How I Gather

“Good Company and Good Food”—The Couple Behind Scratch Restaurants Hosts a Backyard Dinner Party at Home

And can we talk about that steak?

By Isabelle Eyman
Photography Michelle Nash
al fresco dinner party

Abstract art has a way of eliciting the inevitable: That looks easy, I could paint that. The untrained eye only sees haphazard strokes and seemingly random splotches of paint. What it doesn’t capture is the years it took to hone in this style and to develop the confidence to explore the boundaries of art. This truth extends across most creative disciplines, particularly within the evolving world of food. We assume minimal-ingredient recipes imply ease, but the best chefs know: simplicity has a place at the table.

That’s certainly the case for Margarita Kallas-Lee and Phillip Frankland Lee, co-founders of the Scratch Restaurants group. We can appreciate the stunning complexity of the omakase at their nationwide Sushi by Scratch Restaurants locations and the thoughtfully curated 12-course tasting menu at Pasta|Bar. And of course, Margarita’s turning out edible art (re: visually stunning and flavorfully innovative treats) at her most recent, Austin-based venture, Wolf and Wheat. But Margarita and Phillip are also in on the truth: good ingredients deserve to taste exactly as they are.

al fresco dinner party tablescape

On the Perfect Gathering

This humility and respect for quality ingredients play a key role in the duo’s success. It’s fancy, but approachable, cueing guests into the novelty of the experience while also welcoming them in. The response? An immediate cult following. Phillip and Margarita have experienced explosive growth over the past two years, now owning and running nearly 20 restaurant establishments across the country.

Because it’s not only their food, but the narrative the couple weaves into their work and dishes that has us captivated, we stopped by for a dinnertime gathering. What’s on the menu? Steak, of course, tomato salad, and to finish it off, Margarita’s strawberry cake with mascarpone creme. Come step behind the scenes with us of this Michelin star-studded couple’s success.

What informs your approach to food?

Phillip: At home, we have friends over to hang out. We love to cook, and so when we bring friends over, we want to cook and share with them. But it’s really about hanging out. At the restaurant, it’s about providing a service, an escape, and a great experience. We do that through the food.

Tell us about your home. What’s your favorite part of the space?

Margarita: Phillip found it. We weren’t looking to move from downtown Austin, but Philip saw the home and we just kind of just fell in love with it. I was seven months pregnant. It was important for us to have an escape, and this property is just that.

Phillip: When we first moved here, we lived downtown on Fifth and Brazos, but our life is very hectic working in the restaurant industry, so we wanted somewhere with some land and a bit outside of town. We found an area where we had friends that offered a very peaceful and nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of downtown, which is where we spend most of our days working.

Margarita: My favorite part and what made me fall in love with the house is the kitchen. It ties the whole house together, and it’s great for when we have family over. It just feels very open and comfortable, and we love to entertain.

Phillip: It’s a recent build so we didn’t do much to it. It was ready for us to live in. The way the house is arranged, it’s all spread out around one big living room, with an open floor plan. We have a big backyard, an at-home gym. a Morozko Forge cold plunge, a SISU sauna, a barbecue, and a pool.

phillip and margarita, dinner party
al fresco dinner party, summer gathering

What does a great gathering look like for you?

Phillip: Usually, we open a bottle of wine, cook a great piece of meat from Iron Table Wagyu (the same 100% full-blooded wagyu that we use in our burgers at NADC) and just hang out.

Margarita: For us, it’s fun to have another couple over or a group of friends and hang out, enjoy the jacuzzi, enjoy the fire pit on the back patio, and have a good conversation.

We also love hosting Friendsgiving, so for three years in a row, we literally have about 60 people attend. It’s fun for us because everyone gets involved, and everyone’s cooking and helping set everything up all together. We call it Transplant Thanksgiving because it’s every one of our friends we know who moved out here from another part of the country who can’t go back home for whatever reason so we make that place for them here in our home. It’s great to give that holiday experience to everybody.

baking, strawberry cake, chef
strawberry cake, dessert, outdoor dinner party

Walk us through a typical day for you.

Phillip: Every single day is different. When I’m not traveling, I wake up around 8, start my day with grounding for 10 minutes, a 3-minute ice bath, run a mile barefoot on the treadmill when it’s cold or outside when it’s warm, then I work out, then start with emails.

I haven’t had more than 30 consecutive days at home since living in this house so being home is like being on vacation. That is my time off, even though it’s not really time off. I’m always trying to exercise, eat well, and work from the minute I wake up to when I go to sleep. Work can be anything from writing menus, finding new purveyors to work with, thinking over new restaurant concepts, doing interviews, negotiating new contracts, looking at potential spaces, to training new staff.

Margarita: My perfect, balanced day starts with waking up with our daughter, having coffee, hanging with her in the morning and hopefully working out. Since we have a gym at home, it’s so much easier. I like to do the ice bath and then get ready. Our daughter goes to nature school then I go to Wolf and Wheat, prep recipes, work with the team, handle 1,000 other things (haha!), make dinner at home, and take a family walk in the evening. Once she goes down for the night, when we have time, we chill in the sauna.

Strawberry Cake with Mascarpone Creme
al fresco, outdoor dinner party, tablescape

What products you love for the table?

Phillip: We’re not fancy at all. When we have people over, we put out plates, and we just put out the food. We don’t do crazy settings or anything like that.

