Anna Gerlach’s friends make the most of her open door policy when it comes to entertaining. Anna gives us an insight into how to create a great dinner party that’s all about the fun without the fuss.
Guess who’s coming to dinner… Anna Gerlach
It’s the collection of huge, eclectic art works hanging in the fresh, white hallway that give the first glimpse into the creative flair of Anna Gerlach. The impressive art collection continues through the entire house and includes works by Myriam Mechita, Amy Joy Watson, Magnum photographer Trent Parke and, the jewel in the crown, a piece above the fireplace in the living area called Cobra, by acclaimed artist Michael Zavros.
“He’s a big deal now,” says Anna. “I bought that 12 years ago and wouldn’t be able to afford him now.”
The paintings, sculptures and photographic art works form a creative backdrop to this inviting eastern suburbs home that Anna shares with husband Andrew, and sons William, seven, and Oscar, five. But the place where Anna’s own creativity comes to the fore is in the kitchen.
This bubbly 44 year old is one of Adelaide’s most respected caterers, running her own business Indulgence Food Design from a commercial kitchen in Stepney. She began the business in her home 20 years ago and today she is in demand for corporate events, weddings and parties. Anna has served rock stars, prime ministers and royalty, including Prince Andrew, but when she’s not working, she loves to pull on the apron and cook for family and friends in her own home.
“My home is a very happy place,” she says. “It’s rare that we don’t have people here on weekends. We have an open door policy, and the fact that I am a caterer means most people say yes when we invite them.
“This place is my sanctuary — my art, my family, my friends and of course, the food.”
While we can’t all be professional chefs, entertaining at home with flare is achievable for everyone, says Anna, who has opened her home to SALIFE to give a glimpse into how she does it.
She is hosting a dinner party with several of her closest friends, many of whom she has known since school days. Tonight’s guests are Zoe and Scott Elvish, Amanda and Simon Lambert, Sarah Abbott, Bec Kelly, Anna’s sister-in-law Jec McCabe and husband Sam, and Mathew Lavelle, who has worked alongside Anna in the catering business for the past 12 years.
The canapes of prawns, beetroot risotto cakes and slow roasted yellow truss tomatoes are out on display forming glorious dots of colour on the huge marble island bench as guests arrive. The atmosphere is jovial with people standing up and sipping Champagne.
Sarah Abbott, a long-time friend of Anna’s, says an invitation to the Gerlach’s home is always exciting.
“Of course, it’s a given the food will be amazing,” she says. “But what I love is the simple fact that Anna loves opening her home and welcoming her friends and family. She entertains effortlessly but it’s relaxed, not over the top. It’s always fun.”
When it comes to creating casual, memorable times in her home, Anna is clear that it’s not just about the food. It’s also about great friends, good conversation, nice wine, chilled music (she likes jazz for dinner parties), a few flowers and of course mood lighting.
“I always have lamps on and candles burning,” she says. “I’m a lamp nut. There’s nothing worse than going to a party, especially when you hit your 40s, and all the lights are on. I love a candle-lit atmosphere. And not three hour burners, go for six to 10 hour burners.”
While the thought of cooking for a crowd can make many of us break out in a cold sweat, keeping it simple is key, says Anna. Number one — get super-organised. Plan a menu, read cook books and importantly, work out what you can prepare in advance.
“I have it all ready and then on the day it’s just a heating process, so you can have your mashed potatoes ready, your sauce ready, your meat par-cooked. If you’re using a decent butcher or fishmonger you assume you’re getting fresh produce, so you can have everything done the day before. That’s your stressful day,” she says.
“So your planning, shopping, prepping it up is all done, so in the morning you might pan fry or barbecue, then rest it, sit it in the fridge and an hour before your guests come have it all out on the bench. That’s the other thing, people want to see the food — have it all out on your bench; it’s exciting.”
If you do cook anything on the night, make sure you use a timer, says Anna who has learnt from experience.
“I forgot to use the timer and I was having a conversation with someone and those carrots were black, they went straight in the bin. There’s nothing more devastating if you burn things in front of friends, but I think they were all thrilled that I’d stuffed it up,” she laughs.
“The sauces are the main thing to watch out for when you are entertaining at home because if you have sauces on they are the first thing to go.”
Anna often opts to do finger food when she’s entertaining as it’s less work and a sociable way to interact — small bite-sized items that are easy to eat with one hand, don’t drip and can be eaten standing up. She calls these roving dinner parties.
“I might serve up carpaccio of kingfish, which I love. I love raw fish, raw scallops, anything raw, I’ll eat it. I put all the food out and people love it. Everyone who comes here loves my mini-hamburgers,” she says. She often starts with an antipasto platter served on her huge cheese board — filled with dips, cured meats, salmon, hot trout, cheese and biscuits.
