When we met for coffee at Swedish Hill to talk about this story, I learned within minutes that not only does Robert make his living as a visual artist, he also happens to be an incredible cook, world traveler, and did I mention that he's hilarious and one of the sweetest people ever? Not to be outdone, Taylor Cumbie is one of those creatives that's difficult to describe because she seemingly does it all: event design, editorial styling, floral design, also an incredible cook, and so humble you could almost believe she doesn't realize how talented she is. So it's no surprise that when these two became neighbors in East Austin a few years ago, a friendship was born.
Robert and Taylor regularly collaborate on dinner parties for friends and neighbors, and thankfully I scored an invite to Taylor's dripping-with-style bungalow to capture a recent one in action. Scroll on for scenes from the coziest feast (I swear you can smell the beef bourguignon through the screen), plus the duo's must-haves and strategies for pulling off a no-stress gathering where good food and good vibes rule.
First things first: how did you two meet?
Robert Alvarez: We lived across the street from each other for about two and a half years. The first few months my husband and I kept noticing this elegant redhead coming in and out of her adorable house, but it wasn’t until Taylor’s boyfriend flagged us down and invited us to her birthday that we actually met. I remember like it was yesterday: in her kitchen, packed with people laughing and holding cocktail glasses. Typical. We started inviting each other over for dinner back and forth and eventually it rolled into a regular thing with another couple down the street. Someone jokingly called it the Breeze Terrace Supper Club (after the street we all lived on) and it kinda stuck. Now we have a regular “BTSC” in the calendar.
You're both artists who also love to cook. Does your art come into play when you're in the kitchen?
Taylor Cumbie: Despite my fantasies of a big, airy, minimal home, I naturally lean more towards witchy maximalism (maybe that’s why Robert and I complement each other so well — he’s so effortlessly minimal, it’s infuriating!) The stylist in me likes collecting all the things… so what the meal is cooked and served in is usually a big part.
When it comes to the aesthetics of the food itself, I consider how I want people to feel when they sit down to a meal. What message can I convey visually — is it a casual, intimate invitation to dig-in? A lavish display meant to wow and delight? The way food looks can convey so much, and transport people to somewhere else entirely.
RA: I hadn’t thought about this before but I guess the same rules apply: the style of the thing shouldn’t get in the way. My work has a sort of abstracted minimalism to it and I’m a fan of simple cooking. I think it can be easy to gild the lily, so I try to keep the message (or flavor) clear.
Use good ingredients, let them come through. And embrace the imperfections! I like dishes that look loved on.
Any tips for at-home cooks when it comes to making their food look beautiful?
TC: The beauty of being invited to a home-cooked meal is that it’s not a restaurant or fine dining. Don’t worry too much about “plating.” When in doubt, serve it family-style — a pile of ribs/chicken quarters/sliced ribeye/roasted cauliflower over grains or potatoes, topped with a heap of fresh herbs or citrus wedges always looks beautiful.
RA: First make it tasty! And then pour a good olive oil on it.
Robert's work titled Pyrrha hangs in the living room.
How do you get inspired when setting the table?
TC: At home, it usually starts with what time of year it is — what colors and textures are outside my window, what is the mood and tenor of the season, how do you feel at this time of year? I always think of designing as a type of storytelling — what’s the story behind this dinner/party/gathering? When I’m designing tablescapes for events, I’ve often been influenced by recent travel, pulled inspiration from film and art, even looked to historical time periods and events.
**scroll to the bottom of this post for Taylor's recipe for her Apple Galette with Cider Caramel.**
What inspires you when designing the menu?
RA: What’s in season, what’s in the pantry, and what is everyone in the mood for? And then travel! I feel like I’m always finding something I like at the market and then taking it somewhere.
“Tomatoes looks ripe, we have some stale bread... should we toss it all in a vinegary panzanella? Throw them on the oven for tomatoes provençal? Or we have eggs so we could cook down the tomatoes and make shakshuka and the bread can go into a salad?” It goes about like that.
TC: For me, it comes back to telling a story. Seasonality plays a big part, and location (real or imagined.) Are we in the middle of the sweltering Texas summer and I want to transport everyone to the cool Mediterranean coast? Is it a cold and rainy night? 'Cause I’m likely giving you beef bourguignon or pho or a roasted Moroccan chicken with warm spices. Or maybe it’s the achingly short period of time in Texas when berries are in season — I’m going to take full advantage of that.
Robert's favorite Austin spots:
My husband and I go to Bufalina almost weekly. Love a good afternoon cocktail moment at the Hotel San Jose. I box at Fight Club to stay in shape. The sleeper best lunch in town is the fish bar at Whole Foods; fight me on it. And I try not to miss an opening at Big Medium.
Taylor's favorite Austin spots:
Justine’s: Going to Justine’s New Years Eve party nearly a decade ago was what made me want to be an event designer. I know everyone and their mother already knows Justine’s is magic, but I have never, ever had a bad night there. They are masters of creating a vibe.
