Food + Dining Main

How to Add Some Wonder to Your Holiday Celebrations

Three Southwest Florida chefs who are known for elaborate holiday celebrations share their ideas.

BY December 14, 2016

Michael Gavala

Executive Chef and Owner, G3 Catering

As an owner of one of the most in-demand catering companies in Fort Myers (which, along with private functions, exclusively handles events at the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center), Gavala starts thinking early about the yuletide season. He meets with clients in the summer to lock in dates and brainstorms creative ways to spruce up timeless traditions. 

S’more Sparkle

“At the holidays, we feel everybody out to get a picture of what they’re looking for. A party doesn’t have to just be reindeers or Santas and red and green. Last year, we came up with a s’mores table. It was make your own s’mores, and it gave that oh-my-gosh-I’m-roasting-a-marshmallow feeling. One of our employees wound up doing s’mores for her daughter’s birthday party after that! We’ve also done a hot chocolate bar. We added shooters like Grand Marnier and Kalua, and we topped them with whipped cream and crushed candy canes. We also roasted chestnuts and handed them out in brown paper bags one year. It went back to my roots in New York and New Jersey, walking down the street and smelling that—and hearing that song. These are the inspirations for what we do, and I have to give my wife credit for a lot of it.”

At Your Service

“If you want to do the food yourself for a party, my No. 1 tip is to hire a server or bartender to help the day of because you don’t want to spend all of your time in the kitchen. You’ll spend a couple of hundred dollars, and at the end of the night everything will be cleaned up and put away, and you won’t be mentally or physically broken the next day. If people call me asking, I’ll refer my servers to them if they’re not working that night for me. If you can afford to have a catered event, the best thing that I can tell you is to have a budget in mind and an idea of what you like. Everybody just wants finger foods to keep it simple, but you have to understand that to make 300 or 400 hors d’oeuvres isn’t simple. For bruschetta, I have to spoon it on little pieces of bread that I’ve toasted and then arrange them on a tray. People don’t realize cocktail parties can be more expensive than buffets to feed the same number of people. If you have a budget, we can work with you to adjust the price.”

Christmas … in July

“We’re always months ahead. We work on the menus and send them out for what we’re going to do. A lot of our clients want something different from year to year; if they had a sit-down dinner last year, maybe they want cocktail stations this year. My wife and I are big Christmas junkies. I have 20,000 lights on my house timed to music—we have people driving by and taking pictures. We also have a big Christmas party at our house every year for our staff. Normally it’s right before Christmas because we’ve been working every day until then.”


Sebastien Thieffine

Executive Pastry Chef, The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples

Born in the Champagne region in Reims, France, Thieffine has called Naples home for the past eight and a half years. Each of those have included months orchestrating the yearly Christmas spectacle at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples beachfront resort that features a 12-foot-tall gingerbread house made with 120,000 pieces of candy and a decadent buffet that has drawn a loyal following from when the hotel first opened 30 years ago.

Marshmallow World

“We have a fantastic team for the gingerbread house. It starts with the idea—what is going to be the theme or the design for this coming year. As soon as we take it down, we are already thinking of the next year. Then we start producing the gingerbread in September. It takes about two or three months on and off to assemble; it really is a project for the pastry team. We make the dough spicier so it smells in the lobby longer—even though it’s edible, you wouldn’t want to eat it because it’s too spiced. When people walk in, they say, ‘Oh wow.’ The first question is, ‘Is it real?’ Then they smell it and know it is.”

From Egg Nog to Sugar Plums

“I’ve been in the U.S. a very long time, and I love to cook for our guests. If I’m doing a table of sweets, I try to have selections for everyone. I would have something with chocolate, with fruit, with custard, cookies, a Yule log. When entertaining at home, try to make your guests happy: Find out what they like, what they love for the holidays.”

12 Days of Christmas (Cookies)

“There are many cookies that can be done with one dough or one batter. You can work different shapes or toppings into one batter. If you make three or four different kinds of batters, you can easily have 12 different cookies. Take sugar cookies, for example. One could be with nuts, one could be rolled and cut with a cutter, one could be pressed, one could have cranberries inside the batter—and then you can have different looks, like chocolate chips or sprinkles on top.”


Michael Dalton

Executive Chef, Campiello

Each year Naples’ Third Street South transforms into a winter wonderland, piping in music and faux snow for the Celebration of Lights. Campiello jumps right on that proverbial sleigh ride: The courtyard twinkles and is adorned with wreaths, and Dalton writes the annual Natalizie menu celebrating regional Italian delicacies by drawing from his own upbringing in an Italian-American household and extensive culinary travels throughout Italy.

Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

“The only item we have remain constant over the years for the holiday specials is the panettone bread pudding. Panettone, a sweet bread, is everywhere in Italy at Christmas time, and we use it to make a bread pudding with rum sauce. It’s really good, and people enjoy and look forward to it. The savory dishes always change. About a month beforehand, I come up with them. I think about tradition—what traditions there are in parts of Italy, festive dishes. I like to also focus on color. One year I did a shrimp pizza with basil pesto and tomato, so red, white and green.”

Baby, It’s Hot Outside

“For home cooks hosting the holidays, I’d recommend going to the farmers markets and seeing what’s available. Normally, you get stuff here that wouldn’t be growing in another area of the United States, like Minnesota, Chicago or New York. But when you’re dealing with holiday food, you can put a holiday spin on it—adding nutmeg or cinnamon will make it feel more festive. The same is true for using raisins, currants or pine nuts in dishes. It’s like putting a Christmas tree on the beach. If you’re in Hawaii, would it be festive to have a luau for Christmas? Yeah! You make it where you are.”

Seasons Eatings

“Two things remind me of the holidays: panettone, definitely. When I was a kid, my grandma, aunts and my mom always had panettone around. There’s another thing I love. It’s a cookie—they’re called pizzelles. I grew up on them. My grandma would have everyone over, and we’d be baking these cookies and stacking them up to the ceiling. It’s a really fun thing you can do as a family, and they make great gifts if you package them up. People love getting them because they’ve often never had them before.”

Find Michael Dalton’s family pizzelle recipe here.

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