Story by Beth Stallings
Melissa Johnson has thrown a lot of parties in her day. As head of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events and a 30-year vet of the hospitality industry, her soirees span from intimate dinners to triple-digit guest lists with complex courses and themes.
But when the party moves to her home, things get a lot simpler. “I try to find a good balance between composed and thoughtful, while also making it easy on myself,” says Johnson, who often hosts friends for casual get togethers with her chef husband, Rob. “I want people to feel comfortable. I want them to feel like I care.”
Thoughtful, she adds, is not to be confused with everything from-scratch or perfectly matched and coordinated. If the evening’s theme is simply, “this is my house, and this is how I do things,” that can work. Whatever you’re doing, just be true to your style. Give yourself permission to relax—hosting friends shouldn’t be stressful.
She suggests keeping three things top of mind: the time of year (“I am not going to serve out of season,” she says), who’s on the guest list (“I like to be considerate [of their tastes],” she says), and sharing what she loves. That starts with handing guests a glass of bubbly as soon as they walk through the door.
“One of my biggest things is Champagne. I always start with a brut rose,” Johnson says. She always has a few bottles of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rose, a dry French sparkling rose, on hand. (If you’re on a tighter budget, Johnson suggests a brut rose from Domaine Chandon.) “We’ll pop a couple bottles to start the night off. You can never go wrong with bubbles.”
Here’s what else you might encounter if you stop by Johnson’s home for dinner:
“Probably my favorite go to drink in the fall is our Peach Bourbon cocktail,” Johnson says. “We love to frequent Lynd Fruit Farm and buy their fresh Peach Cider. We serve this over ice with bourbon and a splash of soda water. It is so fantastically good. … I don’t like things overly sweet. It’s not that sugary sweet. It’s balanced so well.” (Heading to someone else’s house for the night? Johnson suggests bringing a small jug of peach cider and bourbon as a hostess gift.)
Come the holidays, Johnson’s never-fail cocktail is a bloody mary (recipe below). She uses a slightly modified recipe she got from the Northstar Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe years ago (hence why she calls it her Mountain Mary). “It has 15 ingredients,” she says. “And I don’t batch it. When guests see me making it fresh, it’s a conversation starter.”
It’s rarely a sitdown meal at Johnson’s. “We like to roll things out. We pull some cheese out, then maybe the caprese comes out, and chicken. Then the party can last however long you want.” Her staple dishes are easy for guests to graze on, and many have a story, like her husband’s apple crisp. “Rob’s apple crisp is to die for,” she says. “It is a recipe from his childhood growing up in California and visiting Apple Hill.”
Always on hand
Roasted nuts that can sit out in a three-compartment dish. She’ll stock it with almonds, cashews, and dark chocolate bark. “I like to put something sweet out to balance it out,” she says, adding, “My other go-to items are cheeses. I like it because we are overscheduled and they are pretty much prepared. Then I like to go and find a mango chutney or jam, one little spread you can put with your cheese. I don’t have to do anything, but it adds that layer of composition.”
Melissa’s Mountain Mary
1 ounce worcestershire sauce
10 dashes of your favorite hot sauce
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 ounce olive juice
1 dash dill weed
1 dash cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon Himalayan salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon fresh horseradish
1 ounce steak sauce
1 ounce pickle juice from baby gherkins, plus gherkins for garnish
1 ounce cocktail onion juice, plus onions for garnish
1½ -2 ounces vodka
Pepper jack cheese, to garnish
Salami wedge, to garnish
Banana pepper, to garnish
Queen Anne olive, to garnish
Stalk of celery, to garnish
Add worcestershire through vodka to a pint glass. Roll ingredients with the metal cup of a Boston Shaker, leaving the mixture on the shaker side. Fill now-empty pint glass with ice, pour bloody mary mixture overtop and top with Spicy V8 juice (or mild if you prefer).
Roll all ingredients again, back and forth and let them settle in the pint glass with ice.
Top with a small grind of black pepper and Himalayan salt to float. Garnish with a skewer of pepper jack cheese, salami wedge, banana pepper, Queen Anne olive, cocktail onion, baby gherkin and a stalk of celery.
Rainbow Orchards Apple Crisp
2 pounds Golden Delicious apples
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup flour
½ cup butter (not margarine)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and slice apples, and place in a shallow 1-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with water. In a large bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Cut the butter into the dry mixture. Distribute generously and evenly over the apples (don’t mix).
Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes. Serve warm and, for the best experience, top with organic pure vanilla ice cream.