The holidays are, of course, a time to pull out all the stops—with the elaborate dinners and lavish desserts, what's not to love? But more importantly, the holidays are about surrounding yourself with the people you love most and celebrating. Nate Berkus and Athena Calderone reminded us of this when we sat down to chat about all things holiday entertaining.
Meet the Expert
Using their homes as inspiration—Berkus in a stunning Spanish colonial home in L.A.'s Brentwood neighborhood and Calderone in a beautiful historic townhouse in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill—the holiday season in their residences are filled with cherished traditions and newly made memories. With Berkus' entertaining flair and Calderone's top-chef skills, their respective holiday parties are sure to be unforgettable affairs.
Curious to know what the holidays are like in the Berkus and Calderone households? They spilled all the details below.
MYDOMAINE: You both went from comparatively smaller New York apartments to larger homes. Has this impacted the way you entertain and decorate for the holidays?
NATE BERKUS (NB): It’s funny because we have so much space in this house, and I’m really not used to it. Thanksgiving is typically super annoying to me—even though I’m always happy that my family’s here. It always feels like one dinner too long. It didn’t really feel like that this year. It was really nice to entertain in a home where people are doing their own things. I know this is going to come as a huge shock to your readers, but I have absolutely no interest in sitting on a sofa watching football—but that went on in our house, and it didn’t affect our online comparison shopping going on in the other room.
This will also be our first Christmas in the house. [Our daughter] Poppy is so excited she doesn’t even know what to do with herself. She’s been eating her dinner completely every night because we threaten that Santa Claus is going to pass over our house, and she’s terrified that it actually might come true. Jeremiah’s family will also be visiting us and staying here. For me, there’s really no replacement for that feeling as a kid of waking up on Christmas morning in your own home.
ATHENA CALDERONE (AC): Having a townhouse is a very different experience than loft living. There are different rooms and different floors. We always used to have a big open space, so if family members wanted to watch TV or football games, they were all in the same space. So it always felt a little more chaotic. And now my dad, who’s a big TV-watcher, will probably go upstairs and do that, and I’ll be centered around the kitchen.
This home has this really large kitchen island that really allows for people to gather around. I never want to be separated from my family when I’m cooking. Everyone just sits around, and everyone’s giggling, laughing, and helping. This year, we’re inviting [my husband] Victor’s family as well as my half-sister, who we only found out about in the past 10 years or so, and she loves to cook—she’s in the publishing world—so together, we’re going to cook from my cookbook. We’ll be creating new traditions for my family and Victor’s family. Bringing everyone together is to me what the holidays are all about.
NB: Can I retract my answer? Because I’m just going to go to Athena’s. [Laughs.] It sounds super fun. And, by the way, I don’t know how to cook anything, so the idea of sitting around Athena’s kitchen island with her new half-sister sounds perfect.
MD: Nate, I know you don’t cook, so who’s doing the cooking?
NB: I’m a phenomenal cleaner and a great eater. I excel at eating. I could be in a pie-eating contest and win it by myself. [My husband] Jeremiah is a phenomenal cook, and his mother and sister and he have this tradition that goes back to childhood where they’re always the three of them in the kitchen. There’s always wine spilled everywhere, it gets messy, and it breaks into impromptu dancing—they all have staple recipes that they go to, and it’s delicious. So it’s festive and fun—but then I also get to walk behind them with a bottle of countertop cleaner, which is, as it turns out, my favorite thing in the world.
MD: What are some of your favorite dishes that are holiday staples in your family?
AC: I like to cook something new every year, but I still have a few dishes on standby. Often, I’ll make a pork ragu or glazed short ribs because anything that’s stewed or braised over time is actually better when it’s prepared a couple days in advance when all the flavors blend together. This year, I think I’m going to do a short rib, and then I’ll also make a fish dish.
NB: And for me, I want as classic as classic can be. Like, if you’ve ever landed on a Marie Callender’s menu—that’s what I want to eat in my own house at Christmastime. I want turkey, stuffing, and ham—preferably ham that has honey in it somehow. I’m not quite sure how you do that, but people like Athena and Jeremiah know. I want to see butter, mashed potatoes, and more butter. I want all of that stuff that is absolutely terrible for you. I want to wake up on the 26th of December and not recognize myself in the mirror.
MD: Speaking of which, what are some of your favorite desserts or treats that you only eat around the holidays?
NB: There’s a random blueberry pie thing that likely came off the back of a box I remember from my childhood that my stepmother makes—we would go to her house on Christmas Eve. It’s like a graham cracker crust, cream cheese, and blueberry filling. It’s premixed the night before, and it comes out the next day out of the refrigerator, and it’s probably 8,000 calories per teaspoon, but no one in my family cares.
We’re basically SoulCycling to a fork. It’s so delicious. Jeremiah also loves to bake and makes the most amazing cookies. We use the LG Studio oven at home because it bakes evenly. I’m in charge of making sure that something doesn’t burn; it ends up being helpful because the heat is evenly distributed in that oven.
AC: My favorite feature is that you can preheat it and turn it off from your smartphone—it’s the most genius thing I’ve ever heard of. Especially now with the townhouse when I’m upstairs, and something needs to be turned off. I can’t trust Victor, just like I can’t trust Nate in the kitchen, but I can at least turn the oven on and off remotely, which I think is pretty incredible.
NB: That would be ideal for me if I could operate an oven or a smartphone!
AC: My son Jivan and I always make Christmas cookies, which are really more like cake, a couple of days in advance. They’re so good. Last year, instead of just typical colors, we made them in red and white and green and white. By the way, I have yet to find a coloring that isn’t toxic, but that’s okay. The holidays are made for butter and artificial flavoring. For the main event, on Christmas Day, I like to bake something super decadent like a pot de crème—something really creamy. This year I’m going to make one from the cookbook that’s salted caramel.
