A Big Night Can Be No Big DealCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Discover Greenpoint’s one-stop shop for deceptively easy dinner parties. Published: November 09, 2021
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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I wager a lot of you are starting to think — and maybe stress? — about what you’ll be doing, who you’ll be doing it with, and, of course, what will be on the menu. We’re all a little out of practice, considering that Thanksgiving 2020 was not really a thing. Last year, my husband and I had one friend in our pod over, and since we don’t even like turkey, we roasted lamb, and our friend, who is vegan, heated up tofurky. It was quiet and easy and perfect; to be honest, I wish it could always be like that.
Well … it can! According to Katherine Lewin, owner of Big Night, a new shop in Greenpoint for all your hosting needs, the modern dinner party is rapidly shedding its oppressively ritualized shackles. While interviewing Katherine for this week’s feature, I realized that entertaining — even over the holidays — can, in fact should, look a lot different from here on out. For many of us, the past 20-something months have reified our gratitude for the simple act of getting together, as well as our impatience for performative socializing. Now that we can finally have our friends over, we’re reimagining how to do so in ways that emphasize easy fun over stuffy spectacle. Keep reading for my conversation with Katherine and her expert advice on how to throw a last-minute “big night.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before starting Big Night, you were at The Infatuation for six years; is that what brought you to New York?
No, actually. I came to New York right out of college to work for J.Crew as a merchant. My career plan was to be in fashion and retail. But then I realized that maybe I shouldn't be the one deciding how many pairs of men's chinos we bought for the company, so I campaigned my way into a copywriting role there. Around that time, I was discovering New York through its restaurants, or doing as best as I could on a just-out-of-college budget, and using The Infatuation a lot to find restaurants. They happened to be looking for their second full-time editorial hire, and it was a right place, right time thing.
When did the idea for Big Night start percolating?
I always knew that I wanted to try my hand at starting a business … I had a fantastic experience at The Infatuation, where I was able to learn and grow so much; that's why I was there for as long as I was. But I started thinking about what my next thing might be, and I came to the conclusion that I wanted to make something that people could touch and feel and respond to. That might have been because I had been in media for six years and I was ready for a pivot to another type of work that would allow me to connect with people in real time. The idea for Big Night crystallized in the pandemic, because I was cooking more than ever before, like so many other people. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and we've hosted lots of dinner parties over the last 10 years, but [in lockdown], I was cooking just to have something to do. I was making these elaborate dinners and thinking, I'm in such a privileged position that I can eat this way when it's just the two of us at home, but God, I really miss having people over to share these meals. It dawned on me that, just like eating in a restaurant or getting on a plane and going to Europe, hosting dinner parties was going to be a novel experience that no one had had in a really long time. It also occurred to me that I might need some help remembering how to do that. How do you cook for more than one other person? How do you set the table? What even is a dinner party? I was thinking others would probably be feeling the same way when the time came. Then, this ideal space had been sitting vacant in my neighborhood for a while, and one day it dawned on me: that's the space. That's what escalated the timeline as quickly as it did, because once it seemed like we were going to get the space, it was late spring, early summer, and there was a real high in the streets — people wanted to be out and experience each other again — and I wanted to make sure we could be a part of the energy, so that is why there was a big push to open by August.
Did you start the buildout while you were at The Infatuation?
I signed the lease June 7th, I let my boss know that I was leaving June 8th, and I had about a month to wrap up at The Infatuation. My job there was pretty all-consuming: I was managing a team of 20 people and I had to see that all the way through before I could turn my attention to this [Editorial note: Katherine was the editorial director of restaurants]. Obviously, ideas had been percolating, lists were being made. The thinking part of the work was being done as soon as I could tell what our timeline was going to be, but the actual nose to the grindstone work — figuring out how food distribution works, how to develop relationships with vendors, and learning about inventory, especially given the global supply chain issues — had to be done very quickly. It was a crazy sprint. We opened August 28th.
How did you land on that date?
