As a kid growing up in Atlanta in the early 1970s, my parents entertained constantly, with guests like Coretta Scott King and Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter.
My stepfather, Robert Shaw, served as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for many years, and we’d have Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price and Bobby Short at our parties. They were all bold characters who made theatrical entrances, big personalities who said what they thought.My mother, Caroline Bryans Sauls, was an Atlanta native who had been educated in Europe and fell in love with European sensibilities about food, the idea of fresh, impeccable meals without a complicated mix of flavors drowning out the essence of a dish. She’d serve Southern “company” fare, things like Country Captain chicken, a Charleston-style dish with bell peppers and curry. I was fascinated by how my mother entertained, all the champagne, family silver and monogrammed linens. We also had a summer home in the Dordogne region of France, and always traveled around to Michelin-starred restaurants: For a kid from Atlanta, where the big thing was chili dogs at The Varsity, Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon was a revelation.
In 1987, one of my mother’s friends suggested I get a summer job at a nice new restaurant, The Patio by the River. It was owned by Harry Hataway and his wife, Mary Boyle Hataway, who had been a Vogue model. They started me washing dishes, and after a week of that—which seemed like a hundred years—I was moved to the front of the house, greeting guests and learning the business.
In 1991, Harry sold me his half of the restaurant. Mary, my partner at Patio, was a great chef who co-founded The American Institute of Wine & Food with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi; to catch up a bit, I went to Peter Kump’s Cooking School in New York and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. We had some wonderful moments at Patio. The cookbook author Edna Lewis, the great-granddaughter of a slave who became known as the “Julia Child of the South,” was a guest chef several times: Her New York restaurant Café Nicholson had regulars like William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Julia Child also came to Patio, and we served her a traditional Southern barbecue—the recipe for the strawberry cobbler she liked is in my book.
A few years later, I moved to New York, meeting the remnants of the jet set. One day, the phone rang and it was Nan Kempner, a woman I’d never met, inviting me to lunch; eventually, I knew people like Casey Ribicoff and Dominick Dunne.
In 1991, my stepfather—along with Gregory Peck, Roy Acuff, the Nicholas Brothers and Betty Comden and Adolph Green—was honored at The Kennedy Center’s annual gala. I met Comden and Green there, and of course I’d always loved On the Town. That night eventually inspired me to go into theater. In New York I co-produced a revival of On the Town with the Public Theatre in Central Park. I also co-produced Triumph of Love and some other things—they were all spectacular flops. So I moved to Los Angeles to develop screenplays, from The Bridge of San Luis Rey to The Aspern Papers. The phone-calls-and-meetings thing in L.A. was pure shtick, and nothing ever got made.
Dominick Dunne told me I needed to have one friend in Los Angeles, but he actually introduced me to three great friends: Betsy Bloomingdale, Wendy Stark and Connie Wald. Connie had everyone from Olivia de Havilland to Gore Vidal at her dinner parties. I also met Brooke Hayward, who wrote Haywire and had been married to Dennis Hopper, and I became friendly with their daughter, Marin Hopper.
I once hosted a lunch for Dennis with his favorite roast tenderloin of beef. In Los Angeles, like my mother once did, I served my own version of Southern food, from fried chicken to pimento cheese. I went back to the books I’d always loved, from the 1950 Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts to M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth. Gradually I put together a line of gourmet food products, The Beverly Hills Kitchen, and went on QVC in 2009 with my first effort, beef bourguignon.
I’d always wanted to write a memoir about entertaining with recipes from the people I’ve known, from Bill Blass’ sour cream soufflé to the baked cheese grits made by our family cook, Dorothy Williams Davis. For a dinner party of four or 400, I grew up with sensible ideas. People really like unpretentious comfort food, and can always diet the rest of the week. In the end, I came back to everything that began in Atlanta, and no one is more surprised by my success than I am.