How I Gather

This Santa Barbara Dinner Party Looks Straight Out of a Nancy Meyers Film

Valerie Rice shares her hosting secrets, gardening tips, and recipes.

By Camille Styles
Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, summer flowers, bar with cocktails

Next up, tastemaker and cookbook author, Valerie Rice, takes us inside her Santa Barbara dinner party at home.

In one of my fantasies, I rise with the sun to gather eggs from my henhouse, collect armfuls of roses to arrange in vases around the house, and harvest fresh lettuces and squash from the garden to toss in an oversized wood bowl for the night’s dinner. And that, my friends, is the everyday reality of author and tastemaker, Valerie Rice, who shared the secrets of her beautifully crafted life in her new cookbook, Lush Life: Food and Drinks from the Garden.

What’s immediately evident when you meet Valerie is that these are no vanity projects: her deep knowledge of gardening and instinctual approach to cooking reveal a lifelong devotion to these passions, and she’s quick to share whatever she’s learned. Her excitement to teach and inspire others to plant a garden or get creative in the kitchen feels like a friend who’s cheering you on—with a rosemary-garnished cocktail in hand.

Last month, Valerie hosted a twilight dinner for a few friends in the garden of her home, featuring recipes from Lush Life. She invited us in for her dinner prep, spilling hosting tips, sharing recipes, and spreading joy along the way. Read on for the beautiful night (get your Pinterest board ready), and to find out how Valerie Rice hosts a Santa Barbara dinner party.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior

How did you learn to cook?

I spent most of my childhood cooking alongside my Belgian mom. She always gave me responsibilities, salad dressings, chopping veggies, making dessert, setting the table, and the less fun, dishes—I still dislike dishes. I also grew up watching Jacques Pepin cooking on PBS and in my own little make-believe world, I’d like to think that he taught me to cook. I love his anecdotal and informative approach to cooking elegant food simply at home (I still watch him on Instagram.) Later in my life, wherever we traveled, I took cooking classes and staged in restaurants which polished my skills. But of course, my library of more than 200 cookbooks provides me with daily inspiration and advice.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, garden

What informs your approach to food?

First and foremost, I look to the garden. Whatever is growing right now is going to be the best tasting, and in California, we’re super lucky to have fantastic produce year-round. For Lush Life, I organized the chapters by season as that’s just how my brain works. For example, if it’s summertime, I will be growing and eating tomatoes and zucchini. Lots and lots of tomato and zucchini, so I need inspiration.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, vegetable garden, summer produce, veggies

For that, I look and cook around the globe. I mean you can’t have enough flavor options and styles of cooking in your repertoire for the amount of zucchini that are going to come out of my garden. Maybe Mexican one night and Moroccan the next—these cuisines keep the avalanche of squash interesting and tasty.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior

Now, tell us about your new cookbook—what inspired it and what do you want people to take away from reading it?

The funny thing is that I have been thinking about and working on this cookbook for more than 10 years. I had millions of ideas and hundreds of recipes, but what was most important to me was to create a book that first and foremost people would cook from.

I love cookbooks and cook from them all the time. My recipes had to not only work but be easy to put together with minimal ingredients, offer bold flavors and not create a ton of mess in the kitchen.

In the edit, where I pruned and pruned, it came down to the recipes that I cook on regular rotation, for my family, and for my friends. I wanted my readers to hear me beside them coaching, cheering, and drinking right alongside them as they cook.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior, bar on potting bench setup

A picture for just about every recipe was essential and the book had to be easy-to-read (larger print for middle-aged eyes) and be chock full of information and tips that would make the cook be able to create a bar, pantry, and even a garden, for themself.

At its heart, this book was inspired by our life here in Santa Barbara—just-picked fruits and vegetables from the garden—complete with plenty of do-aheads and the least amount of dishes.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, garden
I also wanted to fill the seasons out with garden advice to inspire readers to get out in the dirt and plant something. I’ve found that gardening quickly becomes addictive. I started small, and now I have to schedule time each day to prune, water, feed, and harvest. The great thing though is that it never feels like work.

