Once a month, weather permitting, a dozen or so people dine al fresco at a little-known Lake Highlands eatery — the host mingles with guests and, with the help of one assistant, makes the planning and execution of a five-course meal look effortless. It’s not a restaurant in the typical sense, but the home of Erin Willis, a caterer, mother of two, blogger and wife of landscaper Tim, who thankfully keeps the lawn prim for Willis’s increasingly popular Backyard Dinners.
She got the idea from an article in Food and Wine magazine, and used Facebook and her busy blog (which is chock full of practical, quality recipes and witty commentary) to publicize it. “We try to create a restaurant feel, but there’s no rush. It’s relaxed, and it’s fun.”
The most recent Italian-themed evening featured pasta with mushrooms, zucchini pudding and plump white chicken breasts with sage and rosemary gratin potatoes. All of the evening’s recipes were based on lessons learned during a summer European vacation. Guests, who reserved a $55 seat in advance, were advised via email about what wine to bring to complement the fare.
Willis recently quit her job as an escrow officer to go full force with her catering biz, Erin Willis Caters. She eventually would like to open her own York Street-style restaurant in Lake Highlands, and says the blog and Backyard Dinners provide practice and reputation-building that she hopes will set the stage.
“The guests at the dinners are my sphere of influence. They are my guinea pigs.” And they certainly don’t seem to mind testing Willis’ creations. “Erin uses fresh, locally grown produce from the farmers market or her own garden,” raves friend Leah Noble. “She loves what she does, and it shows with every dish she prepares.”