What's in a Hearth? Chefs and Hosting Experts Share their Vintage Dining Sets

Objects of Note

Shawn Cremer

Generations of social scientists, architects, designers, collectors, and even ancient worshippers of the Greek Goddess Hestia, venerated the Hearth as the center of the Home. That said, hardly any of us any longer cook using an actual hearth anymore. Fireplaces, for the homes that still have them, are rarely even in the room where cooking or eating is done. But the essence of the Hearth as the center of the home still remains.

It’s a life-long observation of mine that no matter efforts to the contrary, guests at a party always congregate in the kitchen. And that is proof enough that the proverbial hearth still retains its position as the magnetic pole of the home. If the kitchen is where guests naturally gravitate, the dining table and its accouterment are the logical extension of that hearth-like epicenter.

In about a month, I am moving to a very small walk-up in lower Manhattan and, while I have several pieces of furniture I’ve collected over the years that are coming with me, a dining table is not one of them. As I’m thinking about how to find the correct table for my lifestyle and new environment, I thought who better to talk to about sourcing a great dining set than the people who love food the very most in New York City? And so I called up five preeminent foodies and hosts to chat about their current dining set, how they lay a beautiful table, and what makes for a great dinner party.

Nir Sarig | Co-Founder, Eti

Nir Sarig started his creative career as a fashion photographer living in Tel Aviv. Though he continues to capture his life visually, his core work now revolves around food. Having worked in kitchens in Tel Aviv, Berlin, and London, Sarig now lives in Brooklyn, where he is in the process of developing a truly great Middle Eastern restaurant.

“I was annoyed by the kind of Middle Eastern food you find in New York,” he told me. “It’s always baba ganoush, falafel, schnitzel…” He wants to bring the diverse palettes and influences he grew up with to New York.

While that project — called Eti, after Sarig’s mother — continues to evolve, he continues to cook, participating in pop-ups and hosting dinner parties for friends, that he sometimes shares on his account Look At Me Eating.

Sarig shares a Clinton Hill apartment with his girlfriend, fashion writer Laura Reilly. Together, they’ve sourced their dining furniture and an enviable collection of ceramic, glasses, and flatware, largely from vintage sources.

The centerpiece of Sarig and Reilly’s dining room is a vintage Alvar Aalto for Artek table that seats six found on 1stDibs and a set of vintage chairs from an upstate antique store. Sarig and Reilly enjoy getting out of the city to source pieces, where the prices tend to be better and rare and covetable objects crop up.

Nir and Laura’s vintage Alvar Aalto for Artek table and vintage set of folding chairs

Sarig has a particular knack for assembling the most unexpected plate of food out of the most understated ingredients. He takes a similar approach to assembling a dinner party and a tablescape. He likes to keep things playful, opting for something unexpected to serve another purpose — a shell as a candle holder for instance.

“It has to be playful and fun and stay casual. I want people to feel casual around the table, homey, welcoming, comforting. Playing with the wine, appreciating, talking, having a fun evening,”

Playfulness is a theme in our conversation. While we’re talking, Sarig’s two birds — Ouzo and Amba — fly over to alight on his shoulder. This symbiosis feels indicative of his philosophy around food and food-adjacent decor. Sarig describes his love of materials that are natural, and perhaps a bit imperfect.

“I am influenced by Laura and her love of Mexico. In Israel, I was always drawn to natural materials and textures that time did its thing on,” he says, describing fired clay plates that are pressed with leaves and ferns. “I use a lot of Moroccan metal plates, mixed with a carved wood tray or plate, terracotta or ceramic plates… linens. We’re like all the Brooklyn girls who like linen,” he laughs.

All the Brooklyn girls love linen!

He describes to me a spectrum in the food world between chefs who are all about the romance of the meal, and those who are about manipulation of ingredients and technique.

“I’m trying to figure out in any dinner party, any food gathering, the balance between the romance and showing off technique or some unique flavor combination.”

Finding this balance feels related to designing a tablescape to meet the cuisine and hospitality of a dinner party.

A collection of Sarig’s favorite vintage serveware.
An antique beaten metal Moroccan charger
Sarig and Reilly’s primary dinnerware is a set of Oaxacan smoked clay plates.

