Natchez-native Regina Charboneau is a pro at Southern entertaining. She should be – during any given week, the award-winning chef and author of Regina’s Table at Twin Oaks may play hostess to hundreds of visitors. Everyone from friends and family, visitors with the Natchez Pilgrimage, cruisers on the American Queen Steamboat, Roman Catholic nuns, and British nobility have been welcomed to Twin Oaks, Charboneau’s Natchez residence.
One sunny, but unseasonably cool afternoon in late March, a bus full of approximately thirty river boat cruisers pulls up to the curb in front of Twin Oaks. Charboneau is dressed casually in an oversized shirt, black leggings, flats, and her signature cat-eye glasses. As cruisers begin to disembark and make their way up the front walk, she throws open the huge wooden front door to Twin Oaks, steps out onto the front porch, and greets everyone with a warm, “Hello! Please come inside.”
The first guests step over the threshold into the front hall and a woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat is the first to exclaim, “Wow!” Soon, the room is buzzing with awe and amazement as everyone takes in the grand staircase leading up to the second floor, the ornate antique furniture, and large paintings on the wall. Everyone is instructed to make themselves comfortable in two adjoining rooms to the left of the main hallway.
In today’s world of celebrity chefs, cut-throat reality cooking shows, and cable networks devoted entirely to food, one might assume that that Charboneau, after having lived all over the world, overseen two very successful business ventures, and mixed company with some of the biggest names on the planet, would be difficult to relate to. But to be a fly on the wall during one of her riverboat demonstrations or as she gives guided tours of her home during the Natchez pilgrimage, it becomes very apparent that Charboneau hasn’t lost sight of what Southern hospitality has always meant.
She begins by laying down the ground rules to her guests. “The first rule of thumb in my house,” she says, “is that there are no rules. Sit on the furniture, open closet doors, go wherever you like. Nothing is off limits.”
She then goes into the history of Twin Oaks, built in 1832 by Pierce Connelly, an Episcopal priest, and his wife Cornelia. Pierce and Cornelia would later convert to Catholicism, Pierce going on to become an ordained Catholic priest in Rome while Cornelia would later establish her own order of Roman Catholic nuns. To this day, Charboneau will occasionally receive a knock at the door from nuns of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus looking to catch a glimpse of the former home of their founder.
But what all these travelers, some from as far away as California, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, really came to hear about is Charboneau herself – the culinary director for the American Queen Steamboat Company and whose cookbook they just purchased in the boat’s gift shop. A seventh-generation Southerner, Charboneau credits her mother for her ability to throw a good party. However, she admits that while her mother was the entertainer, her father was the cook. It was her father that would influence her career path later in life. Charboneau attended several universities throughout the South, before traveling to the bush of Alaska with a group of friends. While there, she landed her first culinary job, working as a cook at a construction camp.
Not surprisingly, Charboneau’s mother was less than thrilled by the news that her daughter had taken a job thousands of miles away in a remote area only accessible by aircraft or snowmobile. “This was the late 1970’s,” explained Charboneau. “I called my mother from a pay phone with my exciting news, and since there were no cell phones and no internet, there was nothing she could do at that point to talk me out of it.”
Despite her mother’s misgivings, Charboneau’s life would likely have taken a completely different direction had she not taken that job. While in Alaska, she met her husband Doug and also saved enough money to put herself through Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France, one of the first accredited professional cooking schools in France to offer instruction in both French and English. Afterwards, she returned to Alaska and accepted the position of executive chef at the Tower Club in Anchorage.
In 1985, she opened her first restaurant, Regina’s at the Regis, located in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco’s SOMA district. It was during this time that the SOMA district was undergoing an artistic and cultural boom and Regina’s at the Regis was situated right in the middle of the theater district. It soon became known for its opening night parties and theater goers could expect to rub elbows with celebrities such as Shirley Maclain, Danny Glover, Patti LaBelle, and Lily Tomlin.
In 1995, Charboneau drew inspiration from her Southern roots when she opened Biscuits and Blues, a restaurant that serves award-winning Southern cuisine while showcasing nightly acts by popular blues artists. It was awarded a WC Handy award in 1999 as the “Best Blues Club in America. “
Despite the success of two restaurants, the Mighty Mississippi still ran through Charboneau’s veins and Natchez was never far from her mind. She is often quoted as saying, “I spent my first 23 years trying to get away from Natchez and spent the next 23 trying to get home again.”
In 2000, she did just that. Charboneau and her husband purchased Twin Oaks and began raising their two sons, Jean-Luc and Martin, according to the deep seated traditions and simple lifestyle that Southerners are so famous for. In addition to running a six-bedroom guest house on the property, she oversees menu and recipe development for the American Queen Steamboat Company. Frequently, she opens her home up to riverboat cruisers, allowing them a glimpse into Southern life and a taste of the cuisine.
Charboneau gives her riverboat guests a moment to explore her house and the grounds. Mixed in among the beautiful antiques are glimpses into her life. The hallway leading to the kitchen is covered in framed crayon sketches of various celebrities once used for opening night parties at Regina’s at the Regis. Down the hall, novels line the bookshelves and cover the top of the baby grand piano in the library. Tucked among the books are photos such as a black and white of Charboneau and actor Danny Glover and little trinkets like a set of Japanese maneki-neko figurines. Outside in the garden, the snow white blossoms of the dogwoods are in full bloom and delicate paper lanterns strung from tree branches blow in the breeze.
Charboneau knows she wouldn’t be a very good hostess if she let her guests leave hungry. In the adjoining formal dining room, she’s brought out the white tablecloths and glass serving platters full of treats are spread from one end to the other. An impressive decanter filled with clementine-infused vodka waits to be mixed with cranberry juice. There are delicate sandwiches topped with basil mayonnaise, tomato slices, and bacon; mini butter biscuits stuffed with turkey and cranberry chutney; and an absolutely sinful blackberry crème brulee trifle. A punch bowl of refreshing almond iced tea is situated between two friendly pineapples, the symbol of Southern hospitality.
The two-hour excursion has gone by in a flash, and before long the tour bus once again pulls up to the front curb. Guests scurry to make sure Charboneau signs their cookbooks. Several hug her neck as if they have always been dear friends. As the bus pulls away to take them back to their cabins aboard the American Queen, Charboneau stands on the front porch and waves goodbye until the bus is out of sight. Another successful party has come to an end.
You don’t have to be a professional chef to throw a memorable party. In fact, Charboneau says by keeping a few rules of thumb in mind, throwing a party that everyone will remember but still allow you to keep your sanity it easier than you think.
Regina Charboneau’s Tips for Southern Entertaining:
- Don’t try to be a martyr. It is not necessary to make everything you serve from scratch. Your party should not only be enjoyable to your guests, but you as well.
- Plan your menu around items that can be made ahead of time and frozen. Regina’s famous butter biscuits can be frozen just before baking. Remove them from the freezer a few hours before the party to thaw, then bake as normal.
- Pick a time during the year that works for your house. Do you have a green thumb and love to garden? Throw a dinner party during the spring when your flowers are in bloom. Does your house look particularly lovely during the holidays? Host a Christmas party.
- Use fun condiments to enhance a meal. It’s okay to use store bought or something you already have on hand in your pantry. Set it out in an attractive dish and no one will question whether it’s homemade or not.
- Set up stations where guests can serve themselves. Charboneau frequently sets up empty drinking glasses beforehand. A few minutes before guests arrive, she sets out a bucket of ice cubes so guests can grab their drinks and go.