Dec. 7-13, 2001
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Cross & co. create five-star experience at Carr's Hill
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Cross & co. create five-star experience at Carr’s Hill

Nargis Cross and executive chef Peter Bowyer
Rebecca Arrington
Manager Nargis Cross (left) and executive chef Peter Bowyer are part of the Carr’s Hill team that welcomes some 20,000 University guests a year to the president’s home.

By Charlotte Crystal

Nargis Cross is probably one of Charlottesville’s busiest hostesses — and not just during the winter holidays.

Cross, who manages Carr’s Hill, is responsible for the happiness and comfort of nearly 20,000 guests a year, January through December. Carr’s Hill serves both as the private home of President John T. Casteen III and as an elegant setting for official University entertaining.

One of her biggest entertaining challenges was a dinner for a national children’s literacy group hosted by Linda Johnson-Robb. Cross had to drop plans to put wildflowers on the tables in honor of Johnson-Robb’s mother, Lady Bird Johnson, because Johnson-Robb is allergic to flowers. Instead, Cross worked with a local florist to create centerpieces that featured books, stuffed animals, fruits and vegetables — but no flowers.

Cross’ recipe for success includes many different ingredients, not the least of which are experience, dedication, teamwork and a sense of humor. Together with Peter Bowyer, executive chef, and Barbara Jett, executive housekeeper, the trio handles more than 200 social events a year, from occasional breakfasts-for-two for visiting dignitaries and their spouses to annual student receptions for 2,500.

To entertain a guest is to make yourself responsible for his happiness so long as he is beneath your roof.

Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin
The Physiology of Taste

Cross’ secret is an organized filing system bulging with detailed checklists on each event — the nature of the occasion, the guest list, the menu, the décor, the china and the budget — everything that Emily Post suggests one keep records of and more.

Behind-the-scenes organization ensures that annual events run smoothly, that VIPs are not left off guest lists, and that a hickory-smoked ham isn’t served by mistake to a major donor who eschews pork. Together, she and Bowyer note the food preferences and allergies of frequent diners, relying mostly on memory.
Bowyer, who marked his 10th year working at Carr’s Hill last month, enjoys the variety of his job and the opportunity to try new things. Devoted to French cuisine since a trip to France in 1994, Bowyer has mastered other styles, including Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese and Indian.

Nargis Cross’ five tips for successful party planning

Set the tone with décor: pleasant surroundings, pretty flowers and a beautiful table make for a great event.

Provide physical comfort: the room should not be too hot or too cold. This is especially important for events held outside under a tent.

Arrange a good mix of people: for official events, it’s important to have all the key people there and VIPs should be seated properly, and for informal events, it’s good to invite people with shared interests to stimulate conversation.

Serve good food: a well-prepared meal always contributes to a memorable event.

Enjoy yourself: if you’re relaxed and having a good time, the chances are your guests will, too.

He has enjoyed working for Casteen over the past decade. “He loves good food and he loves good serving,” said Bowyer, adding that Casteen also has an adventuresome palate and has encouraged Bowyer to use his imagination in the kitchen.

“I feel like part of the family here,” he said.

Another member of the Carr’s Hill family is Barbara Jett, who has served the University for 43 years. The head housekeeper shuns the limelight, but works quietly behind the scene to ensure that the house runs smoothly.

Jett is responsible for hiring the bartenders and temporary servers for Carr’s Hill events. She also supervises Violet Baker, a housekeeper in the residence.

Cross, a relative newcomer to the team, took over as manager of Carr’s Hill in March 1996 after 18 years managing grant awards and working as an editorial assistant for the department of psychology.

“Nargis shows all the professionalism one would expect from the president’s staff, but when you’re at Carr’s Hill, she treats you with all of the kindness she would a guest in her home,” said Robert D. Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs. “Nargis, Peter and Barbara make Carr’s Hill one of the finest entertaining experiences in American higher education. They have been key to the success of our past and present fundraising efforts.”

A sample of events on the packed Carr’s Hill calendar typically includes an August reception for 2,500 new students, a reception at Fall Convocation for 1,100 students receiving intermediate honors and their parents, a dinner buffet for 400 international students and their host families, a reception for 250 new faculty members and a continental breakfast for 500 alumni. Dozens of smaller events take place throughout the year.

Cross does her own quality control by keeping an eye on what sells and what doesn’t. She also has a good vantage point for viewing changes in people’s tastes. She has seen fish, especially salmon, grow in popularity over the past few years, while red meat has declined in popularity — although older men still tend to prefer the latter, she said.

“We plan many of the events out of our budget,” said Cross, whose office door in Leake Cottage bears the sign, Office of Minor Events and Financial Wizardry. “But the Office of Development pays for many of them with private funds. Most of the events have a very practical purpose — to strengthen the University’s relationships with people who are important to us.”

 


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