Monday, November 20, 2006

From Southern Belle to Hostess Diva

Pensacola native Brooke Parkhurst
To say that Brooke Parkhurst is an epicurean, or as she calls herself, “a foodie,” is an understatement. While most children’s milestones are measured with stories of first steps, first words and school accomplishments, the 26-year-old’s life is measured by food-related achievements.

At age 3, when her toddler peers were munching macaroni and cheese, she was savoring succulent lobster that she ordered herself from the menu at the Pensacola Country Club.

“She couldn’t pronounce some letters, so she said, ‘Wobstah, please,’ ” said Suzanne Parkhurst, Brooke’s mom and food muse.

“When she was four or five, we’d go to the Dainty Del (restaurant) after church, and she’d order fish,’’ said Suzanne, a Pensacola native who now lives in Blowing Rock, N.C. “She very politely asked the waitress, ‘Pardon me, ma’am. Is the fish fresh? Is it filleted?’”

So it is no surprise to Suzanne or to anyone else who knows Brooke that she is grabbing headlines as a New York dinner diva. Nor is it unexpected that she has found fame with a popular blog and is wrapping up a debut novel about her exploits in the Big Apple, while penning an entertainment and cooking guide with boyfriend James Briscione — a Pensacola-native-turned-gourmet-chef.

“Brooke has a natural flair for cooking beautiful meals and presenting them at the table,’’ said Suzanne, who admits that covering the food beat during her 20 years as writer for the Pensacola News Journal helped nurture that natural talent. “It looks very artistic, and I didn’t teach her that.’’

During an interview from her SoHo apartment in New York City, Brooke said she believes her new cooking and entertaining guide, “Fresh Affairs,’’ will help transform 20-to-30-somethings into naturals at throwing big-city soirées even if they initially lack the savvy and creativity to pull it off.

“It’s about how we live and how we entertain,’’ Brooke said about throwing what her friends say are “unforgettable parties.’’

The guide combines her passion for entertaining, decorating and wine with James’ flare for creating simple, succulent meals.

A Washington High School graduate, James taps into 10 years of combined experience as a chef de cuisine at Birmingham, Ala.’s premier Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill and as a banquet chef at New York’s Daniel — one of the nation’s most prestigious restaurants — to create recipes for the book of “food that focuses on pristine local ingredients, streamlined preparations and bold flavors.’’

“I really like simple, country-style food like you’d see in the countryside of France,’’ the 26-year-old said during a phone interview while taking a quick break at the busy New York restaurant. “They live with what they have, and that breeds seasonality into their food that I really love.’’

Tips in the guide reflect Brooke’s “anti-Martha” philosophy.

“I think that cooking and entertaining should be about having fun and making mistakes, and memorable, yet sometimes messy, food,’’ she said. “I did the prim and proper thing before I knew better. Now, I mix it up. Serve foie gras with grits. Dress up mullet with a reduction sauce. Pass out the week’s saucy newspaper headlines to your mother’s mannerly Sunday brunch friends (that’ll get the conversation going). In that way, I’m a ‘high/low’ cook and entertainer with a saucy sense of fun.’’

Brooke’s childhood friend Lacy Harrell-Phillips agrees.

“We got to be with them last Christmas in Seaside,’’ said Phillips, 27, of Dallas. She grew up with Brooke in Pensacola. “They (Brooke and James) have such chemistry between them in the kitchen. They’re very sophisticated, but fun. They’re lighthearted with cooking, but they pay attention to the ingredients and how they are preparing food.’’


Because entertaining comes so naturally, writing the guide has evolved instinctively, Brooke said.

“It’s much easier than fiction,’’ she said. “With fiction, it’s just you and a blank piece of paper.’’
She should know. Brooke’s first tome, “Belle of New York,” will be published by Scribner Publishing, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was inspired by her popular blog, “Belle in the Big the Apple.’’

