Hosting Tips

Summertime in Maine with Isabel Gillies

By Chanel Dror
The Penobscot Bay, Maine

I’ve never been to Maine, but I know I’d love it there. Growing up, one of my close friends headed east each summer to spend 6 weeks rope swinging and eating fresh seafood with her family, and I couldn’t help but feel the steady onset of jealousy upon hearing the stories and seeing the photos when she’d return in August. Sure my family traveled, but being a summer-in-Maine family isn’t just traveling — it’s something you’re born into.

No one is more familiar with that birthright than today’s Entertaining With subject. As an actress for many years (that’s Kathy Stabler for my fellow Law & Order SVU fanatics!) and a New York Times best selling author, there’s no question that Isabel Gillies is familiar with life in the Big Apple. But when you add summering-in-Maine to her bio, it becomes clear that this Manhattanite is about as New Yorker as you can get. In preparation for the last long weekend of the season, Isabel invited our team into her family vacation home to experience summer in Maine as she’s known it since childhood: shopping at the farmer’s market, gardening, picnicking on the dock, and splashing around in the bay. Click through for all the gorgeous details, and we’d love to know: Does your family have a vacation spot you return to year after year?

 *photography by Buff Strickland

Always in your refrigerator:

Greek yogurt, milk, spinach, almond butter, good Chardonnay, apples, majool dates and eggs.

Your must-have entertaining tool:

A good night’s sleep.

Tell us about your amazing garden? It looks like an absolute dream!

This is my mother’s garden! It’s a combination of cutting flowers, herbs and some vegetables. Her favorite are the nasturtiums. They crawl all over the garden and last until the frost. In the early morning while I lie in bed, I can see my mother walking to the garden in her bathrobe. She noodles around in there, pulling a few weeds and cutting fresh flowers for the day. When I get myself into the kitchen for breakfast there are bright sunflowers or sweet peas in a little vase in the middle of the table. I have learned everything I know about entertaining from her.

Your standard hostess outfit:

Bare feet and something long. I want to be relaxed, but a little dressy.

Says Isabel of their vacation home, “It’s my parents’, but it’s been in my mother’s family for ages. We have been coming up to Maine my whole life. The house to me feels like the house in Howard’s End. It’s small and huge at the same time.”

Current favorite color palette for parties:

I have been going to the fabric district and finding beautiful Ikat for table cloths. Whatever colors are in the fabric I match or contrast to the flowers are in season. I don’t really ever have a plan — except for valentines day, then I use my napkins with embroidered hearts.

The taste I’m always craving:

Anything with shrimp in it.

Your fresh spread just screams summer! Can you tell us what you’re serving today?

This is really simple, and in the summer, is there anything better? There is a wonderful, gooey cheese that you find at the market on the island. I don’t even know what it is, but it’s a brie. It melts as easily as butter on good, hot oven toasted bread. If you have a hunk of that cheese and a tomato salad with a ton of basil (if you are very lucky it’s all from a garden), kids can grab a wedge of bread, smear the cheese on it and pile the tomatoes all over it. It’s messy, and a taste sensation.

Any tips to assembling the perfect summer salad?

Tomato salad can be made many ways, but I like it simply with cherry tomatoes cut in quarters and salted. Glug good olive oil all over and chop a lot of fresh basil. If you want to sprinkle red wine vinegar in the mix, that’s good too. Just never put tomatoes in the refrigerator, it will ruin them.

The entertaining rule you rarely break:

FHB, which stands for Family Hold Back. I hope to always make plenty of food for everyone, but if somehow there are fewer drumsticks than I would have hoped for, the guests get them and the family holds back! If you look at the shepherds’ pie and it appears a little small for the crowd, whisper to your kids and husband, “FHB!”

The perfect dinner party playlist includes:

I only play music before the guests come (I have been feeling Zac Brown lately). I don’t like music during dinner. To me, it distracts from good conversation.

We make ice tea with Lapsang Soo chong. It’s smokey and surprising as most ice teas are too flowery. To cut the smoke, I jam about five stalks of mint (again from the garden — spoiled girl) in a jug, then two or three tea bags and then pour boiling water over it all.

I don’t believe kids should drink caffeinated iced tea so they have lemonade. If they get jealous of the tea that all grown ups ooh and ahh over, they can have a splash in their cups!

Tell us about these gorgeous picture albums. The grid of square photos bring to mind a perfectly curated Instagram feed:

These are my mother’s albums! They are Il Papiro. We have them dating from 1968 until now. Vanessa and I grew up here as little girls and I thank goodness there are a few pictures of us from that time (in the 1970’s you only got a handful of pictures a summer to treasure). Here, she and I are looking at a photo of the two of us ages 3 and 4 on the same beach that you see in the photos. The fact that our children now play on the same beach is a dream come true. Because of iPhones, those kiddos will have 40 thousand pictures of themselves to look at when they are older!

What (if anything) scares you about entertaining?

Entertaining doesn’t scare me, but I always want people to leave feeling they have had a good time and that it was worth the effort to come. The truth is sometimes you give a great party, sometimes you give a dud. If you don’t have duds every once in a while, you won’t learn what to do better the next. It’s like anything in life.

This is such a picturesque summer scene. What body of water are you on?

The Penobscot Bay.

Your dream dinner guests:

The Obamas! (I just day dreamed for ten minutes about how fun that would be. What would I serve? Who would we invite — everyone would say yes!)

My entertaining style in 5 words or less:

Good times.

The restaurant meal I’ll never forget:

I can remember almost every meal I ever ate. It’s annoying, really. My husband and I go to an incredible restaurant in NYC called Telepan. We sit at the bar after seeing movies. In the winter during Hanukah they serve the most extraordinary latkes with caviar and smoked salmon. We pick a big Oscar nominated film, then go to Telepan to drink great wine, devour the potato pancakes, and have egg nog for dessert. It’s heaven.

Who are your guests today?

Vanessa and I have been friends all of our lives and happily now get to raise our children here in the summertime, just as our mothers did. Pictured with us here is my son, Thomas (my other two kids were at camp), her son Oscar and her little girl (my god daughter), Imogen.

Click here to get the recipe for Isabel’s Lapsang Suchong Iced Tea!

What do you most love about summertime in Maine?

Kids leaping off the dock. We often have a slew of kids (most of who’s parents I grew up with) swimming off the dock, baking cookies or finding crabs on the beach. It’s like that here — many of the families have been friends for ages. It brings a tear to my eye when I think of the years and years of friendship that’s being carried on by the next generation!