When I opened the gate to Gaby Dalkin’s backyard it felt like I had found the hidden key to the Los Angeles version of “The Secret Garden.” It’s not that her backyard is enormous or teeming with prize-winning roses, but it’s the kind of place you could have people over every day for the rest of your life and it would always feel magical.
You hear it before you see it: the sound of someone’s laugh being drowned out by ice hitting a cold glass. The hot hiss of food hitting the grill, the scrape of a peel taking homemade pizza out of a wood-burning oven. You see long tables stretched out lazily in the sun-spattered yard, pockets of seating areas asking to be filled. Tucked in the corner, you’ll find a small pool, its glassy exterior waiting to be disrupted. Why would you ever leave?
When Gaby and her husband Thomas moved into their home in the valley a couple years ago, they chronicled their renovations on Instagram—including their backyard. “We saw the potential to really convert this to the entertaining capital of the world,” Thomas said in a video. The couple worked with a landscape architect to make it a reality. “We wanted there to be different moments for different entertaining purposes,” Gaby explains. “We also wanted the backyard to feel intimate, whether that’s a Thanksgiving dinner for 60 or an eight person dinner party.”
The self-described entrepreneur and cookbook author greets me and the rest of the Simply Recipe crew at the door with a hug. Wearing a peachy top and crisp white pants that you can only wear if you have the confidence to not spill on them, she is sunshine incarnate; a moniker that is heaped upon her like avocado on toast. She quickly runs back into the kitchen—It’s the day of the shoot for the digital issue, and she’s got zucchini to get on the grill. Minutes later she emerges to check in with us. Do we need water? Are we hungry? Even though she’s the star, she’s always a host. It’s instinctual. It’s effortless. She’s the Los Angeles Ina Garten.
Gaby started What’s Gaby Cooking in 2009, and it has ballooned into something that neither she—or really anyone else, for that matter—could have imagined. Back then, there weren’t as many career paths for someone who loved cooking, but didn’t want to work in restaurants. You didn’t have Instagram, you had TV stars. You didn’t have blogs, you had magazines. Gaby was one of the first to carve out something new for herself. Today, her site draws in millions of people every month, and her Instagram has grown to well over 800,000 followers.
At the core of Gaby’s colorful, California-inspired recipes is this feeling of community. “I got into food because I love feeding people,” she says. You can see this through her private Facebook group, her frequent Instagram lives, her cookbook club, and her travels (Gaby just hosted her first What’s Gaby Cooking vacation with fans in the Galapagos Islands). She answers every DM on Instagram herself. “I'm in the business of customer service and making people comfortable in the kitchen. If it's not me answering DMs, that's a total sham.” It’s no wonder that she’s a wizard at bringing people together and hosting parties.
But it wasn’t always like this. Gaby’s interest in cooking came as a surprise considering that she came from a family of doctors where dinner was a heavy rotation of chicken and pasta. “My mom is one of these people who eats to live. I live to eat,” she says. She decided—almost on a whim—to go to both culinary and pastry school after leaving her first full-time job in marketing and fashion PR. “I started cooking when I was on the tennis team in college,” Gaby says. “I'd have everyone over the night before a match for Chicken Parmesan and pasta. I just loved bringing everyone together.”
2009 was still the early days of food blogs—blurry photos reigned supreme, and people didn’t complain about long headnotes on the internet. So what was her motivation? “I started it because my godmother had a food blog,” Gaby explains. “She told me to go read Ree Drummond's website, and I thought her whole love story with Ladd was so cool. So I started a blog. I had no idea what I was doing.”
After pastry school, with her site just under way, Gaby worked as a private chef around LA. This, she explains, is where she really learned how to entertain. “I was a private chef for a big entertaining family in Malibu,” she says. “And they would tell me with about three hours' notice that there were 55 people coming over for dinner.” There was no time to run to the grocery store; no way Gaby could pull off making carnitas.
“I would just blister some tomatoes, make an incredible pasta, add some burrata, make a quick salad, and we’d have this beautiful spread that looks like it took hours to make,” Gaby recalls. “If we didn’t have enough chicken, we’d slice it up really thin and throw it on a platter with some vegetables.” The most important thing for these dinners wasn’t the food, it was just having people over.
This sentiment feels more important than ever considering the past two years (you of course can’t talk about parties right now without talking about the pandemic). As it becomes a little safer to gather, Gaby says she realizes it doesn’t really matter what you serve people when they come over. “It doesn't have to be fancy, homemade, everything from scratch,” Gaby says. “That's not the world we're living in anymore. I think people just really appreciate being together.” Same goes for the table setting: “Put a bunch of wine in the middle of the table and like, that's your centerpiece.”
