This week’s Meet a Mom interview is with Alston Calabrese and Leigh Hansen, the two Greenwich Moms and friends behind Habitual Hostess, a gorgeous new Instagram and website, both filled with beautifully photographed recipes, and the stories behind them. Their content is all about making delicious food, creating memories and planning enjoyable, stress-free meals for family and friends. “We always tell our kids, life is boring, it’s your job to make it fun, and those are words we live by!” says Alston. Here’s more from both of these talented and stylish local moms:
Can you please share a little about yourselves, including where you’re from and when you moved to Greenwich?
Leigh: I am from the South! I grew up on the Gulf Coast, in Destin, Florida and went to college at the University of Alabama, where I met Alston. I moved to New York City just weeks after graduating (Alston and I were roommates in the city, too). There I met my husband and after marrying we moved out to Old Greenwich. I have three children – ages 8, 6, and 4. It is busy around here.
Alston: I am from southern Virginia, and my mother’s family is all from Alabama, so I ended up at University of Alabama and met Leigh. I moved to NYC after college and Leigh and I both met our husbands within a few months of each other. They happened to both be from Greenwich. We lived in NYC for ten years and then we were in San Francisco for a few years. We have recently landed back in Riverside where my husband grew up, and have a 7 and 5-year-old.
Why did you choose to live in Old Greenwich and Riverside?
Leigh: My husband grew up in Greenwich and was adamant about us living in either Old Greenwich or Riverside. I lived in Soho and the West Village in New York City and he knew I would want to be close to town and walking distance to almost everything, just as I had been used to in the city. I bike my kids to school and into town almost daily! We’ve been very happy in Old Greenwich. The town has everything you could need and we are close to the beach!
Alston: After living in a city for so long I wanted to be as close to neighbors and shops as possible! All of our family is in Riverside and we love being able to walk to school!
Can you please tell us a little about what you both did professionally before having kids?
Leigh: My first job out of college was in Advertising Sales at Comedy Central in New York City—what a blast that was! I then worked at the Ad Council, a non-profit advertising agency, in marketing. After moving out to the ‘burbs, I worked briefly at Serendipity magazine before having my first child.
Alston: I worked in marketing, PR and event planning for various fashion companies for my first years in NYC, then decided to go back to grad school for teaching, and taught for a few years in the city before having kids.
How did the idea for Habitual Hostess come about?
Alston: Leigh and I first started talking about starting a cooking blog back in 2008! Leigh has always been a passionate photographer, and I have always loved throwing any and every party I could! I would host a dinner party in NYC for 10 at a table that seated 6, and I have created dinner party menus for fun all my life! We both love being social and hosting friends and family, so when we were finally in the same city again we decided to launch Habitual Hostess after several glasses of wine and lots of brainstorming. It took us a few more months to get things going but we have been having the most fun spending time together doing what we love!
Love your slogan that “Life is boring, it’s your job to make it fun!” Can you please explain?
Alston: Life is totally what you make it! A Friday night at home can mean flipping through your phone watching bad TV, or you can decide to put on some good music, make a fun cocktail, play a card game and make some fun memories. We choose fun, hence our weekly Friday Mood posts in our stories!
What do both of you do as part of Habitual Hostess?
Leigh: I’m the photographer! We both plan and cook, but Alston is definitely thinking about menus in her sleep.
What’s your favorite dinner party hack?
Leigh: Candles—and lots of them! Lighting makes all the difference in setting a special mood.
Alston: Choose a menu that can be made in advance! I have too much FOMO to be stuck in the kitchen when my friends are all socializing and having fun.
What’s the most common mistake people make when entertaining?
Leigh: Trying out a new recipe the night of the party. I’ve made this mistake…..
Alston: Taking on too much, if it’s going to stress you out. If you are newer to hosting pick one course to focus on. Outsource dessert or appetizers. And always prioritize getting yourself ready! You can put some finishing touches on things when your guests arrive but you don’t want your guests to arrive when you are still in your robe with curlers in your hair!
Do you have any pandemic era entertaining tips?
Leigh: We hosted a chili and hot toddy themed birthday party last year outside at my house in October. With heat lamps, fire pits and warming soups – we were more than comfortable with the chill and had the best time. The pandemic stretched the outdoor gatherings well into winter and I think that is a way I would think about entertaining moving forward in the Fall/Winter.