While Anna takes a relaxed approach, there are a few must-dos she sticks to when hosting a dinner party. These include having flowers around the house, always warming the dinner plates, using linen napkins because “even though they are more trouble they look beautiful”, making sure you have butter on the table and salt and pepper and lots of water, all the things people look for when they sit down, as the idea is to minimise the number of times the hostess is getting up from the table. And wear sensible shoes!
“Don’t wear ridiculous heels when you’re entertaining, you will be miserable and you will be slow — wear wedges if you want height,” she laughs.
For those who are not particularly confident about cooking, the menu can be as simple as salads, a barbecue and bought dessert — Anna specifically recommends not cooking a hot dessert on the night.
“Go and get some beautiful petit fours and cheese platters and then people can move around,” she says. “A hot dessert is stressful and more plating up. Just get a tart, some cream and icing sugar. There are so many beautiful bakeries around so that alleviates that stress.”
Making the most of South Australia’s incredible local produce and supporting your local butcher or fruit and veg shops is a must, says Anna, who also recommends other quality outlets such as Bottega Rotolo, The Providore or Adelaide Central Market. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what’s in season and how best to cook things.
“You don’t have to have a full-on dinner,” she says. “Make some beautiful salads and have a barbecue with some really good cuts of meat. We have so much at our finger tips now. Do salad with some good quality meats and use your Beerenberg sauces.”
The love of cooking and shared plates is in the genes for Anna, who grew up watching her Serbian grandmother, Ruža Poucki, prepare food for the family.
“She’s 93 and she still cooks daily, and she gardens,” Anna says. “She was from a small town north of Belgrade and, without sounding offensive, they had a lot of that peasant style eating, community eating — very simple, delish, tasty food with lots of onion, garlic, celery, carrots, herbs. Every base was extraordinary, very different to how the English and Americans ate.
“I found it fascinating to watch her. I would help her, but I made a huge mess and she loved it. I would bake cakes and burn the hell out of them and she’d teach me how to do it properly.
“The number one thing I learnt from my grandmother was flavour — the thing I always like to be sure of is the flavour. That old style cooking is really important — there are a lot of new trends that people love, and I love, but there is something to be said about old style cooking, and maybe modernising it with a twist. People love it, they come back to it and find it comforting.”
Anna cut her catering teeth in Adelaide, mentored by Tina Llewellyn from the Rolling Pin, starting out as an eager 18 year old and running the kitchen there by the time she was 21.
“I just got it and understood it,” Anna says. “That’s where I learnt the art of finger food. In those days it was Jane Bungey who is regarded as Adelaide’s first caterer, and people like Paul Fitzgerald.”
She then spent three years working in London for some of the top catering firms doing big scale events and celebrity parties.
“You didn’t blink when Elle Macpherson walked past the kitchen,” she says. “That was good for me because I came back home and today I deal with prime ministers and all sorts of people and I’m not fussed or intimidated. We don’t treat any client any different because they’re all there to enjoy our food.”
As guests tuck into their dessert of truffle-filled Riedel glasses, Anna sits back and enjoys the moment. Once her guests are gone and she’s cleaned up, she’ll be up early and back at it tomorrow with her team — catering for two sit-down weddings, a 50th birthday with 200 guests and a 40th sit-down lunch of 80! “I just love it,” she says.
Dill and lemon marinated SA gulf king prawns
Beetroot risotto cake with wild Italian rocket, truffled mascarpone, slow roasted yellow truss tomatoes and
Carpaccio of Atlantic salmon with salted baby capers, horseradish floss, lemon creme fraiche, preserved lemon oil and smashed pink peppercorns
Smokey, crispy paprika chicken topped with braised currants, shallot and kale pesto with a blood orange and white wine jus
Pan fried gnocchi with asparagus ribbons, burnt sage butter with a herbed micro salad, Woodside goats curd and mint oil drizzle
Cumin roasted Dutch carrots with spiced pine nuts, braised fennel and zucchini ribbons, Roma tomato and green shallot dukkah salad with fresh cos and balsamic glazed snow pea tendrils
Fresh artisan bread rolls with whipped butter
Riedel glasses filled with Christmas trifle, champagne chocolate mousse, lemon curd and rosewater jelly with sugar glazed almonds
2015 Bird in Hand Nest Egg Joy
Fox Gordon The Empress Chardonnay
Fox Gordon Rusé Rosé
Fox Gordon The Dark Prince Nero d’Avola
This article was first published in the Dec 18/Jan 19 issue of SALIFE.