"Please, sir, I want some more."
Famously uttered by Oliver Twist, the refrain was also a running plea among guests not long ago at Shawn Gibson's Toronto apartment,where the celebrated decorator and co-owner of the city's Teatro Verde shops handed out large soup bowls upon their arrival and then instructed them to line up in the kitchen and beg for their dinner.
The first course, though,was hardly gruel: "Not a chef by any means" but clearly no slouch in the kitchen, Gibson offered a choice of spinach and green-pea purée, Irish fishc howder or minestrone laced with pesto.
If the Dickensian theme seems eccentric, Gibson in fact threw the party for an Oliver!-obsessed friend who works in the theatre, creating a shabby-chic wonderland involving mix-and-match dishes on which guests feasted and chairs set around a table covered with a patchwork quilt.
Homely baskets of daisies and other wildflowers – not unlike the blooms that might have been peddled in the streets of Victorian London – dotted the room.
"As a decor specialist, I focus [significantly] on the ambience," Gibson says. "And because my parties are always for someone else, I try to find something they like, something that they're passionate about. Then I extract that and parlay it into the setting."
Although Gibson's Oliver!-themed soiree adhered strictly to an impoverished, mid-19th century look, he is typically more of a decor Mixmaster:
"Eclecticism is truly the name of my game," he says. "I love to combine different periods and styles and seek inspiration from popular culture, classic movies and fashion." It's a point of view that also inform show he stocks his two Toronto stores, the city's premier lifestyle emporiums (a third, culinary-focused shop, Teatro Verde Cucina, will open next year). Following are his tips for a hearty party.
COMFORT FOOD, FOR HOST AND GUESTS
Despite Gibson's protestations,he is clearly adept when it comes to food: Three starters,such as those served at this Victorian fete, would be daunting to even the most seasoned entertainers. Normally, Gibson opts for store-bought hors d'oeuvre and side dishes from grocery stores such as Pusateri's or Longo's and then comes up with a custom touch: "For dips, I add chopped fresh herbs, organic extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt."
If it's nice out, party goers tend to congregate on Gibson's balcony, so he will often barbecue lamb, beef or chicken,manning the grill while keeping an attentive eye on the folks around him.
Every so often, he will have his parties catered. For a friend's recent birthday, for instance, he hired Dee Gibson (no relation) of Toronto's Catering With Style to create a Tuscan-inspired dinner for 12, the largest number he can fit around his table; the menu featured stuffed artichokes, pizza bianca and limoncello tiramisu for dessert.
Gibson's favourite way to end a meal, however, actually comes from the frozen section of Costco. "Please don't write this," he pleads, "but once a year Costco sells these sorbets in hollowed-out coconut and pineapple halves. They're absolutely incredible. I fill up a big tub with ice and lay them on top; everyone thinks they're gourmet, but they actually cost about a dollar each."
PLAN WELL, GREET WITH FLAIR
Costco sorbet notwithstanding, Gibson's guests aren't ones to be easily fooled: Many are culled from the country's decor, food and media elite, all of them carefully considered by Gibson before the invites go out. "You need the right combination of people to have a great night, which means taking the time to figure out who's going to get along," he says. "Remember that it only takes one person to suck all the energy out of a room."
When it comes to seating, Gibson is a firm believer in splitting up the couples and alternating the introverts and extroverts: "You don't want all the energy at one end of the table while the other is just watching and not feeling like part of the festivities."
Gibson is also keenly aware that the vibe is established as soon as the first guests step through the door: Typically, he will hand them a glass of champagne or a welcoming cocktail within seconds of their arrival.
His latest favourite in the latter category is a discovery he made recently in Italy: the Aperol fizz, made with Aperol, quality prosecco ("as dry as possible") and a splash of club soda.
CLEAR AS YOU GO, FINISH STRONG
Despite his experience as a host, Gibson will admit, without much regret, to at least one party don't: "I tend to clean as the evening moves along. I get a bit of slack for this, but I don't live in a big place, so a huge mess is hard to get away from."
After dinner, the festivities do tend to move to the living area, where the music gets louder and the drinks become stronger: It's not unusual for a soirée chez Gibson to rage until 4 a.m.
Even at such an early hour, a parting gift is often handed out: In the case of the Oliver!-themed get-together, the attendees got to keep their soup bowls, perhaps to make up for all that begging.
ENTERTAIN LIKE SHAWN GIBSON
Choose the food wisely
Gibson is lactose-intolerant and allergic to shellfish, so he understands the importance of considering guests' dietary restrictions. "I always ask about food allergies and sensitivities when I send out the invitation," he says.
Keep your shoes on
"You shouldn't ask anyone to take their shoes off at a party, particularly women," advises Gibson. "Shoes are a part of their whole look."
Unless it's a themed occasion, Gibson's flower arrangements are typically composed of seasonal blooms in a single colour. For a get-together in July, Gibson likes dahlias; in the spring, it's all about peonies and lilacs.
Set a favourable mood
Gibson streams ambient music from the Web and ensures a flattering glow with soft lighting and candles, but not so many that the room overheats.
Bring a practical gift
Although Gibson would never expect a hosting gift himself, he will, when attending others' parties, come bearing "something useful, not decorative, unless you really know the person's taste." His current recommendation is a wine coaster and stopper set by the designer Monique Lhuillier.