Similar to the blog, according to the industry newsletter Publisher’s Lunch, the book reveals the “musings of a beautiful Southern debutante who comes to New York and lands a job in the mosh pit newsroom of a highly conservative cable network while reveling in the hedonistic pleasures of the city.’’

You guessed it: Food or at least high-profile dates at some of the ritziest New York eating establishments are central to the theme.

Although it’s fiction, it’s based on Brooke’s real-life experience as a production assistant at Fox News headquarters, an experience that ended in “total disillusionment,’’ and about the news ethics of the company.
“I quit at age 23 and began my life as a temp worker,’’ she said.

All her life, she had planned to follow the journalism paths of her mother and sister, Sloane Stephens Cox; and that of her late grandfather, Braden Ball, 30-year publisher of the News Journal.

“And then suddenly, I’m a temp, and I’d go home after an empty and fruitless day,’’ she said.
That career derailment steered her onto the promising book-writing track.

Brooke sold her first book before it was even written, thanks to her hip blog posts that caught the attention of media such as Gawker, Wonkette,, the BBC, Corrierre della Sera and the New York Post.
“Belle’’ is expected to hit book stores in the fall of 2007.

“Her novel sale was indeed quite a unique triumph, because new writers almost always have to show a full manuscript in order to even get editorial consideration in publishing houses,’’ said Brooke’s agent, Bill Contardi, of New York-based Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents.

“What worked in Brooke’s favor were her ongoing blog and the distinctive and entertaining voice of that blog,’’ he said.

Although “Fresh Affairs’’ has not been submitted to Scribner, “It has been discussed by them with enthusiasm, and they are poised to consider it as soon as ‘Belle’ is finished and the proposal is ready,’’ Contardi said.

“Scribner has an excellent track record with cooking and entertaining books, (such as) ‘Joy of Cooking,’ ” so Brooke’s youthful and Southern slant to the cuisine of living and loving will be in stellar company. It really has potential to be the beginning of a Brooke brand — both in fiction and nonfiction.”

In her genes

Brooke credits her mom, as well as a “foodie’’ family, for infusing her with the idea that quality food and quality times go hand-in-hand.

“I associate food with different occasions and different family members’ homes,’’ she said.

“Aunt Christi is well known for her black-bottom pie and other desserts. Aunt Colleen is pickled shrimp. My grandmother (Theda Ball) is gumbo; and my grandfather was collard greens and black-eyed peas.’’
And family road trips conjure up memories of traveling around the Southeast so her mom could hunt down the best regional fare.

“She planned our vacations around food stops,’’ Brooke said. “Georgia is peaches and pecan farms; North Carolina is barbecue.’’

So it was only natural that during college, while sailing around the islands off of Mallorca, Spain, with a group of Argentines, Brooke insisted that the crew stop at ports known for delicious, regional food.

“I made them dock so I could take the dinghy into the town square and buy fresh tomatoes, greens, bread, herbs, cheeses, cured meats, local wines, homemade pastries or ensaimadas,’’ she said. “I would then buy fish at the port and prepare a meal for the entire crew.’’

When Brooke came to Pensacola for the birth of her niece, Shelby, only to be chased away to Birmingham by Hurricane Dennis, she ended up weathering the storm dining in the city’s finest eateries, including Highlands Bar and Grill.

As she was inspecting the menu, she ran across a familiar name from her childhood and asked the waiter if the chef was from Pensacola. The chef turned out to be James.

“It was a startling moment because the last time I saw him, he was 10 years old,’’ Brooke said. “We were sweethearts at Camp Beckwith, an Episcopal church camp.’’

And when he came out of the kitchen door to see her, “so tall and handsome in his white chef’s jacket and smelling like fried oysters,’’ Brooke said she fell in love.

“Our first date was the next day at the Pepper Place farmer’s market in downtown Birmingham,’’ she said. “We caught up with the past 15 years over sniffing peaches and feeling tomatoes. Food is the running storyline of my life.’’

