Kathryn and Leo Vecellio Host the Ultimate Charity Dinner

Kathryn and Leo Vecellio in their Palm Beach home. (Photo by CAPEHART)

Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz

Kathryn Vecellio surveys her Palm Beach dining room. At the moment, everything is serene. Dimming sunlight gleams through the windows, illuminating an opulent table set for 12. Earlier, white-gloved hands placed gold-rimmed Moser glassware and Christofle flatware onto J.A. Design Studio linens, hand-painted with greenery that harkens to the home’s lush gardens. Silver salt and pepper duos resembling birds landed near Herend Chinese Bouquet dinner plates that bear delicate leaf motifs. It all forms a verdant scene, and the hostess, too, is dressed in green.

In a few hours, this calm will give way to merriment as Kathryn and her husband, Leo, welcome guests for the Ultimate Dinner Party, an annual philanthropic event benefiting Children’s Home Society of Florida. The Vecellios have hosted dinner parties for CHS twice before on their yacht. This year, they moved the celebrations to their home, taking inspiration from the estate’s regal vines, hedges, and rose-planted parterre for the decor.

“I love to bring the outside in,” says Kathryn. “We like things to be warm and inviting.”

Florist Tom Mathieu helped realize Kathryn’s vision with bountiful tabletop arrangements of peonies, miniature calla lilies, ranunculus buds, nerine lilies, sweet pea, cymbidium orchids, freesia, viburnum, and David Austin garden roses. “Usually I’m a less is more person,” Mathieu says. “But, in this case, more is better.”

Working under that philosophy, he planted Phalaenopsis orchids in two German-made, circa-1870 silver wine coolers. They stand sentry on either side of the fireplace and its hand-carved mantelpiece, one of seven on the property. Two additional floral displays on the buffet highlight a selection of silver sugar dredgers. Kathryn’s collection numbers 80, and each is unique.

A selection from Kathryn’s sugar dredger collection.

She and Leo, who celebrated their forty-first wedding anniversary in November, have collected fine art, silver, furniture, and tableware for more than four decades. Spurred by an adoration of heirlooms passed down from their mothers and grandmothers, they’ve amassed cabinets full of rare finds from all over the world. And they thrive on the thrill of the hunt.

“We love and appreciate the artistry,” Kathryn says. “Some pieces take your breath away. We frequently visit the antique shows here [in Palm Beach], in New York, and in London looking for unique items, and we always find something we’ve never seen before.”

For these collectors, almost every piece tells a story. Kathryn demonstrates that a Colonial-era silver pheasant, purchased at London-based dealer Anthony Marks, is more than meets the eye when she lifts its head off to reveal a hollow center. The English, she explains, smuggled tea in every vessel they could to avoid the high tariff when coming to America.

This careful curating of treasures and the joy with which they share them has helped earn Kathryn and Leo a reputation as two of the best hosts on the island. While they favor formality, they still exude a welcoming atmosphere and always keep the cause, CHS in this case, at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“Whether I’m hosting 600 people at The Breakers or eight in my home, I devote the same amount of time to each event and guest,” Kathryn says. And when the Vecellios host, one thing’s for certain: The food and drink will be amazing.

Back in the kitchen, Jeff Simms, executive chef of The Breakers, has arrived and is whipping up a fanciful feast alongside chefs Ralph Figueroa and Susan Marsh. Though Kathryn and Simms have worked together on many occasions, this marks an evening of firsts: The first time the Vecellios are hosting the Ultimate Dinner Party at their Mediterranean-style residence (built in 1922 and designed by Marion Sims Wyeth) and the first time Simms is doing this event for the Vecellios.

In addition to hors d’oeuvres like cherry-glazed foie gras eclairs, chefs Jeff Simms and Ralph Figueroa prepared a five-course meal that started with a decadent seafood tasting, followed by chef Susan Marsh’s salmon Wellington.

As vice president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Simms has volunteered with CHS for more than 20 years. During this time, the chapter has raised millions for the charity’s family services through the Ultimate Dinner Party alone.

“[CHS] is an awesome cause because it’s right here in our community,” Simms says. “The Breakers supports the endeavor by supplying the food, so that makes it easy for me to volunteer my time, which is the fun part.”

Planning for the extravagant meal began more than two months earlier. Given his familiarity with Kathryn’s tastes—he says she loves lamb and foie gras—Simms was granted freedom over the menu. The Vecellios selected the wine pairings for each course from their cellar with guidance from John Kao, a certified sommelier and The Breakers’ banquet beverage manager.

Kathryn, Nancy Rollnick, and Mary Freitas sipped and mingled during cocktail hour.

Finally, cocktail hour commences on the terrace. Guests pour in as David Crohan plays piano in the living room. Bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal chill in anticipation of the first course while attendees sample hors d’oeuvres like cherry-glazed foie gras eclairs.

Afterward, the group sits down to enjoy chef Simms’ seasonal dishes elevated with over-the-top presentations, such as a lobster panna cotta served in a golden egg. The fish course—a petite Irish organic salmon Wellington—is a crowd favorite. It pairs impeccably with Kathryn’s Royal Copenhagen Flora Danica fish plates, which are decorated with sea-life illustrations and gold scalloped edges.

Royal Copenhagen Flora Danica fish plates.

The Vecellios boast an impressive assemblage of Flora Danica, a historic porcelain collection that has been in production since 1790, when King Christian VII of Denmark reportedly commissioned the series for Empress Catherine II of Russia. All of the pieces are hand-painted in Copenhagen, and the designs moved Kathryn and Leo so much they traveled to Denmark to tour the factory.

“Supposedly, each plate takes 40 hours to complete,” Kathryn says. “[Royal Copenhagen] has detailed over 3,000 species on its dinnerware, and watching the process of hand-painting each plate was incredible.”

Dinner continues with a rosemary-crusted rack of lamb, followed by a cheese course, and finally a dessert composed of a dark chocolate pot de crème and The Breakers’ famous Key lime pie. Visitors have another opportunity to revel in the beauty of Flora Danica during after-dinner coffee. A vase full of pink roses from the Vecellios’ garden rests adjacent to tiers of potato stick cookies, banana cream pie tarts, assorted pastel macarons, and pumpkin and cream cheese roulades from Russell Karath, executive pastry chef at The Breakers. A warm glow sets over the living room as guests sip from floral-patterned cups.

The cheese course (bottom left), dessert tasting (above), and after-dinner coffee and treats (bottom right) made for a sweet ending to the night.

“The highlights were our guests’ smiling faces,” says Kathryn. “Everyone was in a festive mood and had a really great time.”

For Kathryn and Leo, a memorable dinner party is not simply defined by the location or the delicacies. As Kathryn notes, it’s “something where all the people involved come together to make it a special evening.” Between the spectacular florals, food, and music, this hostess’ gift for event planning sets the bar high. Yet, her gracious nature and love for entertaining are what make Kathryn—and her parties—inimitable.

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