Aimee France | Vegan Baker & Food Stylist, Yung Kombucha

Aimee France began cooking for herself in a serious way in high school, when she decided to go vegan, which necessitated becoming acquainted with a host of foods previously unfamiliar to her family.

“Back then I was cooking cursed vegan food. It wasn’t what it is now,” she tells me.

What it is now is fanciful, savory platefuls and whimsical, seasonal cakes that she shares and sells through her Instagram, yungkombucha420. France is one of those early quarantine-era bakers whose passion project took off. Now, she primarily spends her days baking and cooking in her apartment.

France makes the most of a small space with a high-top Ikea table that she admitted to having inadvertently burned the other week with a hot saucepan while baking. She keeps a selection of dried herbs in jars that she’ll use for cake decoration and which act as functional and evergreen decoration.

Aimee France’s Ikea high top table set for breakfast with her antique teapot and cup, three-tiered tray, and green scallop shell vase.

Until she has more space for a statement table or sources the perfect drop-leaf antique, France will continue to collect unique dishes. The way she describes her interior design aesthetic, it’s clear she subscribes to the Delightful Objects Theory of home decorating.

“Usually in the morning, I have my little teapot with my little cup and saucer and I use whatever dishware is speaking to me that morning and that I think will look nice.”

She has a set of handmade ceramics picked up on a trip to Stowe, an antique plate painted with strawberries and bok choy, and a small soap dish with a painted man sitting on… a stump? A stool? The toilet? … that she’ll use for tiny snacks.

Two of Aimee France’s vintage dishes; at left, a painted soap dish; at right, a small porcelain plate featuring a Chinoiserie pattern

France shared her tips for what to look for in a good dining set: “Good chairs that have a back to them!” We agreed there’s something charming about sitting on the floor around the coffee table (which she usually throws her gingham tablecloth over), but you can only let your feet sleep so much.

"I love using a ridiculous amount of small plates, even though it makes me have to do a million dishes!"

Calvin Eng | Chef & Owner, Bonnie’s Brooklyn

Calvin Eng is a born-and-raised Brooklynite. He opened Bonnie’s (named after his mother…are we seeing a theme?) to share and celebrate the Cantonese cooking he learned from her.

Like Aimee France, Eng doesn’t have a true dining table at home. So instead, I asked him to describe his dream table.

“If I had the space, it would be a round table with a lazy susan top. Sharing meals and chatting over a round table is so much more intimate and fun than shouting down a long table,” he told me by email.

Eng and Melnick’s collection of vintage Fiestaware makes every meal Technicolor.

When setting a table, Eng and his girlfriend Phoebe Melnick, who helps run communications for Bonnie’s, gravitate towards color. Melnick’s collection of vintage Fiestaware forms the basis of their dinnerware, which they augment with specialty pieces and mix-and-match glassware, including Eng’s favorite vintage Tsingtao glass.

Calvin Eng’s favorite vintage Tsingtao glass with a gold rim.
Eng and Melnick gravitate toward unique dishes, such as these antique glass oyster plates.

Eng and Melnick like to entertain family-style, keeping things light and casual. “I like using small glassware because I enjoy the act of constantly pouring and refilling glasses for guests and myself. Whether it's beer or wine, small cups that constantly get refilled make drinking more fun in my opinion,” Eng says.

A family-style array of confections and carbs in Eng and Melnick’s Brooklyn apartment.

Simon Hoas | Head Chef, Swedish Consulate

Simon Hoas is the head chef at the Swedish Consulate.

Simon Hoas is a Swedish expat living in New York, where he serves as the Head Chef at the Swedish Consulate. Hoas comes from a culinary lineage; his dad is a chef and he first started learning the techniques of cooking in high school. Hoas grew up on Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, where produce is abundant, and the number of restaurants per capita is high. What’s more, plenty of antique and thrift stores dot the island. In short, it is the perfect incubator for food and vintage dining objects.

Before moving to the US, Hoas’ dining style was classic Scandinavian. In his small apartment in Stockholm, he had a teak Danish table that could fold up small enough to store in a corner of the kitchen or unfold to seat all of his friends.

“I was collecting dinner plates for many years. I had a period when I was collecting old Finnish, Swedish vintage plates. I was very into the very Scandinavian look, the blue rims, floral patterns.”

