For her eponymous brand, Beatrice Valenzuela juggles a thousand roles, but the part I remember most fondly is as host of an endless dinner party. To walk into her house in the hills of Echo Park is to understand this. Stay long enough, more than say 30 seconds, and you’ll find a drink in your hands. Finish your drink and you’ll probably be staying for dinner. Stay for dinner, and then there’s dancing, more champagne, cigars...
To watch in her in action on one of these evenings is really a sight, somehow cooking, and mixing drinks, while eating and drinking and holding court.
Last month, we had the pleasure to sit down with Bea, on the eve of her family’s summer trip to Hawaii, to chat about how she plans these epic dinner parties, her inspirations for entertaining, and how she adds touches of home while embracing the local culture when traveling around the world.
Beatrice Valenzuela : Talking about the way that we met, it felt like it was just meant to happen. I was having an open house at the salon. And were you just walking by?
Jeffrey Ozawa : Yeah, we had just moved here a few weeks before and just popped in to see what was going on, have a cocktail. But we didn’t talk to anyone, we didn’t know anyone. And on the way out, at the doorway, you just appeared and introduced yourself. It was a cinematic moment.
Jaimie Lewis : I remember, you were like, “I don’t think we’ve met, I’m Beatrice.”
JO : We introduced ourselves briefly, told you what we were doing—we had just started this catering thing—and you invited us to sell bentos at your trunk show. And that was it. [Laughs] It’s the perfect little LA neighborhood story.
BV : There’s a really good photo somewhere of a colorful mat and a whole bunch of kids on it, all different ages, everyone eating their little bento. I remember that photo so well.
JO : Totally. I remember that whole scene, the first of many gatherings with you. It’s funny.
BV : Those epic meals sitting together, they last forever.
JL : Yes! Coming over to your house was always fun because you never knew what it was going to be, who was going to be there, who was going to walk in and out. All night we’d just be around this table covered in food, everyone would just pull up wherever they could get. I remember all of those dinners. Do you think we’ll get back to a place where we all want to do that again?
BV : I hope so. And I hope there will be some new people. I think friendships have reorganized in different ways. I’m also trying to be more strategic about my friendships, now that I’m a little older. In the past it all just worked out, but I put so much more thought and intention in everything I do, where before I was a lot more like, “Whatever! Whoever comes…” Just really open like that. So now I want to be more strategic so that it’s even more intimate. I think I’m looking for more intimacy.
JL : So when you’re planning to have people over, what’s your process for deciding what you’re going to serve?
BV : I’m glad you asked me that because I’ve actually never thought about it, but I’m sure there is a system. I think usually the people who are coming inspire me. Most of my friends and the people I invite to these dinners are really open to eating different kinds of things. Usually if the person is picky, the friendship’s not going to work. [Laughs] I already know that. If I don’t see that they have a diverse palate, then this friendship is never going to work because we won’t be able to eat together, and that’s such a big part of what I’m looking forward to in a friendship. You know, if they’re offended by, like, kimchi, or garlic…oof, it’s hard. They’re not going to be invited as much. Except of course if it’s an allergy. I’m sensitive to that because of my own celiac disease. I do know what it’s like when you show up to a party and there’s absolutely nothing you can eat. Nothing feels worse than that, you never feel less wanted or invited. So when I invite someone, that’s the first thing I ask them, “Do you have any food restrictions?” That already starts setting me thinking. If I know that there is only one person who doesn’t eat meat, but eats fish, and I really want to cook meat, then I’ll do both. I always like to have some variation.
There are always plenty of vegetables too—roasted, usually, because I always feel like it’s a great opportunity to pull any vegetables you have, even if they are a little bit sad, you roast them and they come back to life. So that’s kind of how I build the menu. I always have pickles in the fridge. I’ll also buy a few things already prepared. Maybe I’ll buy some dips and chips and cheese and jamon serrano, or some canned seafood in escabeche, or something like that so that I’m not preparing every single thing. It depends too on how much time I have for cooking. I love it when I have the whole day. If I have the whole day, I’ll even make dessert. But if not, sometimes people are like, “What can I bring?” and I’ll say, “Oh, could you bring dessert?” Sometimes I like for people to just show up empty handed without feeling like they need to bring anything, but it’s always nice when they show up with a bottle of wine.