As the garden flourishes so does my spirit and that good energy flows right into the kitchen.

For me, your recipes are the perfect meals for entertaining. What does a great gathering look like for you?

More than perfect plates and stunning flowers, a great gathering is filled with happy people. And nothing makes people happier than being greeted by a relaxed host with a cocktail in hand.

Hosting should seem as effortless as possible and for every recipe in the book, I have shared tips and plans for how to do things ahead, or when to finish at the last minute or even meals that I cook for my friends after long nights out together. Great gatherings can be big or small, and in our home are always ones where we have as good a time as our guests. I’ve tried to put that spirit of generosity into every recipe. There’s a hot dog recipe in the book for a reason. You have don’t to make a four-course meal. When you start with the best ingredients, even a hot dog is guest-worthy. My best advice for that is to have a well-stocked pantry and bar of the best ingredients on hand. I include lists and lists of those in the book.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior

Your home is incredible—tell us its story. 

We moved into this house about eight years ago. I fell in love with its Spanish colonial architecture, old bones, and family-oriented floor plan. My favorite thing about the house is that the dining room is outside and the backyard came to us with an empty slate. Which of course, much to my husband’s dismay, I was very, very quick to fill up!

What started with a small vegetable area and some fruit trees have grown to include the “Coop de Ville” for our growing flock, a rose garden with more than 100 rose bushes which provide bouquets for the house and my friends, a smattering fruiting trees are dotted through the property—blood oranges, pears, apricots, apples, kumquats, grapefruits, yuzu, loquats, white peaches—some in the ground and many in pots sprinkled throughout the garden.

I’ve built multiple compost systems for easy access to all the areas of the garden, and we use a combination of drip irrigation and hand watering which conserves as much water as we can. I realize that I didn’t really talk about the house but I think you know where my heart is!

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior

Walk us through a typical day for you.

I’m usually up by 6:45 to feed the dogs, then I meander out to feed the chickens and check on the yard. The garden, in the morning, is a very special place; quiet, serene, cool—and I love the crunchy sound of the gravel underneath my flip-flops.

I’m managing a lot of things while the girls are home for summer. In addition to our normal life, college tours for my oldest and my book tour for me—things are, let’s just say, chaotic. I’m trying my hardest to stay organized, but it honestly doesn’t come naturally to me. Once I get a chance to sit at my desk, I rewrite my schedule for the day and then I try to get a workout in with a friend—sometimes it’s a hike, sometimes it’s sharing a training session. I found over the years when you have a busy schedule, the best way to stay connected with friends is to exercise together. Lately, a group of us are going to Zumba on Saturday. It’s hilarious.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior

For this evening’s gathering, Valerie invited a few friends for dinner in the garden. She served a simple, late-summer dinner, and served all recipes taken from the pages of Lush Life.

Here’s what’s on tonight’s menu:

Summer Sonics

Crudite with Ranch

TriTip with Padron Peppers

Grilled Zucchini with Chile & Mint Vinaigrette

Roasted Stone Fruit

Valerie Rice dinner party, baguette, bread
Usually, a cocktail and dinner prep coincide. Nothing eases tackling dinner like a cocktail.

Lately, we have been making Salty Dogs with the remaining grapefruit on our trees. Just three ingredients (gin, grapefruit juice, salt)—perfection!

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, dog, pet

The perfect dinner party playlist includes:

I love varied genres of music for a dinner party from Billie Holiday to Mac Miller and usually, a little Dolly Parton is in the mix because she always makes me smile.

Valerie Rice dinner party, yellow dress, host

What do you drink and eat in the morning?

After I wake I usually down a large glass of lemon water first thing and push the Nespresso maker for my coffee. I’m not a big breakfast person, but if I do, it’s a green juice (from the winter chapter, but great year-round—it feels great to use up all those greens in the garden) and omelet or some kind of eggs from our hens.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior, bar on potting bench setup

What are some items you love for designing a table?