Now, in New York, Hoas’ style melds with his partner’s. As the founder of Lower East Side lifestyle and design hotspot The Break, Hoas’ girlfriend, Hannah Richtman, is no stranger to sourcing show-stopping furniture, nor hosting a large-scale meal. When she finds something she really loves for The Break, she’ll bring it home instead.

A vintage collapsible tray that Hannah Richtman’s mother found in London. Hoas and Richtman use it for snacks or drinks or as a cheese platter, both at home and at The Break.

The centerpiece of their apartment is an ‘80s marble-topped tulip table and a set of bold, high-back chairs that Richtman found. Like Calvin Eng, Hoas is a proponent of round tables.

“I love round tables. When I go out to eat I always want to sit at a round table because you can see everyone and the conversations are so much better. You can look everyone in the eyes. I prefer that over a long table.”

Hoas and Richtman’s marble-topped tulip table, set for breakfast.

When setting a table for one of these dinner parties, Hoas and Richtman tend to keep the serveware minimalist, layering on the candles and flowers and letting the food speak for itself. That’s certainly not to say the dishes and glassware are uniform.

“I find it so much more interesting to have a dining table with personal items that you’ve found. It brings memory and personality to the table more than just buying new dinner sets.”

One of those items with personality is a set of coupe glasses with stems molded into the shape of Grecian statues. “We drink a lot of sparkling wine so we have a lot of coupe glasses — enjoying life! Drinking natural wine!”

A toast to Grecian Champagne Coupes!

I ask Hoas if he has a suggestion for the type of table I should look for. His response returns to his Scandinavian roots, as he exalts Danish Design again.

“Smart, well-built pieces that will last forever. They’re so beautifully built. Look for something functional like that.”

But, like Aimee France and Calvin Eng, Hoas suggests that a dining table doesn’t need to be the center of a dinner party. He asks why not use the coffee table and toss cushions around it?

“It’s so inviting to sit on a pillow on the floor and sit around the coffee table because that’s usually where we end up anyway with our friends!”

Charlie Ann Max | Creator, Fude

Charlie Ann Max subscribes to the school of thought that food should be sensual. The Los Angeles multi-disciplinary creative hosts nude dinner parties and creates video and photo content about the joys of food and the self through Fude, a project that marries nudity and nourishment.

When I spoke to her, housesitting in the Laurel Canyon, her deep passion for living well was apparent. A sense of purity emerges from a philosophy that peeling back layers — whether of clothes or societal expectations or decor — to arrive at simplicity deepens self-love and elevates conscious living.

“The connection between the purity of our naked bodies and naked food, which to me is plant-based food, life-giving food, energy food, that going hand-in-hand creates something that also feels more energetic and alive.”

For the dining room in her downtown LA loft, Max wanted something simple, practical, and honest. Rather than shopping for a table, she built her dining table and wooden benches herself over FaceTime with her dad. “It’s not that hard to build a table!”

After the table was complete, Max didn’t put a finish on it and over time the wood started warping, but during a visit from her parents, they painted the whole thing white, transforming it and giving it a whole new life.

Meanwhile, she also helped source a travertine table for the Laurel Canyon home from Out of Stok, which she loves to use for dinners because it creates a beautifully simple palette.

Charlie Ann Max keeps it au natural — focusing on essential nutrients for body and table.

“I used to think that everything had to be very monochrome and let the food speak for itself, but now, as I’m coming into my own, I like the playful candles and the playful glassware and plates and things because I think it should always be connected to your personality and be really fun.”

Whether on white wood or travertine, when it comes to setting her custom table, Max lets the meal of the evening and the guest list guide the table design, following the lead of the nourishing food. Ultimately, she always sets out to establish an ambiance where everyone feels liberated.

“Feeling good and eating well sparks loving conversation. For me it’s all about the lighting and the candles.”

She owns mostly vintage tableware, frequently thrifted in Rialto, a city east of LA. She pairs these vintage finds with durable, carbon-neutral East Fork plates.

And despite having two incredible tables to host dinners at, Max, like France and Hoas, is a fan of eating on the floor. “You have to get creative,” she told me. “You’ll find something that fits your space and life uniquely for you.”

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Shawn is an independent contributor at Dendwell.
Lead Image by Charlie Ann Max

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