When you're in a home where dozens of renowned chefs are about to gather for a weekend of merrymaking and fundraising for a good cause, you can't help but get caught up in the excitement of a potential "pastrami-off" between two chefs and the opportunity to indulge in black hummus and shakshuka, an egg dish concocted by cookbook author Joan Nathan.
When Nathan and her husband, lawyer Allan Gerson, built their home 26 years ago in Washington, D.C., she and chef co-chairs Alice Waters and Jose Andres had yet to establish Sips & Suppers, an annual fundraiser typically held in late January for two D.C. area organizations that aim to reduce hunger and homelessness in the nation's capital. Even then, though, she knew that she wanted a home that "loves people" and would function as her laboratory for testing recipes, a warm home for her family and a welcoming place for entertaining as often as possible.
"We were living in a home that was too small and found this land that overlooks Rock Creek Park," says Nathan. "We interviewed 13 architects, and the only one who actually went to the site and came back to us with a drawing was Stephen Muse. He was very young then; in fact, this was his first residential project. Since then, he's built homes for Bob Woodward, for Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn and countless other people in the city. He also designed our home on Martha's Vineyard."
Nathan, who has written 10 cookbooks and is working on her 11th, is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Food Arts magazine and Tablet Magazine. Her former PBS television series, "Jewish Cooking in America With Joan Nathan," was nominated in 2000 for the James Beard Award for the best national television food show.
On a recent snowy day, a complex soup was bubbling gently on her six-burner cooktop being tested for "King Solomon's Table," her forthcoming cookbook, which uses old recipes in new ways to connect the past and present.
"Although I have a study upstairs above the kitchen, I do most of my writing right at the kitchen counter," Nathan says.
It's easy to see why: Nathan's kitchen opens to a casual family room with a two-story ceiling and a floor-to-ceiling stone, wood-burning fireplace. Both the kitchen and family room are wrapped in tall windows and have skylights to fill the spaces with light and to offer glimpses of Rock Creek Park and Nathan's secluded front porch and garden. Nathan's mostly given up her battle with deer and has reduced the size of her vegetable garden. She has a larger vegetable garden at her Martha's Vineyard home.
Nathan and her husband regularly entertain friends, including National Public Radio host Diane Rehm, with Friday night dinners around her custom-made wood table in the dining room. The dining room includes tall windows framing views of the park, a glass door to one of the home's many decks, two doorways into the foyer and two doorways into the living room.
"We love to entertain our friends, and it's also a chance for me to test recipes for my books," Nathan says.
While Nathan spends most of her time in her sunny kitchen, the main level of her home also includes a step-down living room with French doors on either side of the room leading to wood porches. Along one wall of the living room is a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace flanked by windows, with a low stone hearth that runs the length of the room and provides extra seating during large parties.
"One of the best parties was the first one I had for all the out-of-town chefs and hosts for the Sips & Suppers fundraiser six years ago," Nathan says. "We had about 350 guests in here, and we had to get heaters to set up out on the porch. We had two huge roast lambs and tons of food that the chefs and I prepared."
Sips & Suppers started as "Sunday Night Suppers" in 2009 when chef and author Waters developed the idea of collaboration between chefs and volunteers who would host dinner parties in their homes.
"We also wanted to do something for people who wanted to participate but couldn't afford the tickets to the private dinners, so we came up with Sips, which is geared to younger people who are interested in supporting the cause," Nathan says.
Sips & Suppers has raised $675,000 since 2009 for D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table, where Nathan is a board member.
This year, they had 33 dinners in private homes, "the most we've ever had," Nathan says. Tickets to the most popular dinner, with Alice Waters, were $1,000, and the other dinners were $600 per person.
Nathan's home served as Grand Central Station for the weekend events, with donations of gift bags from Whole Foods for the chefs and hosts, cases of wine and other supplies accumulating in her ample garage and storage spaces. About 100 chefs and hosts were feted with a Sunday brunch at her home.
She said she spent a lot of time prepping food for the brunch, while some of the chefs brought some of their signature dishes. "David Lawrence, a chef from San Francisco, flies in every year with a cooler packed with supplies and food for this event. He and Carla Hall, host of [ABC's] 'The Chew,' have a great time cooking together every year."
Nathan designed her kitchen with Muse by visiting the kitchens of friends and fellow chefs and asking what they would change about their own cooking spaces.
"I knew I wanted the kitchen close to the garage and that I wanted a separate area for baking," Nathan says. "I prefer drawers to cabinets because I think it's easier to reach things and keep them organized."
Nathan's kitchen includes dozens of drawers in varying sizes and shapes, many still with a strip of masking tape inside with her handwritten notes from 1988 about what belongs in each space. An enormous butcher block on wheels, found at Maryland's Deep Creek Lake one summer, functions as a cutting board and serving table. Nathan insisted that Muse add extra windows and a skylight to the baking section of her kitchen, which also has a built-in desk and shelves for her cookbook collection.
The original design for the contemporary-style home included a swimming pool, but the neighborhood built a swimming pool and Nathan decided instead to create a berm that adds privacy to the front of the house. In the back, the family built a tree house overlooking Rock Creek Park. Nathan and Gerson's three children, now grown, had a zip line through the woods. The children, particularly their youngest son, enjoyed using a loft overlooking the family room as his Friday night theater space.
"We even built a little stage up there," says Nathan, whose son is now an actor in Los Angeles.
A matching loft, built on the opposite side of the family room above the kitchen, is Nathan's office, which has pocket doors for privacy yet overlooks the family room so she could check on her children when they were young. While she does most of her writing in her kitchen, the office holds her extensive collection of books and research materials. Gerson's first-floor study rests on a corner of the house wrapped in windows overlooking the woods.
The home also includes a master suite upstairs with a private bath and a private balcony. Three more bedrooms, two more bathrooms and a laundry room are also upstairs. The lower level includes an apartment with a kitchenette, bedroom, living area and full bathroom. Nearby is a storage room.
"Joan has a fabulous network of friends and acquaintances, chefs, winemakers and local farmers that she pulls together for Sips & Suppers," says her friend and Sips & Suppers volunteer Suellen Lambert Lazarus. "Her house lends itself beautifully to fun parties and as the command center for the weekend."
Nathan's home won the Southern Home Award in 1990 from Southern Living magazine, and without any renovation since then, the residence functions just as planned, as a warm and comfortable setting for friends and family to enjoy each other's company along with delicious food.