And then of course, I always think of a cocktail because that’s going to be the thing to get the party going. The idea is that I would set out a cutting board with pickles, canned fish, cheese, hummus, chips, things people can start to eat right away as soon as they land here. While that’s happening, I’m making cocktails. I’ll be juicing or pulling ingredients, concoct something, and get people a cocktail right away. Then the party is on. Everyone is chill. Especially people with social anxiety…
JL : [Raises hand]
BV : It really helps. I think our place is inviting and people feel safe, but it just helps. Even if someone is not a drinker, I’ll make them a cocktail too without booze, so they also feel included. Because that sucks, if you’re sober and everyone has this beautiful drink they’re holding and you’re just holding sparkling water. It’s fun to be able to offer that.
And then, I never really do place setting. The food is all out and everyone can just help themselves to whatever they see that they like. Sometimes I’ll show that this is the way that I’m going to eat it, so if they’re inspired they can do it like that too. In that way they don’t feel embarrassed if they don’t want to try something, they don’t have to worry about me being offended if they’re not trying something. It’s just free. Everyone starts eating and conversation starts happening.
Another thing that’s really important is the music. We did a video shoot with Todd Selby, and because they have to sync the sound, music can’t be added until the editing process. And my whole family, even the kids, were like, “It’s so strange without the music!” Our whole flow wasn’t as natural. We were more self-conscious about our actions. So I make these little playlists to play in the background and it’s a nice soundtrack to what’s happening. I’ll send you the link so that you can share this one! It adds so much.
Oh, candles! Candles are always such a big part. For food, non-scented, but I always have a candle lit when people walk in the house. That’s such an important thing when you walk into a space, the first sensory experience will be this fragrance. I’m very particular about what I’m burning at what time of the year. In the spring, I’m always burning some musky rose, in summer orange blossom, in the fall and winter tobacco always, more musky things. So that’s the first thing, creating the ambiance. Then candles with no fragrance for the table. I love them to drip everywhere.
And flowers! You don’t even have to buy them, you can just go outside and trim whatever is overgrown. It doesn’t even have to be flowers, it could be branches with leaves. You really don’t have to spend any money on this, but it really does add this other element.
JL : It definitely adds to the treehouse feeling up here.
BV : It does! A lot of times when we’re traveling it’s harder to find flower shops, so I’ll just go out and trim things that are considered weeds. If I don’t have a vase, I’ll just use a wine bottle or something. I try to bring all these aspects with us and recreate them wherever we go.
JO : The big picture thing we’ve been working on with this is the sense of time and place we create through food and gatherings. And I think that’s something I always experience when we come to your house or do something together.
BV : It’s always about creating the space. Even when we travel somewhere, when we arrive we always do some editing. We’ll look around a space and see if anything is sticking out or not really flowing well, we’ll just put it away while we’re staying there—of course we put everything back when we leave—and then we see what things we need. Mostly cooking utensils and almost always sheets and pillows and rugs. It’s so fun because then you go out into the world into somewhere you wouldn’t go normally when you’re visiting as a tourist. Usually it’s a little market and we’ll get a few things that we’ll need for the kitchen. When we were in Greece, we got a portable mini propane burner so that we could make Greek coffee on it. Just things like that. By going into their stores and looking at their kitchen supplies and tools, you’re learning so much about the culture, it just emerses you deeper.
JO : I think you’re one of the only people we know, apart from us, who cooks while they’re traveling.