Basket chargers create a landing place for dishes that feels perfectly California casual elegant.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior, bar on potting bench setup

I always have plants on the table because our dining room is in an outdoor area. They can thrive and make the table always look nice even when it’s not set. Succulents, herbs or lollipop-styled olives in terracotta bring the garden to the table in a natural way. For a more lush look, I often use little vases filled with garden flowers like roses and dahlias.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, summer flowers, bar with cocktails

Click here to get the recipe for Valerie’s Summer Sonic cocktails.

We are serious about wine in our home. These ultra-lightweight crystal wine glasses (you can’t believe how sturdy they are!) grace the table because you can serve everything in this shape from Champagne to Barolo. They are also so elegant, drinking out of them feels like a celebration even if you are eating hot dogs.

Valerie Rice dinner party, yellow dress, host, setting the table

Always cloth napkins and often it’s a tea towel. I like the versatility of a tea towel especially because they tend to be larger in size, and you can use them in the kitchen or on the table.

I love to mix and match the fun napkins and tablecloths from Heather Taylor Home. The styles are perfectly California; equally great on a table in a dining room or out in the garden

Valerie Rice dinner party, appetizer, crudité, veggies

Get the recipe for Valerie’s recipe for her crudité with ranch here.

Valerie Rice dinner party, appetizer, crudité, veggies

What’s your must-have cooking tool?

Your palate—always taste your food as you cook and adjust seasoning as needed.
Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara

What are your favorite cookbooks?

This is a very hard question—there are so many to choose from and I am literally obsessed! Our family room is lined with bookshelves all packed with cookbooks. I organized by color because even when I can’t remember the title of the book I can always remember what color it is. Here are a few favorites:

David Tanis Market Cooking by David Tanis

Handy for the veggie gardener because it’s organized by market ingredients which is so helpful when you grow fruits and veggies and you have a huge haul.

Italian Regional Cooking by Ada Boni

One of my favorites, thanks to my love of old cookbooks.

The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

It’s a great reference for all morning meals from sweet to savory.

Valerie Rice dinner party, eggplant and grilled steak, summer dinner

Get the recipe for Valerie’s Grilled Zucchini with Chile & Mint Vinaigrette here.

Valerie Rice dinner party, eggplant carpaccio

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

Greek yogurt, heavy cream, parmesan cheese—perhaps I’m too invested in dairy?

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, bougainvillea and mediterranean house exterior, table setting

What scares you about entertaining?

Not being prepared and overcooking meats. It’s literally impossible to save overcooked meat.

Get the recipe for Valerie’s TriTip Steak with Padron Peppers here.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, summer flowers, bar with cocktails

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

You don’t have to break the bank to entertain and you also don’t have to make a whole meal. Invite friends for drinks and appetizers and focus on making those offerings special.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, summer cocktails

Your signature dishes for parties:

Just about every time I entertain, I make one seasonal cocktail (all you need is one good choice), which I try to make in advance, and a crudités with house-marinated olives and dip. This way I get to use up what is in the garden, the crudités are never the same because the dip and the ingredients change seasonally (good for inviting guests on repeat), and crudités satisfy just about every single dietary restriction.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, summer cocktails

Your go-to weeknight meal to eat at home?

Whole-roasted terracotta chicken is served just about every Monday (and sometimes on Saturday night for friends.) It’s a culinary workhorse, because any leftovers can be used for lunches through the week from salads to tacos, and I make stock with the bones.

Valerie Rice dinner party in Santa Barbara, table with guests

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

It’s important to realize why you are entertaining and make sure you have fun! Your friends are really not there for the food, but to have a good time and be together. Do what you can to minimize your stress level and maximize your time together. If you are not confident in the kitchen, set a pretty table, pop a great bottle of wine (ask a local shop for a recommendation), and order pizza.

Get the recipe for Valerie’s Roasted Stone Fruit here.

yellow garden rose

Fill in the blanks:

A perfect meal should… linger.

It’s not a dinner party without… wine.

Every cook should know how to… roast a chicken.