But while she’s all about the easy, Gaby still knows how to throw a rager. When I ask her about the best party she’s ever been to or thrown, she doesn’t hesitate to say her annual Friendsgiving party. “It’s the highlight of my year, it's my favorite night. I have 65 people in my yard and I cook everything except for dessert because I'm a total control freak.” She’s hosted Friendsgiving 5 times, but took a break in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2021, she had everyone take a COVID test before they came over. She spends three days prepping for the dinner, peeling carrots and brining turkey. “Every ounce of love you possibly have to give goes into this one meal,” Gaby explains. “Having a table where you can literally see everyone you care about is incredible. It's like a little mini wedding.”
So what makes Gaby’s parties feel so effortless and chic? She has three things she swears by: good music, plenty of beverages, and snacks. “When you walk into someone's house, you might not know everyone. You wanna have a quick bite. You don't wanna be starving when dinner comes,” she explains. Gaby says she typically serves guacamole and chips (her first cookbook was all about avocados), ceviche, and cheese boards; things that are easy to make and prep ahead of time.
I can tell you, just in the couple hours that I was in her backyard that this feels true. Gaby’s longtime photographer and best friend, Matt Armendariz, is blasting the perfect disco playlist. Between bites of tomato and perfectly-cooked fish, everyone wiggles in their seats. A DIY spritz bar was situated behind us, filled with Camapri, Amaro, Cynar, soda water, ice, and plenty of citrus.
Gaby said she came up with the menu for our backyard bash almost immediately. She was hanging out with Matt and his husband, food stylist Adam Pearson, and they were dreaming of summer. She wanted to make fish because it’s light but filling, it’s fast to cook so you don’t have to be at the grill for very long, and the simple Calabrian chile gremolata makes the dish ultra flavorful. She added some zucchini and yellow squash to the grill as a side, and pairs it with some salty feta and fresh herbs. The Panzanella salad—my personal favorite recipe of the night—was something Gaby had wanted to make for a long time. It’s filled with the juiciest heirloom tomatoes, burrata, basil, and a mustard-y vinaigrette. The crowning achievement for the salad, however, is that instead of crusty bread (a classic preparation for Panzanella), she uses fried store-bought polenta. “The polenta as croutons is genius,” Gaby says. She often genuinely seems surprised at just how good something is that she makes—but not in a way that comes across as pompous. It’s like she’s there, discovering it with her readers, for the first time; like she’s just a conduit for these ingredients or ideas.
She decided on a 4-ingredient limoncello popsicle for dessert, because she’s “obsessed with limoncello and I don't drink it or eat it enough.” It’s also the perfect dinner party dessert because you can make it ahead of time—even months in advance. This is a theme that runs through all of Gaby’s entertaining menus. “I never wanna be in the kitchen or on the grill for like an hour when people are here. I wanna be part of the party, too.”
The menu is extremely her—in the past 13 years since she started What’s Gaby Cooking, she’s really honed in on what her readers love to eat, and what she likes to cook. It’s high flavor, low effort, lots of color (and cheese). Since 2009, she’s also published three cookbooks, launched a product line with Williams Sonoma, and built up a team to support her work. Her husband Thomas, who she's been with for 17 years, also recently left his job and joined What’s Gaby Cooking full-time. “We couldn't do what we do without everybody involved,” Gaby explains. She’s the first to say she’s definitely not a one-woman show.
Her fourth cookbook, “Take it Easy,” comes out at the end of September. Gaby says the past two years of staying indoors and cooking all the time played a big role in concepting this book. “It's just super flavor-forward food without any fuss,” she explains. “And it's all about bringing people to your table after not being able to do that for so many months.”
When she’s not focused on her readers or cooking, she’s with her family. After three years filled with infertility issues—which she talked openly about with her fans—she and Thomas welcomed their first daughter, Poppy, into the world in January 2021. I asked her if having people over became harder after having a kid, and she said it was actually the opposite because of all the friends her daughter has met at baby groups.
The only thing that might be different is that Gaby has to focus even more on choosing fuss-free recipes. She tries to involve Poppy in what she’s cooking so that she can keep an eye on her. She eats almost everything right now: broccoli, pizza, and even the fish from our backyard bash. The only thing she doesn’t like? Lettuce. “Poppy eats like a monster in the best possible way. She's her mom's baby.” If that’s true, it’s only a matter of time until she throws her own backyard bash.