Silicon Valley’s queen of entertaining shows us how to party with purpose.
No one epitomizes “hostess with the mostest” quite like Susan MacTavish Best, aka the party whisperer. Her gatherings are hotbeds of fascinating people and mind-expanding conversation. These get-togethers, generally held a couple times a month, are no debauched ragers: they are parties with purpose, or “salons.” “When I see people whom I have introduced to each other go forth and start companies, create movements and change the world, I get an inkling that what I am doing matters on a larger scale,” says MacTavish Best. The goal of her highly curated salons, which take place in Silicon Valley, NYC, London and beyond, is straightforward: “To continue to build a community of interested and interesting, curious people who want to change the world.” To do that, she brings together a perfectly diverse group—in a space warmed by candlelight, cloth napkins and home-cooked food—to discuss a hot, fascinating topic.
At MacTavish Best’s legendary yet unpretentious gatherings, controversial topics are embraced; nothing is off limits. A recent salon, for example, focused on the dominant male culture of Silicon Valley and its implications for society.
The founder and CEO of Living MacTavish—a lifestyle brand and inspiring online diary that gives a glimpse into her business and life, not to mention tips on entertaining, design, fashion and food—started in the tech industry in her twenties. She created one of the first online guides to San Francisco, an early sign of her go-getter mentality. Entertaining has been second nature since then, and her warmth and knack for bringing the right people together point in part to a childhood that spanned continents (she was born on Prince Edward Island in Canada and spent years in Scotland and Connecticut).
“I surround myself with people whom I find interesting, which is really a key factor in how I live my life,” she says. Those people include experts within eclectic fields—the sciences, arts and, truly, anything. Think Michael Pollan and Amanda Feilding, whom she interviewed at one of her salons three years ago about psychedelics for the treatment of end-of-life depression.
The avid reader is constantly discovering new topics she wishes to explore further.
“When I hear about something that catches my interest—say, plant consciousness—I add it to a spreadsheet of future salon ideas. Thus, they tend to reflect the current zeitgeist,” she says. On her list now: loneliness, slowing down aging and telomeres, and the world of fungi.
“We should not all be locked up by ourselves pondering big ideas and questions; we should come together and discuss them, bring our varying viewpoints into one room over food and drink,” she says.
MacTavish Best lives by an important truth: “One’s views can be rather myopic if one just spends time with those in that space.” To open our minds, we must be open to different ideas.
It’s a serious-sounding ethos, but it’s also a lot of fun. The allure surrounding MacTavish Best is partially due to her undeniably cool, eclectic style. She bid on her first piece of art at auction at just five years old, and she grew up surrounded by ancient objects, cartography and antiques.
The guiding force, she says, when it comes to creating an expressive home, is to “keep your eyes open and listen to your heart.” She suggests asking yourself, “What do I want to come home to at night? Warm and cozy or cool and open?” Make a pile of pages ripped from magazines (especially foreign publications!) that appeal to you and play around with developing a style. “There is no right or wrong, and no one is judging you,” she says.
Charmed as her life may seem, MacTavish Best is no stranger to challenges. There’s making lemonade of lemons, but she made something sweet with totally rotten fruit after a fireplace accident left her with horrific burns nearly a decade ago. It was hard juggling recovery with holding together her business in the following years, but she credits self-belief, discipline and inner strength with helping her make it through.
“I think it’s fine taking some inspiration from one’s past, but I am always looking ahead to my future,” she says. Still, “If I can encourage people to take the muckiest, most traumatic time of their life and turn it into a pivotal point toward a positive life, then I will do that.”
Her main source of inspiration is the outdoors. MacTavish Best spends hours each week in fresh air, running or road biking. “Nature does not care how rich or poor you are, how successful or cool you are, how bright you are,” says MacTavish Best. “Nature is the great equalizer, and when I’m surrounded by trees, I have this urge to make the Earth proud.”
Photo credit: Hardy Wilson
Invite interesting people. MacTavish Best’s guest lists include people of varying ages, backgrounds and interests who are appreciative, gracious and curious, who don’t self-promote excessively and, most importantly, “who have something to offer the world and aren’t jerks.”
Create a vibe. “There are never enough chairs in my home. Having to sit on the floor is quite the equalizer!” Opt for candles (avoid smelly ones near the kitchen) in lieu of overhead lighting, serve wine under $20, offer at least one cocktail and use cloth napkins. Bonus tip: “Sometimes I’ll put some myrrh in the fireplace so the neighborhood smells good.”
Help guests feel at ease. “I really hate parties that are contrived. Some people are incredibly shy and wither at the thought of having to go around in a circle and introduce themselves (me!), so I would avoid that.” Get conversation flowing by throwing out questions to guests who are experts in a specific, interesting topic or have just returned from a most unlikely trip.
Feed them! MacTavish Best makes all the food she serves and has heaps of recipes on LivingMacTavish.com, including plant-based options like Freekeh and Seed Toss and Green Pearly Couscous with Kale and Red Peppercorns. “I always keep vast amounts of leafy greens in my fridge—they’re so adaptable and can be made into a salad or tossed into other dishes for some green complexity. Same for broccoli, which can be made into a quick dish. And I like to toast up vast amounts of seeds at once then store them to add last-minute to salads and other dishes.”
Chill out. “The sooner a host accepts that the perfect party is as unobtainable as the sparkly unicorn, the better the vibe will be.”