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Beautiful Outdoor Winter Gathering

Even in winter, Bill Heffernan’s garden is a sight to behold

Writen by Ethne Clarke
  • Anne Ryan

    As summer fades, event designer Bill Heffernan’s thoughts turn to winter, the outdoor decor, and a party to celebrate it. Seasonal commissions—like a winter gala for the Art Institute or an anniversary party for one of Chicago’s leading society figures—consume much of his creative thinking and keep his design firm jumping. "I’ve always wanted to do something major at home but rarely do—probably because I’m too wrapped up with clients’ events," says Bill. "But this year I decided to go nuts—in good taste, of course!"

    "My guests know that when they come to my house for a party, the tour of the garden is obligatory," says Bill. "Only when they’ve oohed and ahhed over each light do they get a glass of champers."  So dress warmly for winter gatherings at Bill’s place, but know that a sumptuous meal awaits, served up as only he knows how: with great panache tempered by classic good taste.

    Photography: Anne Ryan

    Host and garden designer: Bill Heffernan, William Heffernan Designs, 3735 N. Kevdale Ave., Chicago, IL 60641; 773/481-1970.

  • Anne Ryan

    Chicagoland in winter is an unpredictable venue in which to launch a garden spectacle; it’s sure to snow, but when is up for grabs. "I get my guys out there hanging Italian lights (the small, twinkling sort) by early December," says Bill. "Then I know the garden will at least be dusted with light if not snowflakes in time for entertaining."

    Bill’s garden is composed of boxwood hedges highlighted by topiary cones and obelisks. There are oversized urns spilling with colored foliage plants that change with the seasons. Near the kitchen door there’s a small pavilion for outdoor dining.

    The structures in the garden lend themselves perfectly to decoration. Few things are prettier than the warm glow of tiny lights filtered through evergreen branches or a blanket of snow. Bill agrees: "It looks glorious! The boxwood spheres look like iced buns, and the whole place becomes an enchanted woods.

  • Anne Ryan

    "I start by planning exactly what the theme will be for the decor, indoors and out," says Bill,  "and then shape the dinner party around this, figuring out how many people and who. The mix is important—friends and family; workmates and clients."

    If he plans to use caterers, Bill books them more than a month before the party, and he also arranges for serving assistants. "I like to enjoy my dinner parties, so I’ll usually have a chef and serving staff in to do the work. I compose the menu with the chef, though, to be sure my table offers what I want my guests to have."

    Three weeks out, Bill designs his tabletop, ensuring he has adequate place settings and ordering replacements to fill gaps. "Now’s a good point in the process to lay in wine and spirits for the party," advises Bill. "Nothing’s worse than last-minute dashes to the liquor store, particularly during the holiday season, when everyone else is doing just that!"

  • Anne Ryan

    Bill employs specialists to help him decorate outdoors. Stringing Italian lights around the trees is, he says, "best left to those who know how to handle themselves on ladders—and cherry-pickers if the trees are really tall." But he prefers to decorate some spaces himself, favoring natural materials such as boughs covered in bright berries and the green of Granny Smith apples dotted over the boxwood bushes in the porch containers.

  • Anne Ryan

    Bill and his spaniel, Charlie, make one last inspection of the garden before the party.

  • Anne Ryan

    Bill attends to last-minute details.

  • Anne Ryan

    Charlie is groomed and ready to mingle.

  • Anne Ryan

    Bill hung velvet curtains to enclose the pavilion for the party. The pavilion welcomes guests with drinks and hors d'oeuvres.

  • Anne Ryan

    A warm glow draws guests along the garden path toward the pavilion.

  • Anne Ryan


  • Anne Ryan

    Beef Tenderloin with Caper Sauce and Wine Reduction (pictured)


    • 1- to 3-pound center-cut beef tenderloin
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 3 to 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
    • 2  cups dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon
    • 2 tablespoons butter, cut up
    • 2 shallots, finely chopped
    • 2 teaspoons butter
    • 1/2 cup brandy
    • 1/2 cup whipping cream
    • 1 to 2 tablespoons capers, well drained

    Sprinkle tenderloin with salt and pepper. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400˚F.

    In 12-inch oven-proof skillet, brown tenderloin on all sides in hot oil. Drain fat. Add rosemary sprigs to skillet and place in oven. For medium-rare meat, roast tenderloin, uncovered, for 35 to 40 minutes or until internal temperature registers 135˚F on instant-read thermometer. Remove tenderloin to serving platter. Cover with foil; let stand 15 minutes before slicing. Meat temperature will rise about 10 degrees while standing. Discard rosemary sprigs.

    Pour wine into hot skillet. Place skillet over medium heat, scraping up any meat juices. Bring wine to boil; boil gently, uncovered, about 10 minutes or until reduced by half. Add 2 tablespoons butter in small pieces, whisking until smooth. Transfer to serving bowl and keep warm.

    Meanwhile, in medium saucepan, cook shallots in 2 teaspoons butter for about 3 minutes or until just tender.

    Remove saucepan from heat. Add brandy; return to heat. Bring to boil and boil gently for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add cream and boil gently about 3 minutes more or until slightly thickened. Stir in capers. Cut beef in thick slices and place in center of platter. Spoon over some of caper sauce. Pool wine reduction around meat. Makes 8 servings.

    Lobster Tails in Saffron Broth


    • 3 to 4 pounds fresh or frozen lobster tails
    • 2-1/2 cups dry white wine
    • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
    • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled
    • 2 (10-ounce) cans whole baby clams
    • Bottled clam juice (3–3 1⁄2 cups)
    • 3 cups water
    • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 3 leeks, white parts thinly sliced and rinsed well
    • Salt and ground black pepper
    • 6 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
    • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
    •  Dairy sour cream
    •  Chopped fresh chives

    Thaw lobster tails if frozen. Combine wine, onion, and garlic in 8- or 10-quart pot. Bring to boil. Add lobster tails; return to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, for 10–12 minutes or until shells turn bright red and meat is opaque. Remove lobster and set aside to cool. Strain wine mixture, discarding solids. Set strained wine aside.

    Drain clams, reserving liquid. Place liquid in 1-quart glass measuring cup. Add additional clam juice to equal 4 cups and combine with water and strained wine. Set clam juice mixture and clams aside.

    Melt butter in 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add leeks; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender but not browned. Add clam juice mixture, tomatoes, lemon peel, and saffron. Bring to boil; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

    Meanwhile, remove lobster meat from shells; cut into bite-size pieces. Add lobster and drained clams to clam juice mixture. Cook over low heat until just heated through. Serve in warm bowls, garnishing each with a swirl of sour cream and sprinkling of chives. Makes 8 servings.

    Tip: If desired, substitute 3 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, for lobster. Add shrimp to boiling wine mixture. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes or until shrimp are opaque. Do not overcook. Remove shrimp from wine mixture and coarsely chop.

    Make-ahead: Prepare as above, but refrigerate wine mixture in airtight container for up to 24 hours. When lobster is cool enough to handle, remove meat from shells and cut into bite-size pieces. Refrigerate in airtight container for up to 24 hours. To serve, continue as directed, making broth with reserved wine mixture, leeks, and clam juice.