Margarita: I love Our Place glassware, but other than that, we’re not that fancy! And ORNA makes my dream candles that I would for sure put in candle holders in the middle of the table. I love Flamingo Estate, they have the most beautiful candles that are great to light in the restroom when you have company. I feel like it’s always a nice touch, and I also like to have little hand towels set aside specifically for company.

What’s your must-have cooking tool and why? 

Margarita: A pot because you can make so many different things in it, like pasta or stew. We use all restaurant-grade pots and pans purchased from restaurant supply websites/stores.

Phillip: At home, my grill is my favorite cooking tool because I don’t have to clean much, it’s easy, and I can cook everything on the grill.

chef, grilling, steaks
grilling, steaks, dinner party

What are your favorite cookbooks?

Phillip: I do collect them, but I’ve never deeply read a cookbook because I don’t want to read other people’s recipes and be overly influenced. I have a book that I do like about sushi called The Sushi Economy. It’s the story of the economics of the sushi boom and more about the history and business side. I’m re-reading it right now actually.

Margarita: I’m on the same page, reading more educational things like The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother.

Tell us a few things we’ll always find in your refrigerator? 

Phillip: Sauerkraut, tabasco, butter, and I always have a 50% avocado, 50% olive oil blend that I use.  

Margarita: Buckwheat, eggs, and venison in the freezer. For the buckwheat, I like to boil whole buckwheat with a little bit of salt as a side for dinner, finished with either butter or a little bit of sunflower oil. At the restaurant, we use buckwheat flour for our almond and buckwheat brownies. I also like to use buckwheat flour at home to make pancakes for our daughter.

What scares you about entertaining and why?

Margarita: I feel like people often, including me, stress out about not having all the little things because you feel self-conscious after seeing things on Instagram, where everything looks perfect. But who cares? As long as you have good company and good food, nothing else matters. It’s all about the atmosphere and who you’re with.

grilled crab, dinner party, grilling, cooking
tablescape, outdoor dinner party, al fresco dining

Your signature dishes for gatherings?

Phillip: Some kind of protein, a salad, and a grain. For the meat, it’s just salt and pepper because it’s the simplest, purest, most delicious way to eat meat. I don’t do any marinade unless I’m doing a whole animal. We use good quality meat and fish, and we keep it simple since we do enough fancy stuff for the restaurants.

Margarita: I like to do amaranth. I actually made it last night and I put a little bit of almond oil on it. It’s really delicious and so versatile. It’s great for fish and anything, honestly. We had lamb with it last night. My favorite way to dress a salad is with almond oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It’s super simple! I normally use that on a tomato cucumber salad with onions and herbs, maybe parsley or dill. I also like to use that dressing on a chopped cabbage slaw with parsley. This is my most-used almond oil.

Tomato Salad Recipe

Margarita: We have my sourdough, and for dessert, I’ve made Brown Butter Apple Bars and a Cobbler. I make things that are very, very simple yet still satisfy a dessert craving because I’m making dessert all day long at Wolf and Wheat.

Phillip: At our last dinner party, we had lobster tails, lamb, bread, roasted veggies, salads, butter.

Margarita: We always get a variety of drinks, especially N/A options like Topo Chico, Olipop (my new favorite), or any other flavored sparkling water is great! And for our friends who like to imbibe in wine, it’s important to get a variety of wines. We always get bubbles, an orange wine, and a red.

Your go-to weeknight meal to eat at home?

Margarita: We are cooking a lot at home because we cook everything for Aurelia. I mean, when we’re traveling it’s a bit harder, but I feel like we cook a lot. I make a lot of stew, and then when Phillips’s in town, he always does stuff on the grill like lamb or venison. Our daughter loves venison!

strawberry cake, dessert, dinner party recipe
strawberry cake, dessert recipe, outdoor dinner party

What’s one tip for someone who wants to host a gathering on a budget?

Phillip: You don’t need a big budget or to be fancy to host a great dinner. Grab some chicken thighs, and some vegetables, and make a salad to go along with it. People like to eat something yummy and simple at home, and you don’t need to spend a ton of money to make that happen.

Favorite question to get to know someone?

Margarita: Whenever we have people over, we go around in a circle and answer a question like, “What was the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” to get the conversation going and people end up telling funny or crazy stories! There’s a lot of wine happening during these dinners.

The perfect dinner party playlist includes:

Margarita: I either do Lofi Beats or Khruangbin radio. Jungle is also a good one.

Go-to centerpiece solution:

Phillip: A big-ass Iron steak. Food is the centerpiece for us.

bread, homemade sourdough, outdoor dinner party

What is your no-stress party rule to live by? 

Margarita: When we have a ton of people, it can feel stressful, but I think you have to remember that people just want to hang out, eat, and enjoy their time. They’re not looking to judge you. Definitely having your mise en place ready before people arrive! Sometimes, you can get behind or forget things, so it’s always important to remember to get what you need a couple days before so you’re not stressed out.

Dream dinner guests?

Phillip: I would’ve liked to have cooked for Anthony Bourdain. That’d be my dinner guest.

Margarita: Dream guest for me is Quentin Tarantino.

Fill in the blank:

A perfect meal should: be yummy.

It’s not a dinner party without: wine. 

Every cook should know how to: season their food.