A House For A Host
NOBODY ENTERTAINS WITH MORE FLAIR—OR FREQUENCY—THAN ALEX HITZ
Relaxed elegance defines the dinning room of chef and cookbook author Alex Hitz’s Los Angeles house. The contemporary architecture, curtainless windows, and rugless floor ease the formality of the furnishings: an English mahogany table and Italian pier mirror, both 18th-century, and 1950s Louis XVI-style chairs from Maison Jansen. Altar candles soar from the Fabergé candelabra, a prized heirloom.
OPPOSITE: The grand double front doors are an homage to Hollywood Regency architect John Woolf.
“The sun beats down on the living room, rotting the velvet on the sofas, and I am okay with that,” Hitz says. “What am I going to do—put up curtains and miss out on the view?” He mixed Maison Jansen bergères with Marcel Breuer leather-and-steel chairs, which flank a Louis XV-style table. The trio of turned wooden bowls are by Ed and Philip Moulthrop.
DAVID A. KEEPS: What!? How many?
ALEX HITZ: Around 900.
You’ve entertained 900 people so far this year?
And still counting. I have two buffet parties a year for 150 people each, and dinners for 12 to 20 several times a month when I’m in L.A. Also, a seated Christmas Eve dinner for 40. I love food and I love people, so putting the two together is really gratifying for me. And a big, pretty silver bowl with roses never hurts anything.
Your house is certainly made for entertaining.
That’s deliberate. I designed it so that all the rooms flow into each other, and that’s important to me. When I have a big party, guests can move through the house easily and freely. For smaller dinner parties, it suits the stages of the evening: cocktails in the library, dinner in the dinning room, coffee in the living room.
You designed the house?
That sounds much more grandiose than it is. I’m not an architect. I had an engineer figure out how to keep it from falling into the canyon. All the rooms are the exact same size: 12 feet wide, 18 feet long, 12 feet high. The proportions and the symmetry and the balance feel magical to me.
Were you also your own decorator?
For better or worse, I know what I want and how I want things to look, so I wouldn’t have been happy letting anyone else do it. I’m OCD and a control freak, can’t you tell? I’m not proud of it, but you have to tell the truth!
So you chose all the furnishings and the artwork?
There are a few things that were brought in by Pierre Durand, who owns the house with me—he also owns the most beautiful antiques store, the Chinese Porcelain Company, in New York City. He bought that huge painting of the swimmer, on the Hudson River piers. It’s a nice counterpoint to all the antiques. And I have pieces I inherited. The house I grew up in, in Atlanta, had traditional French furniture and lots of English pieces, but also a collection of modern art. So I have always loved that mix.
How would you describe the mix here?
It’s what I’d call Continental Mongrel, but it works. The house has a clean, restrained, relaxed elegance that seems appropriate for a hillside in California. Interestingly, my publishers at Knopf told me that America is craving a return to elegance and tradition. Casual entertaining is something I don’t want to know too much about. It implies that nothing went into it, that something is slapped together. If you’re having people over for a casual dinner, it’s like you didn’t put any effort into it. I might serve chicken potpie, but I’ll set the table formally.
Tell us about your new book.
It’s called My Beverly Hills Kitchen: Classic Southern Cooking with a French Twist. It’s what they’re calling a ‘literary cookbook.’ There are 175 recipes and a lot of stories and anecdotes with a memoir aspect to them. And lots of tips about entertaining.
If you had to choose just one tip for giving a great party, what would it be?
Give guests what they really want: comfort food. Nothing pretentious, trendy, or precious. I hate nouvelle cuisine. I know that’s not what it’s called anymore, but that’s what it is. All that experimental cooking, all those foams and dusts. Going to a restaurant and hearing about a dish that has 411 ingredients just wears me out. I don’t do anything fussy. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, but fussing isn’t going to make anything better. Like most things in life, simple is best. You’ll never go wrong with mac-and-cheese.
You don’t just cook for guests now—you cook for America.
America needs me! It needs more full-flavored foods! I started a food line, the Beverly Hills Kitchen, and it has been a big success on HSN.
So now we know we should serve comfort food at parties. What else should a host know?
Make a schedule; stick to it. Do everything ahead of time—do not leave anything till the last minute. Parties are about people, not about bustling around in the kitchen when they come. Don’t punish the guests who’ve arrived on time by waiting for the ones who didn’t. And never stop smiling, no matter what falls apart. There’s a great quote from Horace: ‘A host is like a general; calamities often reveal his genius.’ What you can be guaranteed of is that some sort of calamity will happen. The only time a party will be ruined is if you stop smiling.
Should we have oversize front doors like yours, so that everyone can make a grand entrance?
Doors are an announcement. Why squander the opportunity? I’ve always loved John Woolf and the Hollywood Regency style—the simple façade with the big-statement doors—so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do my version of it?’ From the street, you have no idea what the house is. You think, ‘What is this little nothing-burger? A pair of doors and that’s it.’ And you walk in, and the house begins to unfold—three floors of open spaces cascading down the hill. My favorite thing anyone ever said was, ‘Drama, drama, drama at every turn.’ It wasn’t intentional, but it sure makes it fun to see.
A Peter Rogers portrait of Hitz’s close friend, the late Nan Kempner, hangs in the library. “The room doesn’t get a lot of light, so I decided to make it cozy and turned it into an English-style portrait room, which is ridiculous, but fun.”
OPPOSITE: Portraits of 19th-century Italian officers masterfully coordinate with walls upholstered in Gastón y Daniela’s Tree of Life fabric. Hitz inherited the Billy Baldwin sofa and Louis XV fauteuil, re-covered in acid-green leather, from his mother. Loro Piana cashmere throw.
1. A portrait of conductor Leopold Stokowski and a figure study are focal points on the library bookshelf. 2. In the guest room, Northhampton Stripe headboards from Hinson & Company. Bedding by Leontine Linens. Walls are painted Donald Kaufman Color DKC 44. 3. Pierre Frey’s Toiles de Nantes gives the powder room an ikat edge. 4. Turgot’s 18th-century Plan de Paris engravings provide a romantic landscape in the guest room. 5. An Indian watercolor adds modern punch over an Empire commode. 6. A centerpiece of roses by David Jones in a Cartier silver tureen. 7. A tête-à-tête covered in a discontinued fern print from Schumacher is a perfect spot in the guesthouse. 8. Family photographs personalize the master bath.
OPPOSITE: In the mater bedroom, Hitz covered the walls, motorized Roman shades, and bed skirt in a vintage silk, Katmandu by Lee Behren: “If I love something, I want it everywhere.”