Interview by { Margie Skidmore
Photographs by { John Russo

MaryAnne discovered her love of food and entertaining as a young actress when she began working as a server for Wolfgang Puck at Spago Hollywood. Having the opportunity to work with Wolf and the innovative chefs in Spago’s kitchen inspired MaryAnne to shift her focus from acting to cooking. She packed her bags and headed to Paris to attend the Cordon Bleu. After months of whisking egg whites and creating sauces, she returned to work in Wolfgang’s kitchen. Marriage and babies derailed her dreams of becoming America’s Next Top Chef but her experience helped make her a popular dinner hostess and caterer. SWANK Santa Barbara has since become one of Santa Barbara’s most sought-after event planning companies known for style, vision and expertise.

Q:  How did you get involved in event planning?

A:  I have always been very organized and had an eye for detail.  Plus, I love parties. I also did some catering before having my two daughters.  When they were in pre-school I was asked to help with the fundraiser.  My friend and I co-chaired and the event went from being a small backyard picnic and grossing $5,000. to an auction with dinner and entertainment.  We made close to 6 figures that year.  It didn’t take long for other non-profits to ask me to chair events.

Years later a dear friend and James Beard award winning chef, Jennifer Jasinski asked me to be her wedding planner.  I tried to recommend professional event planners but insisted I be her planner.  I found that it was a job that I was born to do. I love all the details.  Finding the best vendors and putting all the elements together, whether it’s florals, photographer, music, rentals or décor.


Q:  What do you like about your job?

A:  It’s funny you ask, because the other day when I left the set-up site I called one of my daughters and said, “I love this job.”  Listening to a client’s ideas and then fulfilling them is so satisfying.  I love the creative aspect of figuring out ways to make each element work together.  It makes me so happy to see someone’s vision come to life and feel their gratitude.


Q:  What makes you good at your job?

A:  It certainly helps that I’m organized and a multi-tasker.  I remain calm in stressful situations and I strive to be respectful and kind to the people that work for me.  I think about the big picture of the party and make sure that I relay that vision to all my vendors.


Q:  What do you find challenging?

A:  When a client is indecisive it is challenging.  I like to give client’s a good, better, best option for each of their party elements.  If someone is struggling with making decisions I try to give them a nudge in the direction that I think will work best for them giving the logistics and budget.  But having a client change their mind repeatedly can be a nightmare.


Q:  What is the value of hiring an event planner?

A:  First of all, if you’re going to have a party of any type, you want to be present and enjoy it. Working with a professional event planner can often save time and money.  I work with amazing vendors. I know what things should cost and where to spend and where to save.  I work with a client’s budget and do my best to figure out how to give them everything they want and keep it within the budget. Having great relationships with my vendors often gives me some wiggle room to help a client stay within their budget.  Plus, my goal is to make the planning and execution as stress-free as possible.


Q:  What is your favorite type of event?

A: I love weddings! I’m a romantic, so witnessing a couple who want to commit their lives to each other is so beautiful.  I love all the elements from helping a bride and groom choose the theme of their wedding, figure out their personal style and envision what their special day will be.  I always equip myself with plenty of Kleenex because I’m a big sap during the ceremony. I’ve often spent months with a couple and gotten to know them well.  They become like my own children and I really want their day to be fantastic.  So yes, I get emotional when the day comes and I get to witness the magic.


Q:  Do you have any advice for someone who’d like to get into the event planning business?

A:  First of all, be a great observer.  When you go to a party determine what you like and what isn’t working.  Is it the food that’s so good, the presentation, the service?  Then, work for a successful planner. Or get a job with a caterer or rental company. You will learn the elements of the business.


Q:  Any big disasters or nightmare clients?

A:  I did have a feuding mother and daughter.  Whatever the mother wanted the daughter said, “no”.  The daughter made sure she was marrying her mother’s biggest nightmare.  When the groom and his groomsmen showed up late and drunk for the ceremony I knew it was going to go downhill from there.  The mother told me to remind her daughter she’d spent a fortune on the band, so theyhad better dance.  When I relayed the message to the daughter she told me where to tell her mother to go. It was not a pleasant night, to say the least.  But I have to say, for all the weddings I’ve done, that was the only one I’ve ever had a negative experience with. I’ve never met a Bridezilla!  Thankfully!


Q:  What elements make a great event?

A:  Of course, it depends on what the event is. A fundraiser is obviously very different than birthday party.  Good food is important to me. And plentiful.  Nothing would be worse to me or my Italian mother than to run out of food.  Also, great festive drinks.  Music sets the mood.  It doesn’t matter if it is a playlist, a DJ or a band, the music needs to match the vibe of the party.  And the one thing that can really create a beautiful atmosphere is lighting.  Don’t cheap out on lighting. Working with a great lighting designer is so important.


Q:  What is the future of events in the age of Covid 19?

A:  I have had all of my summer and fall weddings postponed. No one is planning events right now.  But one of my couples decided they wanted to get married in a small, family ceremony on their chosen date. Instead of the 200 guests for the ceremony and reception, the couple had twenty family members.  The ceremony was live streamed for friends who weren’t able to attend. We handed out custom made masks that matched the groom’s tie to all the guests and handed out hand sanitizer.  We staggered the table settings and kept it outdoors.  I spent more than an hour on the phone with my catering company to figure out the safest way to serve the guests.  We couldn’t do any stationary appetizers because we didn’t want guest gathering around a table.  The one-bite appetizer were served on small bamboo plates and servers wore masks and gloves. We kept musicians distanced and limited photography groupings.  In the end even with all the adjustments it turned out to be a beautiful and intimate event.  Perhaps next year they will have a big dance party to celebrate their one-year anniversary.

I think parties will be limited to small groups and held outdoors for the foreseeable future.  Planners and vendors are finding creative ways do to celebrations and fundraisers.  I feel optimistic that our industry will be back and parties will be back when we all feel safe to assemble in large groups.  Imagine the gratitude and appreciation we will have after being distanced for so long to gather again!


Q:  Any other fun projects for us to look at for?

A:  Yes, I am working on a regional cookbook with photographer John Russo. The working title is “Montecito Menus”, which will feature local & seasonal menus from the American Riviera.  We are incorporating recipes from the top Montecito hosts.  We hope to launch it by the end of the year. Stay tuned!


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