Dai Due: I was part of the restaurant’s opening team, and watching Jesse work completely changed the way I approach food. It changed the way I eat and cook and consume in a more general sense. I learned how great food can be when you know exactly how to not do too much to it. Also, the restaurant and butcher shop are run by a majority female team and they are the definition of badass.
BFree: I started practicing yoga at BFree about four years ago and it’s literally the only exercise habit I’ve ever stuck to. I’ve never met anyone that knows as much about how the body and mind work as the owner, Shelby. Her teaching and her soul has improved my life in countless ways.
Licha’s: In a town of a million tacos, Licha’s is my favorite Mexican restaurant, and I LOVE Mexican food. Their margaritas are damn near perfect and anywhere with huitlacoche on the menu is on my short list.
Sam’s Town Point: My boyfriend Eric and I met two-stepping, and we go dancing pretty frequently. Sam’s is hands down my favorite honky-tonk. It’s way off the beaten path — a double-wide in an otherwise completely residential neighborhood. The beer is cheap, all the best bands play there, there’s usually plenty of room on the dance floor, and sometimes you can get them to make you a cheeseburger in the kitchen. It is the essence of old-school Austin.
What would we never find at one of your parties?
RA: Exclusivity. Mi casa es su casa. Come on down, y’all.
What are your essential items for hosting:
RA: Good vino. Good food. Good music. Candles! And backup booze for when you run out (which you will).
Linens that feel good in your hands, candles, a killer playlist, a well-stocked bar, interesting people.
What's the secret to a great party?
TC: Throw a party that feels like you. Perfection is not the goal, connection is the goal. Look, if you’re the type that loves a theme and decorates your house from top to bottom, then the people in your life will love it because they’ll walk in and feel you immediately. But if the idea of that stresses you out, good god don’t do it. A few years ago one of my friends, when asked what she wanted to do for her birthday, said she just wanted to crawl under the covers with us and whisper all night (a sensitive and silly soul, that one). We made a fort of sheets and pillows in a friend’s living room. It was not elegant. But it was the best.
TC: That helps.
What would your last meal be?
RA: Why was the first thing that came to mind a meatball sandwich?? Yeah, I’ll stick with my gut. A meatball sandwich. Like, screw it, I’m dying.
TC: My ultimate comfort food - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, fried okra, fresh tomato slices, corn on the cob and collards with bacon and hot sauce.
Go-to hosting outfit?
TC: I have this image burned in my childhood memory of Maureen O’Hara in the original The Parent Trap — she’s so stylish and put-together in that matchy-matchy midcentury way, but in one scene she’s in this beautiful California ranch house kitchen cooking in a simple blue circle skirt and an off-the-shoulder scoop neck blouse. Her hair is down, no jewelry, and she’s got a kitchen towel tied around her waist. I’m pretty sure she's barefoot, at least in my mind. It’s so casual and easy and sensual. That’s my dream hosting vibe. My black jumpsuit is a close second though.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
The ones who stay all night, laughing.
5 items we'd always find in your pantry:
RA: Capezzana olive oil, fresh lemons, a good red wine vinegar, Laoganma Spicy Chili Crisp, Maldon sea salt.
TC: My oil trifecta - olive, grapeseed, toasted sesame; lemons and limes; dijon mustard; anchovies (seriously, they can transform a dish); multiple heat sources - red chili flakes, sambal, pickled hot peppers, etc.
Do you reference any family traditions when you cook?
TC: I always feel my mom and my grandmother with me when I cook for people in my home. I learned how to cook from them, and I watched my mother host hundreds of dinner parties as a kid. My style is very different from hers, but I have a deep love of hosting because of her, and certain qualities of the way I throw parties come from watching her host when I was a kid.
Favorite after-dinner activity:
RA: A very witchy group of girlfriends gave me a tarot deck a while back and would you believe I can read tarot now? Well, kinda. But it’s a fun thing to do at a party because it gets people to really open up. Suddenly we’ve gone from talking about TV shows to the childhood nostalgia that’s holding someone back from moving forward in their love life.
Tell us about one of the best meals of your life.
RA: King Restaurant in New York. I know that sounds like a plug because I designed their menu, but I’m 100% serious. I did the work before they opened and then when I had my first meal there I was like, “oh this is going to change everything.” And it did.
TC: Years ago I was hiking with some friends along the Costa Brava, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It’s a fairly rocky coastline that runs high above the sea, and as we descended down to the beach, we approached a couple of divers just out of the water. With their spears and nets still wet, they were cooking paella over a small little fire with fish and squid they had just caught. They shared a little with us and to this day I think it was the best bite of food I’ve ever had. I might be chasing that feeling for the rest of my dinner party career.
How do you live life like you mean it?
Life is too short not to go for the thing you’re passionate about. Go on that trip you want to take. Get that second bottle of wine. Work hard, keep healthy, but take risks.