Advice from James:

When it comes to hors d’oeuvres, easy, inexpensive and impressive isn’t always so easy to come by. If you want to impress with small bites, you’ve got to invest something — either time or money.

That’s not to say that you’ve got to blow your whole food budget before anyone sits at the table. You might have to buy the $12-a-pound mushrooms, but you’ll need half a pound or less. Here are some ideas or “star ingredients” that always make for a memorable cocktail hour.


Soups: Serve as an hors d’oeurve in a small cup or shot glass.

Pimento Cheese: This classic Southern spread is always a hit. It takes a little time to make it from scratch, but can be done way in advance.

Lucky rolls: You’ve probably got more than half of the ingredients in your cupboard right now. So if you’ve got the time, whip some up for your next party.


Meats: Can get a little pricey as an hors d’oeurve because you only want the best cuts for bite-sized portions.

Seafood: Luckily you can catch a break on seafood prices by buying local, but don’t be cheap. Once again, only the best here.

Specialty items: (aka our favorites!) Things like foie gras and truffle oil can run up the bill a bit, but they sure will be the hit of the party.

James Brisione and Brooke Parkhurst
shop for fresh vegetables at the Union
Square Organic Market in New York City.
Diva's Dude

A food gene runs through James Briscione’s DNA, too.

But his mother Jane Briscione said he didn’t inherit it from her side of the family tree, although she tried to nurture his fascination for cooking.

“He always wanted to be by my side when I made chocolatechip cookies,’’ said Jane, 56, of Pensacola.

But her son mostly drew inspiration from his father John’s Italian side of the family. His late grandparents, who lived in New Jersey, were great Italian cooks, Jane said.

“When his Nana died, all he asked for were her recipes and pasta maker.’’

James started cooking at age 16, the same year he started working at the upscale Jubilee’s Restaurant on Pensacola Beach, the same year his grandmother passed away.

“I missed being with her behind the stove,’’ he said. “But I have a lot of her great recipes and traditions that began with her.

“Nana taught my father how to make lasagna and sweet Italian sausage and peppers,’’ he said “And I remember the big Sunday dinners at her house in New Jersey meant chicken cacciatore and buttery mashed potatoes.’’

James cultivated his love for fine food while working at Jubilee’s, which was damaged during Hurricane Ivan, through high school and during the summers of his freshman and sophomore years at Samford University in Birmingham.

“That’s the only reason I’m doing this now, because that was my only introduction to the restaurant world,’’ he said. This summer, he moved to New York to be with his childhood sweetheart, Brooke Parkhurst, and for a job as a chef in the exclusive catering division Feasts & Fetes at Daniel in New York.

But before landing in New York, on the doorsteps of his epicurean roots, he honed his abilities as the chef de cuisine at Fran Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham.

While working for Stitt, a James Beard award-winning chef, he said he gained access to some of the nation’s top kitchens. He teamed with chefs Kerry Heffernan, Michael Romano, Gabriel Kreuther, Claudia Flemming and Tom Colicchio. In November 2005, James was featured in the Great Regional Chefs of America dinner at the James Beard House.

Landing in New York had always been a goal. But getting a job at Daniels, a girl and book deal at the same time is destiny, he said.

“This is the epicenter of the culinary world,’’ he said. “It’s been a lot of fun working on ‘Fresh Affairs’ with Brooke. She’s my greatest sounding board for ideas.’’

Mom and dad couldn’t be more proud.

“We are thrilled and pleased,’’ Jane said. “James helped Frank Stitt work on a cookbook and had experience that I believe helped him be brave enough to step out and take this big step.’’


Jamie and I try to keep our get-togethers as intimate as possible — dinner parties are limited to eight people — but the holidays present a unique set of problems, with so many people who need to be seen in such a small amount of time. We may go over our expense — and friend — budget from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but at least we do it in style. Here’s how we do it:

Your People: Dinner party, 8 people;
holiday cocktail, 30 people.