Who taught you both to entertain?
Leigh: My mother. She is known for some of her “secret” and staple party recipes. And my husband, who taught me how to set the mood and also a lot about cooking. He is also an incredible cook!
Alston: My mother! She is a fabulous cook and is always hosting parties and dinners. We have cooked together my whole life and planning meals for when we are together is still one of our favorite things to do!
We love your videos – how did you learn to do social media?
Leigh: All Alston!
Alston: I think learning new things as you get older is so important! Lots of trial and error! That is why I encourage anyone who says they don’t cook to give it a try!
What are each of your favorite, go-to cocktails?
Leigh: Margarita (fresh-squeezed, always)
Alston: My father makes the best martinis, and his special martini was the first recipe we posted on Habitual Hostess- the Dantini. It’s shockingly fabulous!
What are your favorite recipes you’ve shared so far and why do you love them?
Leigh: The pimento cheese recipes are just so easy and always a crowd-pleaser. Any of our margarita recipes! I think it’s fun to show people that you can jazz up this basic cocktail with so many different variations.
Alston: So many of our recipes are things I have been cooking for years! And each recipe brings so many memories of the dinner parties and fun I’ve had in the past while making and serving those dishes! But the Tomato Basil Tart is probably one of my all-time favorite dishes ever! It’s just that special and anyone you make it for will remember that meal!
Love your spotlights – who are some of your favorite women you’ve featured so far?
Our first spotlight was on Lauren Stephen’s, founder of Dudley Stephens. She is a dear friend and has such a kind heart! As soon as we launched she wanted to help us any ways she could, and we were overwhelmed with her generosity, especially since she has built such an amazing brand herself! We have also done some collaborations with Brooke Shepard from Monogram Mary, and are excited to give her a proper feature soon!
What are your favorite Thanksgiving recipes?
Our two favorite recipes for Thanksgiving are our Sweet and Sour Brussels Sprouts with Apple and Bacon because they are such a great balance to all of the heavy food that is usually found on the Thanksgiving table, and our Pumpkin Bread Pudding because it is such an unexpected and delicious way to enjoy a pumpkin dessert!
You recently created hostess boxes that sold out almost immediately. Can you share why you decided to launch that?
We started our hostess boxes because we find that people are always looking for something special to gift to teachers, neighbors, friends, hosts and consumables are always a winner, but thoughtful, tasty and well-presented options are not abundant. We put together some of our signature snacks and are excited for people in our community to enjoy them. We will be delivering Christmas boxes every Thursday in December, so stay tuned on how to order! We hope to have lots of fun seasonal boxes in the future!
Awesome! You also shared info about a charity initiative, Food for Fairfield. Can you please tell us a bit more?
Alston: The concept for Food for Fairfield was started by my husband and another local dad who is a trained chef as an effort to give back to our community and we have been blown away by the support it has received. We will be making hot meals for 100 people in need this Thanksgiving, and delivering all of the groceries and produce to 45 additional families so they can have a Thanksgiving meal. We are excited to spend this week in the kitchen preparing all of the food – cooking for others truly brings us so much joy, especially when the food will be enjoyed by people who might not have had a Thanksgiving meal otherwise. We will be continuing these efforts to help feel those in need so stay tuned for ways to get involved!
Fantastic. Anything else you’d like to share?
We feel so grateful to be part of such a special community of mothers! Thank you!
We love to support local businesses. Can you please share your favorite places to:
Get dinner with your family
Leigh: Boxcar Cantina
Go on a date night
Leigh: Le Fat Poodle…nine out of ten date nights.
Alston: L’escale, Le Penguin, Tony’s, Le Fat Poodle or Applausi
Have a girls night
Leigh: Le Fat Poodle 😉
Alston: Le Fat Poodle, always!!
Leigh: Pure Barre
Alston: I love SLT and the best way to start my day is always a walk at Tods with a friend.
Get your hair/nails done
Edi, at Pretty Nails, is the BEST! Located inside of Charme & Cheveux salon right in Old Greenwich.
Have fun as a family
Leigh: Tods Point is just the perfect spot for a fun family hang. We take our boat out on the Sound frequently too. There is nothing like being out on the water around here. Such beautiful scenery in every direction!