Opening Doors to Friends, Family, and the Beauty of Imperfection
Cat Chen is one of those women who somehow do it all—seamlessly, miraculously, full of grace. It’s no different with hosting friends at home and she makes cooking an elaborate meal for guests look like an effortless task, smiling through it all. She makes even the tedious process of preparing one hundred dumplings by hand seem like a cinch.
Cat has learned through her work with Amber Lewis, the star designer behind Amber Interiors, that our homes are meant to be lived in, shared, enjoyed, and that nothing is too precious. Whether hosting a sit-down meal or having friends spontaneously pop in for a drink, the idea is to always keep things simple, playful, beautiful, and forever down-to-earth. In her own words, “Dance around and spill the wine. Imperfection is beautiful and life will go on.”
What’s your approach to setting the table and planning a menu for friends, whether planning for a big or small shindig?
I keep my table set-up simple, but it doesn’t have to be boring! I love incorporating pattern and color, and my current go-to is a checkered tablecloth, mismatched napkins, and hand-painted ceramic plates. I place them on the table before everyone arrives, add a few citronella candles in seagrass votives to keep the bugs away, and place whatever flowers I picked that week into a few little jars. It only takes a few minutes, but makes all the difference. As for cutlery, I grew up only setting the table with chopsticks, so I don’t think twice about knives, forks, or spoons. I just bring them out when the meal is ready!
I try to keep the meal as simple as possible, too. It’s almost always one main dish and plenty of sides — but when I know it’s for a big group, I keep the recipes super simple and let the ingredients or produce speak for themselves. Think simple dressings, quick pan fry’s, that sort of thing. If it’s a planned meal, I really think about who is coming and what I know they’ll love or haven’t had in a while. Nothing brings me more joy than when my friends have a smile on their face at my house over a home-cooked meal.
Entertaining should always be fun, not stressful or over-complicated. Once I fully embraced that mindset, it really did make hosting so enjoyable. The amount of times you’ll forget something or that something will go awry is just part of hosting. I’ve learned it’s best to laugh it off, sip on a martini, and carry on with the night.
How has working with an interiors powerhouse shaped the way you think about decorating and living in your own home?
First of all, it is hands down the greatest job, ever. Being surrounded by the beauty that Amber Lewis creates and learning from her creations is something special. She has taught me that homes are made to be lived in; you’ve got to have fun with it, and not to be so serious.
What are you personal tips for making a home feel sophisticated but still relaxed, inviting, and homey?
It’s all about how you approach your space mentally. Like I learned from Amber, I’m never too careful with my pieces or how I live or move around in my house. Dance around and spill the wine. Imperfection is beautiful and life will go on!
How would you describe your everyday style, both in terms of your home, as well as how you dress?
Comfortable and casual. I love everything to be relaxed. If I’m not in comfy jeans, I’m in a dress with a sweater nearby, because I’m always “freezing.”
What’s a go-to piece or style of jewelry you always gravitate towards?
I’m all about the classics or heirloom pieces. I currently wear a lot of my mama’s jewelry she left for me or something that has a deep meaning to me. I never take off my necklaces and never leave the house without my Moonstone rings or Crystal Heart Huggie earrings.
What’s your favorite wine and food pairing?
Right now, I’m all about Chenin Blanc with pretty much anything. So, Chenin Blanc or bust.
Who’s number one on your perfect playlist?
I can’t pick one, but it’s got to have Frank Ocean, The Beatles, The Cure. It’s gotta be a mix of old and new and a little groovy.
Your backyard feels like the perfect place to be on a spring or summer evening. What are your secrets for a seamless get-together?
I always, always have a stocked pantry and bar! As much as I love a planned dinner, I love a last minute pop in just as much. I’ll always have ingredients to make a dirty martini and any type of red/white/orange/sparkling/rosé you’re feeling that day.
For this particular gathering of friends, can you tell us some more about the Taiwanese dishes you prepared, and how you approached wine pairings with the meal?
I recreated a few of my favorite dishes from childhood: my mama’s Pork and Shrimp Dumplings and Lu Rou Fan (Minced Pork Over Rice). My mama use to always serve little sides, like spicy bamboo shoots, pickled cucumbers, and soft tofu with soy glaze and bonito flakes — so I did exactly that. I personally don’t get too fussy with wine pairings, but I must say, our Chenin Blanc was truly perfect with this meal.
Some of my fondest memories in the kitchen are folding dumplings with my family. We’d sit around the table, and I’d watch my grandma, mama, and aunts fold the most perfect dumplings and I’d try to figure out how to make them as pretty as possible. As the years went on, my mama would make dumplings for my friends and me anytime we came home from college or on my quick trips home from New York. It quickly became the only dish all my friends requested on our visits, and now, dumplings remind everyone of my sweet mama. The dumplings take quite some time to make and pinch by hand, which to me, means they’re always made with a whole lot of love.
Lu Rou Fan is my favorite Taiwanese dish, ever. Every time I step foot in Taiwan, I go straight to get a bowl of Lu Rou Fan. We eat at small family-run shops, sit on little stools in a garage on the street and I’m the happiest girl.
In addition to food, music, and a beautiful table setting for your guests, of course you need—wine!! Tell us a little about your latest venture in winemaking with your new label, Dulan, and how it came to be.
It’s been my dream to start my own label from my family’s vineyard in Paso Robles, California. I grew up going there since I was 10 years old, would walk acres and acres by myself, and I would always dream of a future where I could start my own business that had something to do with the land. After years in the making, I finally got the courage to start my own company and named the brand after one of my favorite places in the world in Taiwan, called Dulan. It’s a tiny mountain and seaside town that’s a hidden gem.
I’m starting off with this label now and am getting ready to launch my site, but I have so many big dreams with this property that I think about every day. For now, I’ll be selling wines direct-to-consumer and am working hard to get into some local wine shops in LA. If you love Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Chenin Blanc, I’ve got you covered. Stay tuned. :)
With an already exceptionally full plate at Amber Interiors, why did you decide to take on developing a wine label as well?
After losing my mom to cancer abruptly, family meant more to me than anything, and all I wanted to do was put all my energy into something family-related. Something that I could build to last another generation and make my parents proud. Starting this label is so much more than the wine itself. It’s an ode to my family and our roots. It’s a job that fuels an entrepreneurial side of me that nothing else quite can. It’s terrifying and a lot of work, but I saw how hard my parents worked and that ethic is not lost on me.
My father, the most passionate and knowledgeable wine connoisseur I know, was introduced to the Paso Robles region in the late 90s. The region was relatively new compared to Napa and Sonoma, but he saw the potential. The vineyard has been in our family since 2000, and it’s been our biggest pride and joy to preserve the old vine property, originally planted in the 60s and 70s. There are very few Taiwanese families in the wine business and I feel a big sense of honor and duty to carry it on!