Baskets overflowing with grapes, a platter of figs dotted with unlit cigarettes, luxuriously pooled olive oil: these are the hallmarks of an Alimentari Flaneur grazing table. The chic, opulent spreads have made appearances at events for brands like Proenza Schouler and Waldorf Astoria, where they can lend a sense of instant conviviality to a room. And Daniel Soares, the creator of Alimentari Flaneur, says creating one is a whole lot simpler than one might think.
Soares is part of a family of food industry pros. His great-grandparents came to the New York City area from Puglia, Italy, and started a fruit and vegetable market that went on to become the specialty grocery store Balducci’s. Along with Balducci’s, the family’s gourmet grocery legacy includes Grace’s Marketplace on New York’s Upper East Side. “I grew up in that world,” Soares says. “Every Sunday, I would go to my grandmother’s house, and she would make a big feast. Food was always very theatrical and ritualistic to me.”
Soares had his own specialty food store in New York City for a time, where he showcased his favorite imported and local produce and provisions, but these days, his dramatic approach to food is most evident in the grazing tables he creates for events. His is an approach that would also make any Thanksgiving dinner party seem that much fancier, so we spoke to Soares about how the amateur host can take a page from the Alimentari Flaneur playbook.
Eater: How did you carve out your own niche in the food industry?
Daniel Soares: I actually never wanted to work in food. I worked in real estate, I worked in fashion, I moved to Paris, I did everything I could do to avoid it. But while living and traveling abroad, I noticed that whenever I felt lonely, or like I needed to do something that felt deeply familiar, I would go to the market. I just loved the ritual. You would go every other day, if not every day, and see the same people, customers and vendors alike. I really fell in love with that.
After having that experience and then coming back to New York and joining the family business, I started to understand that food and particularly grocery is really intimate — you have beautiful relationships with your meat guy or fish guy or cheesemonger. I began to understand that there’s something more to food than just the food itself.
My slogan for my business was “quality, simplicity, and intimacy.” That third piece is really where I was able to carve my own niche: My family, and a lot of places that I love in New York, like Barney Greengrass, completely embody that idea of intimacy. I wanted to create that experience for people with my markets, and now with my events: How I can use food and hospitality to make you feel comfortable, cared for, seen?
The Alimentari Flaneur Instagram account is populated by opulent, even artistic-looking spreads. How would you describe your aesthetic?
My goal is to get you to understand this very intuitive idea, which is that simplicity is a luxury that only quality can afford. It’s catchy, but what does that really mean? To me, when I put together a spread of beautiful cheese and prosciutto — these nostalgic, simple foods — what I’m trying to do is get people to understand that this is enough.
Everyone thinks that I had this intuitive cooking skill because I grew up in the family that I did. In fact, I hated food and I hated being in the kitchen because my grandmother was a tyrant in the kitchen. When I got older and started entertaining, I always said to myself, Okay, well, I don’t really know how to cook as well as my grandmother, but I do know a good piece of cheese. I know where to get really good cured meats. And I know how to make fruit look really beautiful. So I’m just going to do that. Whenever I would do that, I noticed that people were really happy. As I started to explore that idea professionally, what I began to understand is that [you can take] really good tomatoes in the summer, sprinkle them with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and you shouldn’t do anything more than that. A fresh fig in season is perfect the way that it is; just cut it and serve it.
Once I had confidence in my taste and my ability to source really good, quality ingredients, I began to trust this idea that if you could present them in a beautiful way — put them on a silver platter, light some candles, and maybe add some floral arrangements or try to recreate a still life — people will really appreciate that.
Cooking is simple, but to some people, it can be terrifying to boil water. You have to develop confidence in your relationship with food. I think the easiest and best way to do that is by understanding good ingredients or what’s in season, and how to spot that produce. Once you get the foundation, then you can start cooking and manipulating things. But you have to start with the basics.
Where should people start in terms of finding the quality ingredients that can stand on their own?
The first thing that people should do is go to their local farmers market and understand what is in season, what’s being grown locally. Beyond produce, if I had very limited knowledge of food, I’d ask my parents where they shopped and see if those places are still around. If they are, then I know that that’s a great place: There’s no better test of quality than time.
What are your strategies for making a Thanksgiving or other dinner party spread look impressive without adding stress to the day?
My grandmother always said “abbondanza.” The reason why I put so much food out is because it looks beautiful. I want people to feel like even though we’re grazing and eating very simple foods, they have a lot. You want to create an appearance of abundance. That’s very important to me, and to the way that I express hospitality. It makes your guests feel seen and cared for, and it’s fun.
I think about what ingredients I can buy a lot of that aren’t cost prohibitive. For example, you could buy five or six pounds of grapes, and depending on what kind you get and where you get them, it certainly won’t break the bank. Buying a lot of excellent mortadella is a really good way of being able to put out a crowd-pleasing food that is inexpensive and people will eat.
The other two items I will always have on my table at a dinner party are mounds of good bread, sliced, because people love bread. And I always put out an entire dish full of olive oil: It takes up space on the table, and it’s really fun for people to dip the bread. Everyone loves dipping bread in olive oil, and if you don’t, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Grapes, mortadella, bread, and olive oil: the four essentials as far as I’m concerned, Thanksgiving or not.
Any final tips for the aspiring host?
I’m going to be very biased here. But the reason why Grace’s Marketplace, my family store, and even Balducci’s back in the day was so successful wasn’t just because we sold produce and cheese and interesting provisions, it was because we had a prepared foods department. They would take all the store’s leftovers, whip them up in the basement, and then serve them by the pound upstairs. They were one of the first stores in the country to do that, and to this day, that remains our most popular department. So I would say go to the prepared foods department of a specialty grocery store that you trust. Ask for samples and then get whatever you don’t feel comfortable making that you want to serve at your dinner party. If you don’t want to make chestnut stuffing, you’re allowed and encouraged to go by it, and you don’t have to lie about it.
You should never serve something that you yourself don’t like, because when you interact with your guests, you should be able to share either what they should expect from [that food], or why you’ve chosen it. It just makes them feel so much more comfortable and invested. Even if it’s not the objectively best version of that thing, it almost doesn’t matter, because you’ve made them feel so secure and cared for that they’re just excited and happy to be there. Your job is to host, not to blow people away when it comes to food.
If you’re a first-time host or you’re afraid to host, make things that you have mastered, go to your local specialty food store, get a few sides that you’ve tasted and enjoy. And then no matter what you get, make sure that the table looks cool. So buy those grapes, buy the bread, buy the olive oil, and I promise you people will be impressed.