Christopher Elbow shakes, slices, scoops and turns up the heat in his lush backyard retreat.
Story by Kimberly Stern | Photos by Jason Dailey
Most times, clear skies and balmy temperatures are a prerequisite mood setter for a successful late spring outdoor dinner party. Add a slight breeze to rustle the trees and dappled light to cast flattering shadows on guests. Intertwine that with great music, delicious food, refreshing drink and scintillating conversation to create memorable magic.
At least that’s what I hoped for when Jennifer and Christopher Elbow issued an invitation to attend an intimate backyard pizza party in early June. Fickle Midwest weather gods had a different plan—backdrop to the revelry at party time was a ceiling of gray, overcast skies, threatening to burst at any moment, and thick, sticky air with not even the whisper of a breeze.
No worries, though—when the Elbows entertain, it’s always a sparkling affair, regardless of the elements. Playing affable host is their fabulous mid-century modern home, situated on two-and-a-half acres in a surprisingly secluded location off a major Kansas City thoroughfare. Guests in the mood to celebrate include Elbow pals Darren Mark, owner of Scenic Road Productions, his wife, Leslie Goldhahn, of Miriam Garvey, and Merritt Engel of Kansas City’s Merrigan and Co.—excited to experience her first Elbow get-together.
And from the moment Christopher approaches the cocktail shaker, meticulously preparing the Broken Flower (the Elbows’ of-the-moment house drink) it’s apparent that the perfect recipe for an outdoor soiree doesn’t include sunshine after all. On the menu: Shaken cocktails with top-drawer ingredients, expertly blistered slices of Neapolitan pizza from a backyard Forno Bravo oven stoked with oak wood, and for a fragrant apple crisp, melty scoops of three varieties of Glacé Artisan Ice Cream from the Elbows’ well-stocked freezer.
“Jennifer and I fell in love with this cocktail in Portland,” Christopher says, measuring out Reposado tequila and Cynar, an artichoke liqueur, “and adapted it for our use.”
Satisfied that the guests have drinks in hand, Christopher moves to the spacious kitchen countertop where his mise en place includes Pecorino Romano, artichokes, pancetta and other top-notch pizza ingredients. “For the dough, I have a 200-year-old yeast starter that I buy online and of course, Caputo ‘00’ flour,” he explains, lifting up the lid of a large plastic container where snowy-white disks of dough rest. “Jennifer and I prefer simple pizzas, so we use few ingredients. One of our favorites is a classic margherita.”
Make the recipes Christopher Elbow prepared for the party
A last-minute decision to reset the table from the indoor dining room to the al fresco space on the patio has Jennifer and guests ferrying plates, flatware and napkins outdoors. Candles are set down the middle of the table and placed in a rustic chandelier hanging from a sturdy tree branch. Lights strung across the back of the house add to the illuminated ambience and a fire from a nearby copper pit flickers in the gathering dusk.
Entranced as Christopher pulls out pizza after pizza from the searing hot oven, each one bubbly and beautiful, guests squeal their collective approval. Slicing each edible work of art, the pizza magician leans down into the pie, examining it from every which way. “Good gluten structure,” he proclaims before sending the familty-style platter around the table.
Silence descends as bites are taken. Mark polishes off his plate and excuses himself to mix up another round of Broken Flowers. Jennifer muses about feeling like she’s on vacation, living in this off-the-beaten-city-path retreat.
Christopher Elbow is something of a scientist, obsessed with knowing the whys and hows of producing food, which is one of the reasons Elbow Chocolates are acclaimed (and remain one of Kansas City’s most popular hostess gifts). He gives thumbs-up to four of the five different pizzas tonight, but admits there’s always room for improvement. “I enjoy learning the science behind things such as baking and bread making. It’s never-ending.”
Dessert is apple crisp, piping hot from the pizza oven. As Christopher offers guests their choice of Glacé—vanilla, fleur de sel or salted pretzel—to accompany the sweet, he gazes across the expansive lawn, no doubt thinking about the gluten structure of tonight’s pizza, and how to improve it.