In Brooklyn, a Honduran-Inspired Backyard Dinner

On a warm evening, not long before her guests were set to arrive, Cathleen O’Neil, 30, was stocking the bar for a dinner party at her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while her co-host, the chef Feisal Lagos, 39, was hastily adding the finishing touches to his handwritten menu. “The point,” he said, “is for people not to notice that you’re paying attention to those details.”

He and O’Neil, who last year founded the events company CONeil Productions, met through their work with the New York-based hospitality consultancy Care of Chan: Feisal, formerly a sous-chef for the chef and food stylist Camille Becerra, 51, often cooked at events; O’Neil did production. During the pandemic, they missed the collaborative thrill of hosting and came up with the idea for the Regathering, a dinner series that would allow them to reunite with their circle. Their first meal, in July 2021, was a celebration of the end of social distancing, held in the backyard of O’Neil’s apartment building. “We needed to get out, to see our friends,” said O’Neil. “But we also both take what we do very seriously.” They served an ambitious menu of raw oysters with granita and grilled tilefish.

Summer squash grilled over Japanese binchotan charcoal on Lagos’s portable Konro grill.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland
O’Neil, left, and Pierce Abernathy, a guest and impromptu sous-chef for the night, helped tend the grill.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland
Lagos’s handwritten menus and flower arrangements by the florist April Johnson.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland

The purpose of the pair’s most recent dinner, their third, was to reconnect with their group during a busy year and to celebrate each others’ creative endeavors “on our own terms,” Lagos said. (O’Neil had confirmed events with the fashion brands Rosie Assoulin and Collina Strada; Lagos had cooked for Christy Turlington Burns’s nonprofit organization, Every Mother Counts.) He and O’Neil invited their friends not only to attend but also to contribute: They brought everything from glassware to floral arrangements. Lagos prepared a family-style Honduran feast, a homage to the barbecues of his childhood — growing up, he spent his summers in Honduras — and O’Neil set up her building’s yard with a long zigzag of tables to accommodate 50 guests, hanging string lights above them.

Lagos began cooking in the small kitchen of O’Neil’s 695-square-foot apartment, eventually moving to a portable Konro grill outside. After catching up over drinks, the guests settled into their assigned seats with an air of hushed anticipation. Then, the mood lightened, the evening progressed and reggaeton, wine and conversation flowed until the late hours of the night.

Plates of chilero, a Honduran-style hot pickle, made with hakurei turnips, white jalapeño and beets.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland
The main course was a riff on the Honduran plato típico that included yellow rice, avocado and a crumbly hard cheese called queso duro.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland

The attendees: Guests included Becerra; the recipe developer Pierce Abernathy, 29, who helped on the grill; Daniel de la Nuez, 42, a co-owner of the Brooklyn-based distillery Forthave Spirits; the drinks consultant and glassware designer Arley Marks, 39, who prepared a cocktail for the night; the food sourcing specialist Thalia Clark, 25, who helped supply produce for the meal; the photographer Kelsey Cherry, 33; and Matt Diaz, 37, a co-owner of the Brooklyn restaurant For All Things Good.

The table: O’Neil chose a medley of tableware from her personal collection and from her friends’. “I never want it to feel too sterile,” she said.The florist April Johnson of the New York-based studio Flowerpsycho created orb-like centerpieces from giant purple allium and green smoke bush. Material, O’Neil’s client and a kitchenware brand she favors for events, provided neutral linens, glasses and serving pieces. Marks lent sculptural colored glasses from his line, Mamo, for the evening and a last-minute Ikea haul filled in some gaps. Each place had a handwritten name card, and when the sun faded, candles illuminated the tables.

The food: “I wanted to represent Honduran cuisine very well,” said Lagos, who sourced the best seasonal ingredients available with help from Clark. “This was the most rewarding food I may’ve ever cooked.” Dinner began with a family-style serving of crudités from Back Home Farm in High Falls, N.Y., alongside a ceviche of red snapper and black sea bass from Fjord Fish Market in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood served with Saltine crackers. Next came Lagos’s version of pan con frijoles — braised Rancho Gordo beans over a crusty baguette — and yuca con curtido, boiled yuca served with a crunchy, peppery slaw. The final savory course was an elevated riff on the Honduran mixed plate known as plato típico, featuring binchotan-grilled Akaushi Wagyu beef from the Brooklyn meat purveyor Heritage Foods with summer squash, yellow rice and avocado. Dessert was a platter of Mara des Bois strawberries from Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, N.Y., macerated in sugar and served in a heap over a bed of crème fraîche.

Toward the end of the night, the music was turned up and guests left their assigned seats to mingle and dance.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland

The drinks: Marks advised O’Neil and Lagos to set up a D.I.Y. bar where people could mix their own spritzes, which he helped prepare. “It got people in a fun, celebratory mood pretty quickly,” he says. The spritz base was a mixture of Forthave Red, a Campari-like aperitivo, and Forthave Nocino, a walnut-infused liqueur. A card with instructions told guests how much Topo Chico sparkling water to add, but they were free to modify to their tastes. O’Neil also served orange and pink pét-nat wines from the natural wine producer Vivanterre.

The music: To help conjure the atmosphere of a lively Honduran barbecue, a friend of Lagos’s compiled a Spotify playlist featuring reggaeton and Central American soul. Artists ranged from Rosalía to the Panamanian band Señor Loop. “I love switching the mood as the night goes on,” said O’Neil. During a lull in the evening, she recalled shouting to Lagos, “turn on Bad Bunny now.”

The conversation: The assigned seating prompted several introductions, so the evening’s conversation started with icebreakers before turning to Lagos’s cooking. “The yuca was a massive hit,” he said. At one point, someone eyeing his spotless blue Bragard apron asked, “Is that from ‘The Bear’?” referring to the TV series. It was, in fact, a souvenir from his days cooking in New York restaurants including Roberta’s and Uncle Boons.He keeps it clean by wiping his hands on a towel, never the apron.

The recipe for Lagos’s pan con frijoles: “Black beans are my number one comfort food,” said Lagos. All you need for his take on the ubiquitous Honduran snack is a good baguette, a can of refried black beans, some spices and sour cream or crème fraîche. First, reheat the beans with a glug of olive oil, one bay leaf, a pinch of cumin and, if desired, some red chile flakes. Slice the baguette lengthwise and spread a thick layer of warm beans on one half, then top with a generous amount of lightly salted sour cream or crème fraîche. Complete the sandwich by covering with the remaining bread. For a more robust meal, serve with scrambled eggs and a salty, hard cheese such as Cotija or even Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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