A Feast for the Senses
An artist and her chef husband take guests on a creative culinary adventure and inspire us to do the same
Artist and hostess Jennifer McHugh (standing) gives guests—(clockwise from Jennifer) Tara Flannery, Dave McHugh, Jolie Brent, Sara Polczynski (in green), Heather Flagel (not seen), Allison Waite and Mary Brown—the rundown for this evening’s events.It’s early evening on this Friday. The sun has not yet set but candles already burn and strings of bistro lights shine on the covered patio. The sweet smell of night-blooming jasmine perfumes the late summer air, luring guests into a backyard where the table’s simple setting—a vase of eucalyptus leaves atop a cotton runner—and a lounging area layered with rugs, pillows and poufs beckons guests and welcomes them to tonight’s Palette to Palate party.
It’s not the first time Jennifer and Dave McHugh have hosted one of these intimate events in their inviting Del Cerro landscape. They fielded lots of requests from friends to share their expertise. Jennifer is an artist (she currently has a part-time residency at SOURCED Collective in Laguna Beach through October 15) with an event manager background. Dave was recently appointed executive chef at SeaWorld and teaches culinary arts at Grossmont College, with an entire semester devoted to wine.
“A lightbulb went on,” Jennifer says. “I told Dave we should combine art and wine in an extensive experience and call it Palette to Palate. I had looked all over the internet for such an event and nothing existed.” That was five years ago.
Since then, the collaborative couple have done several Palette to Palate parties for friends, neighbors, groups, even businesses. This evening, the guests include six of Jennifer’s girlfriends.
Whether they’re hosting friends or strangers, Jennifer and Dave build each Palette to Palate around a region: Spain, France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, South America, Baja Norte, or the West Coast, which is tonight’s theme. Together, the couple selects wine and food pairings, and Jennifer chooses a small project for each guest to complete in her backyard’s cozy, yet airy studio.
“If we’re doing France, for instance, I might select something from a French artist and let our guests do some sort of abstract rendition inspired by the work,” she says. For her art-and-wine nights, Jennifer doesn’t walk guests through step-by-step instructions for them each to recreate the same picture. Instead, it’s about the creative process and giving guests the opportunity to let go, use their imaginations and make something with their hands—an activity that Jennifer says most people lack in their lives but is so important to well-being.
This evening’s three-and-a-half-hour affair begins with a sparkling white wine from northern California’s Anderson Valley, kettle-cooked chips and a lesson in bubbly from Dave.
“You cut through the saltiness of the chip with the acid in the sparkling wine,” Dave explains. Popcorn, salty cheeses such as aged Parmesan and chips pair well with white bubbles.
From there, pours of a Riesling from Walla Walla, Wash., fill new glasses, and everyone’s encouraged to try the spicy avocado deviled eggs. Dave talks about the wine’s cool-region origin and Germanic roots. “The hot pepper and creamy avocado-and-yolk filling in the hard-cooked egg complement the slightly sweet, dry white,” he says. “Eggs and Riesling make a classic pairing.”
Next, from Northern California’s Russian River Valley, a rosé in a pretty pink—“not at all reddish, which is an indication of poor quality,” Dave relates—swirls around guests’ glasses as a platter gets passed around and they each take a skewer that holds balsamic-glazed vine-ripe cherry tomatoes (from the couple’s garden), watermelon and feta cubes, and mint leaves.
After about an hour of fascinating wine facts, tasty nibbles and captivating conversation, guests make their way into Jennifer’s studio a few steps up from the covered patio. She’s placed a wood panel—less expensive than traditional canvases, she says—for each of her friends around the studio’s central square table. Jennifer instructs the ladies to move the acrylic paints in the shades they’ve chosen around their boards with the provided palette knives.
Beautiful blobs of blush, green, blue, yellow and brown hues, inspired by a drive along the Pacific Coast’s ocean and redwoods, dot the communal white dishes in the center of the table. Jennifer demonstrates a few different techniques for getting the paint on the surface, and then sets her attendees loose. The artist encourages mixing and playing with colors. An ochre yellow combined with black makes a pretty olive green, she illustrates.
“Getting guests to paint abstractly removes the anxiety factor for people,” Jennifer says. “The finished product doesn’t have to look like something. It’s about the process of creating.”
The women chat and paint. Some use circular motions and monochromatic tones. Some use lots of paint and lots of colors to create lots of texture. One woman uses her fingers and bare hands to push the paint into the wood.
Roughly an hour later, the ladies break for a pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and a smoked salmon and herb cream-cheese crostini followed by Godiva dark chocolate and a zinfandel from Paso Robles, Calif.
During the event’s last 30 minutes (though the McHughs never kick anyone out; these experiences can last into the wee hours), Jennifer ushers her friends back into the studio to put their final touches on their pieces.
She introduces tools to let them scrape and drag the paint across their boards and add more dimension. “This is exactly what I needed,” says one—music to Jennifer’s ears.
“These events are meant to be experiences,” Jennifer explains. “We host them in our home and give people a place to relax, connect, learn, create and explore. The art is meant to be a hands-on creative exploration.”