At a dinner in a 19th-century crypt in Kings Cross earlier this year, guests were handed lit candelabras and asked to find their way to their seats at the huge banquet table, which was decked with Roman busts, tumbling piles of leather-bound books and more than 100 candles. “It felt like going back to medieval times,” she says. “Dante’s journey is all about finding your way through the darkness.”
When it comes to recreating these opulent scenes, Mahtani suggests bringing height and character to the table with anything from pre-Columbian vases to eroded pieces of Moroccan tile: “It’s not about having the most expensive pieces,” she says. “It’s about putting together objects in a different way.” Covering the tabletop with muslin-colored rolls of calico, Mahtani piles up old editions of “The Divine Comedy,” dressing them with jewels or mounds of figs and grapes, and adding in classical sculptures. She sometimes ties together pieces of muslin with ribbon, adding a small pearl or a jewel inside. Finally, taking notes from “Les Dîners de Gala,” Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala’s 1973 surrealist cookbook, she even serves the food in unexpected ways. “I’ll use a giant shell from the market or a hollowed-out coconut as a plate. Having silly talking points like that instantly helps people relax,” she says. “It all comes back to playing.”
Dispense With the Dinner Table Altogether
The British-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj, who is known for his kaleidoscopic photography, furniture and installation works, travels regularly between his shop and studio in Shoreditch, East London, and his base in the Marrakesh medina. With its tile and tadelakt plaster interior, Riad Yima serves as a shop, tearoom and gallery — and a gloriously vivid canvas for Hajjaj’s richly tinted photographs and repurposed objects. Much like Andy Wahloo, the bar he designed in Paris, which draws on influences from his North African heritage to reggae and hip-hop, the riad is a living embodiment of his practice.
“In Morocco most of the time I’m eating outdoors,” explains Hajjaj, who likes to entertain in the riad’s colorful courtyard. When it’s a small gathering, he adheres to the traditional style of Moroccan dining, where guests sit around a single table and everybody eats from one big dish with their hands. But at larger parties, the table is dispensed with altogether. Instead, a sprawling buffet takes center stage. “For special occasions we’ve been known to cook for two days,” he says of the traditional Moroccan fare he serves, including fresh bean and eggplant salads, vegetable and meat couscous, chickpea and lentil dishes, plus a medley of tagines. “It’s all the classic stuff I grew up with.” He blends melon, orange or beetroot juice, along with an avocado juice that’s mixed with dates, almonds, nutmeg, cinnamon and a little ice.
Live music is central to Hajjaj’s parties — the Gnawa musician Maalem Marouane Lbahja is a favorite — and guests take over every corner of the riad, including the roof. “I don’t really do formal,” says the artist, who currently has a major retrospective of his 30-year body of work at the MEP in Paris. “It’s always very relaxed, but lively, with lots of dancing. It’s a special moment when people can come into my world.”