By: Lynn Ogryzlo
Don’t just set a table, create culinary theatre.
If ever there was a lady who turned a head with her beautifully set dining tables, it’s Carole Berlove. I call Carole a culinary historian because she knows so much about the art of dining. It started early for Carole who found she had a natural interest and instinct for culinary presentation. Influenced by her father Mourad who would always say to Carole about any meal, “you should always feel like a guest in your own home.”
Dining at Carole’s you can easily see how she’s taken those words to heart. I first met Carole when she invited me to a Tea With Monet party. For someone like myself who remembers occasions by the food served, all I remember about Carole’s tea party was the wonderful time I had sipping tea in the gardens of Giverny, France. What I mean is that I remember being whisked away by the sights, sounds, smells and mood of the entire event.
“Whether you’re having a family party or a get-together with friends, keep the food simple because you don’t always remember the food but you’ll remember good company and a great atmosphere,” says Carole.
The Tea with Monet event was held in Carole’s backyard. She had worked on her gardens all summer planting all of Monet’s favourite flowers. The gardens were in full bloom, colourful, fragrant and beautiful. Dotting the lawn were a few round tables with white floor length tablecloths. In the centre of each table was a charming bouquet of Monet’s flowers in soft shades of mauve, pink and white. Posters of Monet’s artwork rested on easels throughout the garden and soft period music played in the background. The tables were set with china, crystal and silverware, all of the period. There was even a replica of Monet’s tea set Carole had managed to miraculously acquire from France.
Carole had researched the food Monet would have served his guests and she perfected it. Dressed in full costume and a wide brimmed hat Carole strolled between tables telling stories of Monet and his work. Even the weather was perfect, not a scorching summer day but not a wet one either. With her attention to detail Carole had managed to whisk us all away to Giverny for an afternoon tea.
The perfect affairs have the ability to make you forget your own worries, deadlines and responsibilities and take you into another place in time. Carole has the ability to do this, but it takes patience and persistence, two virtues rarely seen in our modern fast-paced lifestyle. When asked, Carole is quick to quote Henry David Thoreau who said, “life is each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influence of each.”
Carole’s interests have always been drawn to the culinary world but unlike a chef who works his magic in the kitchen, Carole has a remarkable command of the dining room. “I’m already thinking of Thanksgiving,” says Carole as I talk to her the beginning of September. For a fall dinner, Carole suggests, “think of the fruit, what you’d drink and incorporate that into your (table) setting.” Fall has vibrant shades of orange, yellow and red, there’s plenty of dried material all around to use and don’t be afraid to use fruits and vegetables. “People forget centerpieces aren’t just about flowers.”
When it comes to table centrepieces, Carole recommends you keep them low. “I’m notorious for going too high, (centrepieces) should be below eye level and if they’re above, make sure you can see through them.”
Carole talks about the centrepiece rule exception. “I prefer round dining tables because they create a friendlier environment”. If you have a long table seating eight to 12 people, Carole explains, “you really only speak to the people beside and across from you.” She recommends large centrepieces can be set in between each four people grouping. “You may not be able to see others but that’s not important because they’re controlling their own conversations.” Carole continues with her tips, “keep a shelf of all different shapes and sizes of vases, use multi sized candles and different coloured napkins. In the 1940s and 1950s everything had to match, no longer.”
Just last year Carole worked tirelessly on a Downton Abbey Tea party. It took her months to find just the right pieces for table decoration; she researched the food and practiced cooking until she got it right. She wrote each flawless invitation in calligraphy, strategized over her guests and insisted they all come dressed for the part including hats. The day of the event, Carole’s helpers were dressed in period costume including her husband Jay who played the butler, Mr. Carson. The tables were set in period dinnerware and antique linens. It was culinary theatre extraordinaire and like good theatre, we were all transported into the fantasy of tea at Downton Abbey.
For Carole, this is pure joy. “Every time I get an idea that’s a challenge, I love it,” says Carole who once used records instead of black chargers for a dinner with her musically inclined guests. “It was whimsical and personal, they loved it. I think the 78’s only cost a dollar a piece.” Carole has created many table settings for Riverbrink Art Museum in Queenston. The last one she created was an art deco dinner table incorporating one of the museums sculptures in the centerpiece. It was showcased proudly on this year’s Rotary House Tour.
“Every time I do a table setting or design like that, I feel like I really accomplish something,” says Carole proudly. “Some have been better than others, some I feel I didn’t capture the sense I wanted.” I asked Carole what her greatest achievement was, “It’s like asking an artist, what is your greatest painting – what is Monet going to say? Each one has its own challenges and rewards. It’s art, in a different form other than painting a canvas.”
Carole laughs at her last table setting, saying, “it was a fluke”. She was having friends over for brunch and she went to the farmers’ market and got excited with the colours and shapes of the fall fruit and vegetables. “I found purple peppers, green quince, yellow and black heirloom tomatoes. I’d not seen those colours in vegetables before so I created a centrepiece with purple peppers and yellow tomatoes.” Carole recommends your table can be decorated as simply as with what’s in season. “You don’t need a lot of money to create a table setting.” Carole used white dishes, bright yellow napkins and serving dishes with varying shades of aubergine. She served quiche (which was the colour yellow) and a salad with purple tipped lettuce. “It’s just a trip to the farmers market and all of a sudden I have my table setting.”
One Christmas season Carole filled a miniature sleigh with some of her children’s little toys and used it as the table centrepiece. For Halloween, Carole says “I’ll probably have the grandchildren over for lunch. I’ll keep it whimsical with a Halloween theme. I’ll serve pumpkin soup in real hollowed out pumpkins. I might even make a white pumpkin chariot,” says Carole. “I like to teach kids the art of dining and I bring out special items that their parents wouldn’t bring out.”
Like her father before her, Carole is influencing the next generation of passionate culinary theatre directors. “My father taught me to eat at the dining table, he hated looking at dirty dishes in the kitchen and we would make tea sandwiches together. He was very creative around the table, when he carved a turkey or roast, it was precision exact. He was a great source of inspiration and I’m passing it down to my grandchildren. Even if they only take in ten percent of what I show them, at least they’ve been exposed to it.”
For your next special occasion or holiday gathering, take some tips from Carole, think of creating a bit of culinary theatre and make it a memorable event for all to remember.
Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.