It would be his birthday and he had asked his 30 closest friends to come for “a little dinner.” Because his parties are always such wonderful occasions, no one declined. Since his place is outside the metro, he asked us to be there by 5.30pm.
Marivic and I decided to have a convoy, although I rode with her so we could chat during the long ride. It was a Sunday afternoon, and traffic was mercifully light. We left Makati at 2.30pm. We arrived at 4.00pm, without really knowing that our invitation was for 5.30pm. His numerous staff carried our things into the house. We were assigned the big guest bedroom. Marivic had brought her personal assistant Mary Jane to help her dress. Our host was in his palazzo-style bathroom, he had just finished bathing and was getting dressed assisted by his valets.
Curious about the dinner party preparations, Marivic and I wandered around the vast “little house” and into the hotel-style kitchen where there was a flurry of activity. The numberless, uniformed staff was busy and all over the place. We met the new head chef of the family, a 40ish Filipino-American who had taken his culinary studies at Cornell, and had actually worked at Thomas Keller’s “The French Laundry” at Yountville, at Alice Waters’ “Chez Panisse” in Berkeley, and other top restaurants. He was very friendly and although very busy, he took the time to explain the dinner menu to us as well as offered samples of the exquisite hors d’ oeuvres that would be served during cocktails. Marivic and I happily accepted our de facto merienda and nibbled away at the savories.
It was already a big kitchen by contemporary standards (indeed a commodious house unto itself), and it could hold long tables where the chefs could prepare dozens of plated dishes for multicourse dinners. One side was entirely covered by antique cabinets filled with wonderful antique glassware and chinaware. But I was surprised at the fact that it was still insufficient space for a sitdown dinner for 36 pax, service ala Russe. Hence, the preparation area for the dinner with table after table extended to the back hallways and the service areas of the big “little house.” I even accidentally bumped lightly into a table with several exquisite, antique crystal decanters which were to be used for the wines that evening; good thing nothing was damaged.
The countless staff rushed to and fro. Easily 200 of them.
I completely understood and enjoyed the complicated dinner party preparations (as long as I am not the one giving/hosting the fabulous dinner), and so did my good friend, who must have witnessed, hosted, and experienced much more as a heiress, a member of one of the country’s richest and most hallowed families.
“You can’t entertain like this without staff, more staff, and lots of staff!!!” I commented.
We wandered into the dark and cool dining room, with its long mahogany table elaborately set for 36 pax. 36 place settings on a proper linen damask tablecloth with linen damask napkins, silver chargers, multiple silver flatware, and multiple crystal stemware. The center of the table was occupied by big porcelain decorations adorned with fresh blooms, various French porcelain vases bearing fresh roses, and interesting carved candles. Three crystal chandeliers lit the long room discreetly. The dinner would be a French degustation, service ala Russe. Naughtily and merrily, and rather improperly, we looked for our places at the table and looked at the place cards of who else would be there. “Opap,” “Johnny,” “Manny,” “Arnie,” “Helen,” “Cora,” “Patis,” “Tito,” “Gop,” “Snooky,” “Tonying,” “Ingrid,” “Raul,” “Reynaldo,” et al. What fun!!!
We enjoyed watching the elaborate “backstage” dinner preparations as it reminded both of us of how our families entertained back in those days… It was “deja vu”…
I imagined that it was quite like a “Le Grand Couvert” of Louis XIV at Versailles… or a dinner at Baron James de Rothschild at his rue Lafite townhouse in Paris… or a dinner at the van der Luydens’ for the Duke of Saint Austrey in Edith Wharton’s novel “Age of Innocence”… It was a production on the scale of Cecil de Mille or Sergei Bondarchuk…
“No one does it like this anymore…” Marivic said.
“Tita Chito… Tito Luis!!! Even Mommy. Even when we were in the US. But when we returned… she had tired of entertaining like this.” she continued. (Consuelo “Chito” Madrigal-Vazquez-Collantes, Arch Luis Maria Zaragoza Araneta, Maria Luisa “Ising” Madrigal-Vazquez.)
I recalled: “We don’t do it like this anymore. But I enjoyed it for some 35 years. We did during the lifetime of my Lola Charing and then during Bro Andrew’s heyday. He passed away in early 2006, and even then no longer during his last years…
“But I’m sure you and your M cousins still do it this way…” I conjectured.
“Not really. Oh, there’s always a lot of good food. Tables set with good plates, glasses, silver. Buffet.” Marivic related.
“It’s 2015. I wonder if anybody has the time to plan, execute, and host these affairs…” I mused.
“One can have these elegant dinners catered. But the true luxury is in having everything in your own house (or houses, as the case may be): great food and wine, a large and efficient household staff, many sets of French and English china, crystal, and silver. Beautiful linens. Suitable after-dinner entertainment. Old master, modern, and contemporary paintings, antique and contemporary furniture, Eastern and European rugs, flowers from the garden. The works…” I thought aloud.