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Make yourself at home

Chef Tiffani Faison and Dominick Doyle team up to create a relaxed garden party. So can you.

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 12, 2012
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There was nothing unusual in Dominick Doyle and Cary Lynch’s Charlestown backyard garden on a recent cloudless and balmy night. Just the usual terra cotta pots, plant markers, a stepladder that had seen better days, a potting bench, a few seed starters, and a dozen or so varieties of herbs and vegetables.

And yet, Doyle and Sweet Cheeks chef Tiffani Faison took all those elements and transformed them into something memorable. The two longtime friends used the terra cotta pots as ramekins for a goat cheese and tomato tart. The herbs and vegetables — those not used for cooking — were available to flavor alcohol at the do-it-yourself cocktail bar.

After all, where there is food and cocktails, there’s a party, and Faison and Doyle put their heads together to throw a summer garden gathering.

“We really wanted to use things you have around the house to show how easy it can be,” Doyle says as he lifts a plate to show that the charger underneath is the base of a terra cotta pot. “The chargers were just over $1 at Home Depot. You can use the most ordinary things, but just present them well.”

While Doyle, who works in banking full time but plans parties and weddings on the side, explained the decor, guests gravitated toward the bar to mix cucumber water with dill and gin, or mint simple syrup with rum and strawberries. The steps of the rustic ladder served as the bar, and the potting bench made for a convenient buffet. Nearly every corner of Doyle and Lynch’s immaculately maintained garden was used for the fete.

The remarkable part was that there was no scrambling, no stressing, and the hosts made the entire affair look as breezy and natural as the hydrangeas edging the yard. The relaxed guests took care of their own cocktails, dropping ingredients into Ball canning jars, while Faison, in a Pucci-esque paisley dress with hair tightly pulled back, oversaw the kitchen. All the while, Faison’s wife, Kelly Walsh, and Doyle’s partner, Lynch, were happy to stand back and focus on the guests.

“I keep it really simple when I have people over,” Faison says. “Food-wise I try not to overdo it. Sometimes I get a bit nervous with what people’s expectations may be when they come to my house. I don’t invite people who don’t know me. That way if everything catches on fire and we end up ordering pizza, we all still have a good time.”

The only fire at the Charlestown garden was contained to the grill. Guests, enjoying their cocktails, made their way toward the table, which featured garden-themed crudites. Faison crafted perfect rows of vegetables, such as carrots, asparagus, and cauliflower, which were planted in a “soil” of toasted, finely crushed rye bread. Under the bread crumbs was homemade ranch dressing for dipping.

“I like leaving things around so guests don’t feel like they have to ask for anything,” she says. “If they want another glass of wine, they don’t have to ask, or if they want a bite of something, it’s just there.”

For those who don’t run restaurants or work as private party planners, putting together such a bash may be challenging, but Faison and Doyle see the garden-themed event as fairly straightforward and laid back after trying several more complicated concepts.

“We started with this idea of a poker-themed party,” Faison says over oysters. “And then it went to a pool party.”

“We thought about a pool party where we’d fill the backyard with sand and kiddie pools,” Doyle adds.

“I think he was getting ready to kill me,” Faison says. “But that’s part of the creative process. You go far, far, far, and then you pull it back. You don’t want something too theme-y. So we just pulled it back to reality to make a beautiful party.”

The idea of putting together a party out of everyday objects felt natural for Doyle, who confesses that he is an avid trash picker. It’s surprising given that Doyle and Lynch’s home looks as if it was pulled from the pages of Architectural Digest. His higgledy-piggledy assortment of curbside finds, such as an elaborate Baroque mirror, somehow blend perfectly with the nearby candle chandelier (not from the trash).

“You have to have an eye for it,” says Korinn Koslofsky, party guest and co-owner of Ula Cafe in Jamaica Plain. “It’s the same way they decorated for the party. Dominick and Tiffani are just lucky that way.”

Despite those details — and a meal that continues with grilled tenderloin seasoned with lobster broth — there is nothing about this party that feels stressful. Or Faison manages an award-worthy performance of acting calm.

“Worst case scenario, something doesn’t work or looks kind of funky. Who cares?” she says. “You’ll figure out how to do it better next time. For the most part, you’re inviting people who know you and probably love you, so it’s not like they want to do anything more than hang out with you.”

Faison and Doyle say personalization is key to making guests feel comfortable. For their garden party, they used plant markers as place cards, and later in the evening, as Faison makes a dessert of strawberry shortcake on grilled biscuits with lemon curd and whipped cream, she serves it in personalized mugs.

But one of Faison’s most important party tips is to stay relaxed. If the host is tense, the guests’ mood will follow. And whether it was the cocktails, the flawless weather, or a mellow Karen Carpenter asking “Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby?” from the speakers, the guests at this dinner party were definitely at ease as the gathering drew to an end on Lynch and Doyle’s Lilliputian rooftop deck.

“This glass of rosé isn’t going to finish itself,” Koslofsky said with a grin. “I’m trying to do my part to help out by finishing off this bottle.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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