, and then-White House hopeful Barack Obama, who was so gracious that he spent time in the kitchen thanking each one of my teams.
How does one land to host a fundraiser for a Presidential candidate?
Through an Upper East client whose husband was a big shot in D.C. It has always been about trust, loyalty and friendship. We are getting into people’s homes; we need to deliver more than just a service.
You also organized many dinners in boutiques such as Harry Winston with Diana Ross—it is always challenging I guess to turn a high-end jewelry store into a funky, memorable dinner. You also transformed iconic places such as Gotham Hall, the French Consulate, the New York Public Library or the Frick collection. Did the choice of locations evolve before Covid-19 put New York on pause?
All these places are unique. The Harry Winston dinner was indeed held in the basement, two floors down, behind the vault. While I have a preference for historical locations in New York—and a soft spot for the Frick Collection, which reminds me of the Jacquemart museum in Paris—our clients were more and more looking for loftier places and experiential evenings. The event itself and the location no longer were enough. We had to arrange innovative experiences to tell our clients’ stories differently and help them deliver their message in a more contemporary and efficient way.
Again, you adapted yourself, as you are now.
People want a blank canvas to reinvent themselves. That was true last February, and now more than ever, we need to draw the new present on these canvases. This is a new chapter for New York and beyond. Let’s adapt and embrace it.