BV : What we usually do on all of our trips is, we land in a big city because we think it’s fun to arrive and get rid of the jet lag by walking around the city and going to restaurants that we’ve researched or been recommended. A lot of times we’ll stay in a small Airbnb or little hotel on the way in. Then we travel to a more remote area, however we need to get there, by train, ferry, or whatever. And once we get there, that’s when we do our shopping and redecorate the space. The space is so important for us, as you can see [gestures around]. Then finding all the [food] markets, it’s a whole other adventure. And because we usually stay for so long we end up making friends and getting tips about where to get what. We mostly like to cook outside. I find that most people don’t put that much effort into their kitchen, so the kitchen is not always the loveliest place to cook. So we’ll just set up an outside grill. When we were in Greece, we literally put the grill in the water, and while we were grilling the water would come up to our feet, which was the most sensational place I’ve ever cooked. Cooking like that was just next level. And then while things were cooking we would be swimming, and then I would get out and flip things and go back in. [Laughs] That was epic. So we’re always looking for this kind of scene.
JL : Where do you think you learned all this? Was there anyone or any place in particular that inspired you?
BV : I think it’s definitely from everywhere. My aunt is one of the best cooks in the world in my opinion and I grew up in Mexico City hanging out in the kitchen with her. That’s where I learned how to entertain a lot of people, the family-style dinner. She would make giant pots of things and then we would all eat. So many people would come. Cocktails were being made by other people, she didn’t do everything because the meals she made were very complex. She would be cooking for the whole day, or a few days. So I learned that aspect through her. Then I guess I fine-tuned it to my lifestyle. I have a really good friend named Dermott. He’s a director and a genius cook too, very passionate about food, and he’s an amazing entertainer. I learned so much from him. I love going to his house. He always has herbs in his kitchen in pots. He would always be making so many things at once and would have these suppers where he would invite all his friends.
When I was young and I moved here from Paris, I wanted to have big dinners because when I was there we always had them. I lived with my friend Colette, and there were other students living there, and she would have these huge dinner parties where we all sat around together. We had a cook from Portugal, her name was Linda, and she made beautiful meals for us. Colette’s guest list was incredible, it was always the most interesting people in Paris sitting together at one table. There was a grand piano in the main room. Her son is a jazz musician and he would play, everyone would be smoking cigarettes and drinking and talking. That’s where I really learned the beauty of sitting around a table with a lot of people and all the magic that comes from that. We ate together every night and a couple times a week we would have big dinner parties like that, with more than just the people who lived in the house. There were always many courses and coffee after. Her house is filled with art and books. So I was very influenced by everything Colette was about. She was a huge mentor in my life. She’s much much older than I am.
When I moved here I wanted to have these big parties but I didn’t really have the money to be able to feed a lot of people. I had this idea that if everyone pitched in $10, I could do it. I would make a giant pot of pasta, or beans and tacos sudados. We would put some tables together and have these dinners, and that’s how I started doing it here in Los Angeles. I think a lot of people still remember those dinners, too, they were really great. I remember being a little stressed out cooking during the first one, and seeing how that was not a great way to be a host. If your guests see that you’re stressed out in the kitchen, then they start feeling guilty about being there even though you invited them. I think it’s important to be chill as a host. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People want to help. There’s no set time, you’re going to feed them when you’re going to feed them. So there’s no reason to be stressed. If it gets burned? Fuck it, order in. There’s no reason to be stressed. We put that pressure on ourselves, but the guests don’t care.
JL : Another fun thing about your dinner parties is that the kids are always here, so there’s this multi-generational dynamic.
BV : I think sometimes people see that kids are here and think it’s not going to be as fun, but once they meet the kids and talk to them they see that that’s actually not true. The kids are so used to doing this, we’ve taken them everywhere. I think they add.
JL : They also eat everything.
BV : Well, maybe not everything, but they eat a lot. When they see other people enjoying food, it inspires them to try it. I think the multi-generational aspect is wonderful. That’s what it was like in Mexico when I was growing up here, it was all families. At Colette’s in Paris, there were a lot of us young people in our 20s, but Colette was in her 70s and would invite her colleagues who could be any age from early 20s to 70s, 80s. Everyone had so much to offer and the conversation would be so rich. People can create bonds with people of different ages. I think not having friends of different ages is not as rich a life as it could be.
JO : I agree, definitely. And with food especially, there’s so much wisdom and knowledge that comes through the older generations.