Guests of a Certain Persuasion: Every persuasion — mix up your guest list for maximum drama and fun. You want different professions, backgrounds and talents (hmmmm …) represented in your living room, backyard and at the big round table. I don’t have any strict rules about the girl/guy ratio at my soirees, but I still keep in mind that people are coming to my fetes with the hope of scoring a number.

Deck the Halls: Forget formal, and think casual, yet elegant food as decoration (apples, citrus, dried spices such as cinnamon sticks, star anise, cardamom seeds) on your buffet and mantel. Inject your “New Year’s Cocktail” with a little nostalgia and humor by decorating side tables and windowsills with terribly embarrassing highschool pictures simply framed alongside yearbooks and other awkward teenage memorabilia. Everything looks gorgeous compared to your freshman mug!

Plot Your Way to Perfection: Preparation! Preparation! Preparation! Starting at noon for a party at 8 p.m. is impossible. Impossible. You’ll end up so stressed by the time your 30 guests arrive, you won’t remember if it’s New Year’s or Easter.
Invitations — 2-3 weeks prior.
Menu planning — 2 weeks prior.
Grocery shopping — 2 days prior.
Flowers — Same-day morning delivery. Wine & booze — open all the liquor bottles and about half the wine bottles the day of the party, check martini and wine glasses for water spots. Food prep — begin at 10 a.m. to allow yourself time to also place candles, spruce the house, flowers and yourself.
Music — turn on the tunes an hour before guests arrive to get you in the mood.

Boudoir Drink: Do like Cary Grant and drink a single glass of champagne before the night gets under way — it’ll calm your nerves and reassure you that everything will go just swimmingly.

Games: None — if you actually like your guests (and you count a few interesting people among your friends), you won’t have to rely on trite, contrived games. Conversation — and a well-stocked bar — should be more than enough to get your party started (and keep it going).

Ipod Shuffle: Although Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” is on my Ipod’s heavy repeat (guilty pleasure), we’re going to keep her out of your party tunes. Go to the updated classics that will have everyone humming instead of griping. Think Sinatra, Dean Martin and Louis Armstrong.

Lighting: Turn off the overheads and twist the dimmers. You want soft, flattering light, whether it comes from recessed fixtures or side lamps and candles scattered around your home. Outdoors, consider lighting from the ground up: Place votive candles in a wide circle both around the chimenea and the hors d’oeuvres table. Everyone will look radiant.

Seating: You should always have more seating options than guests, thus facilitating one-on-one and small group conversations. With our New Year’s Day party, guests will naturally gravitate to standing around the chimenea. Make sure there are chairs, stools — heck, even logs — placed outside your home and within distance of the fire’s warmth.

Thoughts on Presentation

The food that I tend to cook at home is rustic or country-style so the presentation always reflects that feeling. I love large platters and enamel casseroles that get placed in the center of the table. This doesn’t mean the food can be haphazardly thrown on the table, though.

“Family-style” service sometimes requires greater attention to detail than individual plates. Food must be arranged just-so, to keep from looking sloppy. Herbs and vegetables that were used in the preparation of the dish always look great to decorate or ‘garnish’ a serving piece. Sauces must be applied carefully, so they don’t run off the tray and onto your guests. Often serving sauces on the side is the best option- allowing each person to have as much or as little as they’d like.


When it comes to dessert, I’m a minimalist because I’ve over-exerted myself in the preceding courses. Simply prepared fruits are always beautiful whether they’re baked in tarts or a galette, bubbling in their own syrupy juices under a sweet, crumbly cover in cobblers or layered raw with flavored whipped creams or mousses.

Often I’ll forgo the sweets altogether and treat my guests and myself to variety of artisanal cheeses (I get this from Brooke — I think she could eat cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner).