If I could have done it a day earlier, or a week earlier, I absolutely would have, but I needed every day to get ready. I knew that the summer energy was unique: I've lived in Greenpoint for seven years, I know the neighborhood pretty well, and I hadn’t seen people fill the streets the way that they were in a very long time. I had the sense that, come fall, the energy was going to be different. Not worse, just different. People were going to go back to school and the office, and that was going to come with a different set of priorities and probably different behaviors. My hope was that if we opened while it was still in the thick of summer and got swept up in that energy, by the time September rolled around and people were getting back into routines, we could be a part of their routines.
What kind of shopping experience were you envisioning as you designed the space?
I worked with a close friend of mine named Erica Padgett, who owns Decorum Design Build. She's a super talented designer and general contractor. When you’re entering the store, I want it to feel welcoming, warm, joyful, inclusive, and not too cool. The store is a mix of aesthetics: there are some clean line things, there are some maximalist things, there are natural tones, there are hot, lacquered graphic tones. It runs the gamut, and one of my insecurities was, Will it feel cohesive? There's so much color, which you don't often see in New York. I'm happy with the way it turned out.
Tell me about the food and other merchandise.
There’s a different set of guiding principles for the food and the home stuff, but one thing that applies to both facets of the store is I want people to discover something new that brings them joy. That doesn't mean that the pieces can't be found anywhere else, but letting people in on the best of the best in home goods and food is an overall priority. On the home goods side, I’m curating a mix of local artists — all of the ceramicists that we currently have are New York-based — and juxtaposing that with some of my favorite discoveries from Europe. When it comes to the food, the general ethos is finding ingredients that are hard to be found elsewhere that will quickly make a meal feel more special. That could be anything from cheese, which is a really important part of the store, to an incredible condiment, like a chili miso that is the X factor you need if you're just roasting some vegetables.
A selection of pantry items at Big Night / Photography by Teddy Wolff
Do you have any staff?
Right now, it’s just me, although my younger sister, who recently moved to New York, has been pinch-hitting in the store a few days a week so I can take calls and things like that. There is no full-time staff, and that will probably need to change at some point soon. But at the same time, it's important to me that I can see and touch and feel everything that's happening in the store right now; that's given me so much invaluable real-time feedback and data. People come in and ask questions like, "Are you ever going to carry this?" Or, "I'm thinking about hosting this kind of gathering. Do you have any ideas?" All of that is so important in fine-tuning Big Night and making sure that it's serving people the best that it can.
“The idea of the dinner party is loosening up.”
From what you’ve seen in the shop so far, how are people approaching dinner parties differently than they might have pre-COVID?
There is a blank slate right now, because people haven't had dinner parties for two years. People are feeling less chained to the idea that having people over means you have to have a three-course dinner and dessert, and everyone has to sit down and eat at the same table at the same time. The idea of the dinner party is loosening up, and people are seeing that there are a lot of different roads to feeding or sharing food as friends that don’t require the stodgy, theatrical version that a lot of people were probably intimidated by before.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you for hosting tips. What is your advice for throwing a last-minute dinner party?
This sounds simple, but start with the cornerstone dish. What kind of night is it? A soup night? A pasta night? A chicken night? Decide on the centerpiece, food-wise, and then think about how to make everything else simple and easy. Maybe the dessert is pints of ice cream with a sauce on top, and you ask your friend to bring over the makings for a salad. Often, what stresses people out about dinner partying is the idea that you need a whole plan for so many different components. Just start with one. Figure out what you're focusing on, and then make the rest as easy as possible for you, and/or enlist your friends to help.
Something I've been thinking about is fewer things and better things — or just the fewer part. Thanksgiving is suddenly very soon and I'm hosting, and rather than cooking six or eight things, I’m [asking], What are the two or three I really care about, and then, do the others need to exist? Can others make them, or could I say goodbye to them this year? Especially this year, so much of the value of dinner parties is gathering together; food is, of course, central to having a great time, but you don't want it to be so much the focus that you forget about the point of what you're doing, which is having people together.
I’m thinking about how to make Big Night available to more people outside of Greenpoint. I've been really fortunate to get a lot of feedback that this is an idea that people are interested in and want to be a part of.
How to help:
- Visit the shop at 154 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (open Tuesday - Sunday, 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.)
- Follow on IG
Until next time,