An Interview with Mona Talbott of Talbott & Arding: Cooking for the Gettys
This week, STAIR visited our neighbors at Talbott & Arding in Hudson to speak with Mona Talbott Owner/Culinary Director, about her time as a private chef to Mr. and Mrs. Getty. We joined her in the Talbott & Arding culinary kitchen to watch her prepare a few dishes in the spirit of the Getty’s unique household and find out what it was like to cook for one of America’s most prominent families.
The gallery preview at STAIR is currently displaying The Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty which provides a multitude of insights into Mrs. Getty’s various avenues of interest and her clear talent for acquiring fascinating objects, many of which were used at mealtime! On par with her interior design prowess was Mrs. Getty’s reputation for entertaining distinguished guests and, naturally, doing so in high California style. Mona Talbott shares her culinary insights with us to explain the essence of Mrs. Getty’s memorably chic luncheons and dinner parties with tasteful tablescapes and farm-fresh food at the center of it all.
Q: It must have been fascinating to see Mrs. Getty’s vision for hosting unfold. How did her tablescapes and sense of design come into play when preparing an event menu? What was the process?
For large dinners and parties, we worked closely with Mrs. Getty’s party planner (Stanlee Gatti) and her senior household staff. The theme, decor, flowers, linens, and tableware were selected in advance of the menu planning. Also, the style of service – buffet, individually plated or à la russe was factored in when designing a menu.
If there was a distinguished guest or theme, that would inspire the menu. We worked with the best seasonal northern California ingredients and would send up menus for Mrs. Getty’s review.
The food was to be delicious, familiar, pleasing, fresh and bright. The menus were meant to complement and work in harmony with all aspects of the party and not to be overly complicated or to be the center of attention. If there was time before the guests arrived, we were invited upstairs to see the decorated rooms and table settings.
Large events and parties were planned months in advance and required teams of people to move furniture, art, and antiques to storage and make space to set up tables, bars, and seating areas.
Q: Which years did you work with the Gettys? Are there any anecdotes you’d like to share about your experience?
The last time I worked at the Getty home in San Francisco was 2004 – 2006 before I moved to Rome. Jennifer Johnson, a dear friend, and Chez Panisse alum, was their full-time private chef. I was hired when JJ was on vacation or needing help with menu planning, kitchen management and often as part of the large team of talented Bay area chefs needed for events. The Pacific Heights mansion was very well run and had a large upstairs and downstairs staff. After events the kitchen staff would sit around the twenty-foot Italian walnut table located in the center of the large kitchen, eat dinner, and gossip with the housekeepers and butlers. Often Mr. & Mrs. Getty would come down to the kitchen to thank us personally and Mr. Getty would encourage us to taste the unfinished bottles of wine.
Q: We know that Mrs. Getty grew up on a farm and that Mr. Getty owned a vineyard in California. How did fresh, local ingredients come into play when sourcing dishes for them?
Northern California has an abundance of fresh meat, seafood, fruit, and vegetables. Menu planning was a joy and a pleasure. We kept the dishes light, somewhat feminine and subtly layered in nuance and flavors. It was my experience and observation that Mr. & Mrs. Getty understood seasonality. The finest peaches are ripe in August, spring heralded fresh English peas and asparagus and we often served local fresh Dungeness crab in December.
Mr. & Mrs. Getty respected the time and care that went into excellent sourcing and cooking.
Q: What did you prepare for us today and how does this dish typify what one might have had as a dinner guest at the Getty home?
- White asparagus tips with Meyer lemon shallot vinaigrette and Ossetra caviar – this was a dish served for a December 2004 buffet dinner for 400 in celebration of Mr. Getty’s 71st birthday.
- Seared scallops with ruby grapefruit, red endive, citrus vinaigrette, and chervil – this would be a typical luncheon dish.
- Maine lobster salad on toasted focaccia with truffle potato chips – this is the kind of snack/lunch that we would send up on a tray upstairs for Mrs. Getty and guests.
- Sweets selection – homemade marshmallows, chocolate matcha sandwich cookies with tangerine ganache, brownies – Mrs. Getty loved sweets.
Q: How would you characterize the spirit of a “very Getty” dish? What elements or aspects were important to them as hosts?
Elegant, light, approachable, not fussy, or messy to eat. Dungeness crab salad with lemon truffle vinaigrette and mache or Sonoma duck legs with cherries braised in California Zinfandel. The food was meant to delight the palate but not to take away from conversations and decor.
Q: Colin mentioned that the Gettys had legendary, special Sunday dinners, can you tell us a little bit about them?
It is my recollection that these were much more casual intimate-style dinners where the family entertained their close friends and family – often eating in the kitchen at the long table. This was an opportunity for home-style cooking and family favorites. They loved grilled ribeye steak, sauteed spinach, and homemade french fries served with Heinz ketchup. Mr. Getty would select the wine and often Mrs. Getty would serve her homemade chocolate walnut cookies.
Q: We know that Mrs. Getty loved honing in on specific themes for her interiors and that her dinner parties were no exception, are there any memorable dinner party themes that you remember preparing?
I remember one party that had an East Indian influence – peacock blue, silver and white, and orchids! We brought in mini pakoras and samosas from an Indian restaurant in the East Bay to serve during the reception with house-made tamarind and mint chutneys.
Q: Was there anything about cooking for the Gettys that stayed with you or made an impact on the way you cook or approach food today?
I think striking the balance between abundance and restraint. We had the most beautiful ingredients available to cook with, but we never wanted the food to appear vulgar or over the top.
About Talbott & Arding
Talbott & Arding’s provisions are the product of a love affair with the Hudson Valley that plays out in their storefront each day. There they curate the best the backyard has to offer: from cheeses to meats to seasonal produce. If it doesn’t meet their standards, it doesn’t cross their countertop. It’s that simple. The result is their tribute to this landscape that nourishes them.
Visit the store:
202 Allen Street
Hudson, NY 12534