What to drink with dessert? Of course, there is no right or wrong answer here. Drink what you like. You don’t have to change wines just because you’re changing courses (that big red that went so well with your steak is just fine with chocolate cake, too). If you do want something else, some my favorites are:

Moscato d’Asti (sweet and little bubbly), I’ve never known anyone who didn’t love it. Serve it with anything.

Port Wine- nothing goes better with a plate of cheese… or chocolate!

Sauternes- fantastic with fruit based desserts

Diva's Recipes

James’ famous Pimento Cheese

Shopping List:
2 lbs. red bell peppers
2 lbs. cheddar cheese (sharp or mild), grated — yes, by hand! no shortcuts here
1 cup mayonnaise
8 ounces cream cheese (room temp)
Sriracha garlic/chili sauce

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

To roast the peppers: Toss peppers in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. Lay out on a sheet pan and place in oven until the skin is blistered and the flesh tender. Remove from oven and set aside.

When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel away the skin completely. You may need to use the edge of a knife to scrape away the skin in places. Tear the peppers open and remove all the seeds. Do not rinse the peppers — this washes away essential oils and will diminish the peppers’ flavor.

Place the peppers in a food processor and pulse until the peppers have a smooth consistency, but not to a smooth paste. Small chunks of peppers should remain. Remove the pureed peppers to a large stainless mixing bowl.

Stir in the 2 pounds of grated cheese and the softened cream cheese. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until well combined.

Stir in the mayo, some salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar and the sriracha (start with just a teaspoon). I really like sriracha (a Southeast Asian hot sauce) here because of its subtle sweetness and assertive heat. It adds a complexity to this dip that a regular hot sauce cannot bring.

Technically, you are done at this point. Simple, right? Not so fast, my friend. This is where it gets a little tricky. You have got to taste at this point. Really, critically taste and adjust. It usually takes me five to six rounds of seasoning before I get it just where I want it. So grab a partner, a couple spoons and get
to it …

Celery Root and Wild Mushroom Soup

Serves 6
Shopping list:
1 large celery root or celeriac
1 bunch (3) medium leeks dark green tops removed
1 pound Crimini mushrooms
1 pkg. dried Porcini Mushroom sliced (optional)
1 head Garlic
Chicken Stock/Broth sodium free (optional)
Heavy whipping cream (optional)
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper
Red wine or sherry vinegar
Bay leaf
Fresh thyme
Trim away roots and top from celery root and peel with vegetable peeler, revealing white flesh underneath. Cut the root into quarters, then slice to 1/4 inch thickness. Put all pieces into a small sauce pot and just cover with water or chicken stock. Add a pinch of salt, dried porcini (about 2 pieces), 1 bay leaf, and 2 stems of fresh thyme. Put onto stove on high heat and boil until fork tender.

Cut leeks in half and thinly slice. Place cut leeks into a large bowl of cool water and stir well, then let sit for 5 minutes. This will wash off all the sand and allow it to settle to the bottom.

Grab your biggest sauté pan and put it on the stove over medium heat. Add 1 large tablespoon of olive oil, 2 cloves of crushed garlic, and the leeks. The leeks must be lifted out of the water to make sure no dirt gets back into them. Cook until the leeks are very soft and aromatic.

While the leeks are cooking and the celery root is simmering — brush away and dirt from the mushroom and cut them in half (quarters if they are large). Add to the sauté pan of leeks once they have softened.

When the mushrooms are fully cooked (easily pierced by a fork), remove from heat and set aside. Put the celery root and all of their cooking liquid into a blender, puree until smooth. This may have to be done in two batches. Leave half of the puree and in the blender and add the mushrooms, again — puree until smooth. Using the other half of the celery root puree, repeat this process return all the soup is pureed. You may have to add some hot chicken stock or water while pureeing.

Add the soup to a heavy-bottomed pot and turn on medium heat. Bring the soup back to a simmer and thin with heavy cream or more stock, if needed. Adjust the seasoning — salt, pepper and a little splash or red wine or sherry vinegar.

[via Bella Magazine]

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