MD: What are your favorite traditions from your childhood, and what are your favorite ones that you’ve created later in life?
NB: I grew up celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. I would have Hanukkah on my mom’s side of the family and Christmas with my father’s, and both were really amazing. But I have to say, as a dad now, I’ve fallen fairly solidly on the side of Christmas, just because there’s something so magical about going out to get the tree and decorating the house.
This year, Poppy came with Jeremiah and me to pick the tree, and you would’ve thought that we had taken her to Disneyland. She thought it was the most fun thing she’s ever done in her whole world. And it was really cute, and then we decorated the tree together. I’m wildly organized, so all of our knit animal ornaments were in a bin in the basement labeled, so I know exactly where everything is. Poppy helped with the lights and hanging everything on the tree, and her little lower branches are a little janky, and we love that.
So for me, the holiday childhood traditions of getting the house ready for Christmas, watching my stepmother decorate the tree, staying up late to wrap presents around the dining table, and getting excited about Christmas morning—even walking down the stairs with garland and white lights every morning the last couple of weeks—there’s something really beautiful about that. And watching how 60 percent of Poppy’s questions on a daily basis for the last week and a half have been revolving around Christmas. It’s a special time of the year for me as a parent.
AC: When I think about my childhood traditions, I think about my mom and me and the way we pressed the linens together and took out the china. It was black and white, which I always thought was so chic and elegant. I used to take such joy in putting the Christmas music on and pressing the linens. I can 100 percent attribute my gold standards of beauty to my mom. I can even compare when we would decorate the Christmas tree together to how I decorate it now—it’s definitely something I’ve inherited from her.
She used to teach me things, and now I see Jivan doing them as well. For example, when we were putting the lights on the tree, we would always take a step back and squint our eyes to see if we could see any holes in the tree that didn’t have enough lights. And just this year I saw Jivan step back and squint his eyes, and it made me feel so sweet that it’s something I did when I was a child and it got passed down.
But this year is also special because for the past six or seven years, we’ve spent Christmas in Amagansett, and we have so many traditions out there. From the time Jivan was 7 years old, we would always walk down to the beach together after we ate, and we would get our tree out there, so it was a whole different experience this year. When we went to get our Christmas tree this year, it was literally right on our corner, and we got to walk it home, which was sweet.
Nate Berkus's Top 5 Entertaining Tips
- Don't tackle a complicated menu: “Simplify! The secret to any great party is choosing menu items that you can prepare ahead and that you know your guests will love. And if all else fails, order in. Choose your favorite restaurant’s signature dishes, and plate them beautifully for an elevated feel.”
- Make sure your kitchen is ready: “Without fail, your kitchen becomes command central and the number one place guests like to congregate. Fact. Embrace it, and use your kitchen island to set up snacks, a bar, and add extra seating. You want people to feel at home, especially during the holidays.”
- Be ready with a pre-stocked bar: “As host, you want to make sure you get to enjoy the party along with your guests. Get out ahead of things by making sure your bar cart is fully stocked, and pre-mix a pitcher with your go-to holiday cocktail. Have your hors d'oeuvre ready to go, and make sure you have enough ice.”
- Mix up the seating chart: “Have fun with your seating chart—you want guests to get to know each other and spark unexpected connections. Sometimes it puts people out of their comfort zone, but I’m always mindful of who I’m bringing together, and I try to seat guests next to someone I know they will have something in common with. Also, I love having a super-chic place card at each setting to finish off the tablescape.”
- Prepare take-home favors: “I love sending guests home with a small reminder from the evening. If it’s a sit-down dinner, send them home with their place card setting. It will serve as a sweet memento from the gathering.”
Athena Calderone's Top 5 Cooking Tips
- Plan and prep your meal in advance: “First and foremost, I always choose dishes that can be prepped in advance. If you are hosting guests, the last thing you want to think about is slaving over the stove while your friends and family are drinking and hanging out in the other room. Slow-cooked meats or roasts are great options because they only get better over time.”
- Manage your kitchen time: “Organizing your time and your kitchen is very necessary around the holidays. I never have enough space in my refrigerator, and the queue for my oven is endless! With that, I design my meal plan with kitchen efficiency in mind. For instance, decadent pots de crème feel like they were designed for the holidays! They are made at least one night before to ensure it sets properly. The individualized portions can easily shift around inside your fridge and are served at room temperature, which frees up even more space on the big day.”
- Ensure roasting and searing success: “The great thing about roasting and searing is that your oven can do all the hard work for you if you just keep a few tips in mind. For oven-roasting or pan-sautéing your meals to caramelized perfection, do not over-crowd your pan. Doing so will steam your veggies or protein, which isn’t good for flavor or presentation. Instead, sear on the stovetop in batches or use multiple sheet pans when roasting in the oven if you have a lot of ingredients. Secondly, don’t wash your veggies just before roasting. This will only create more steam and will guarantee wilted and pale results.”
- Serve family-style: “Consider a self-serve solution for your holiday meals. Not only do these formats save you from having to formally plate each dish and allow you to sample many more foods, but they can also be stunning and elevated. The key to creating an eye-catching buffet is to use different colors, textures, and heights. Think about the hues of the food beforehand to avoid a monotone palette, use platters and pedestals to create a multi-level composition, and mix and match styles.”
- Prepare a cheese board: “A cheese and charcuterie board is essential, in my opinion. It gives guests something to nosh on as soon as they arrive. The cheeses should be served at room temperature, allowing you to free up valuable space in your over-stuffed fridge in that final, crucial countdown to mealtime! I love the look of huge hunks of cheese on a rustic wood board, but to help keep it from becoming a mess as soon as guests attack it, I do pre-slice it just a bit.”