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May 19, 2013

Themed summer food fests have guests coming back year after year

Pizza dough, tomato sauce, a grill and a drawer full of funky aprons are the tools Don and Pat Hysko have employed on their decade-long crusade to recruit new fans of grilled pizza.

Pizza dough, tomato sauce, a grill and a drawer full of funky aprons are the tools Don and Pat Hysko have employed on their decade-long crusade to recruit new fans of grilled pizza.

The couple – both of whom are seasoned cooks and enthusiastic entertainers – are famous for their summertime pizza-grilling parties, which they’ve hosted frequently for the past 10 years just off their big, screened-in patio on the back of their east Wichita home.

The party is fun and inexpensive, they say.

It’s participatory and simple, and the results are always delicious.

“It’s like adults getting to play with their food,” Pat Hysko said.

The Hyskos are among several Wichita entertaining pros who use summer as an excuse to get friends together for theme parties centered on seasonal food and adult beverages.

They’re pizza grillers, but other local entertainers like to plan their parties around grilled meats, white wines, summer beers and more.

The Hysko pizza parties have their roots in Don’s friendships with famous chefs around the country.

Don learned how to grill pizza at Al Forno from founding chef and wood-grilled pizza pioneer George Germon. In the late 1990s, Don shared what he’d learned with a cooking class at the original Tanya’s Soup Kitchen on Douglas.

After he married Pat, the two started inviting people over to sample their pizzas, which were pretty novel at the time.

“Everyone started saying, ‘Let me help you.’ So it was our idea to put aprons on everyone and put them to work.”

Now, Pat and Don’s pizza parties – which they host both for friends and as part of fundraising dinners that are auctioned off at charity events – follow a script.

Between eight and 12 guests are invited and are encouraged to come in their casual clothes. Each is handed an apron and bar towel when he or she arrives.

In advance, Don makes a simple pizza sauce using San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and fresh Italian herbs, and Pat preps bowls of toppings. She picks what to use based on what’s in season: sliced button mushrooms, fresh green peppers, red onions, even fresh corn shaved from the cob. She’ll also buy pepperoni, cook Italian sausage and make a fresh-grated cheese blend using mozzarella and Parmesan and sometimes Romano and Asiago. She also sets out fresh oregano and basil from the herb garden.

The guests are given glasses of beer or wine, and then they get to work. Don stretches out the dough, which he and Pat buy raw from local pizza restaurant Knolla’s for $2.99 a round. One round can make three pizzas on the grill.

Guests take turns deciding what toppings to put on their pizzas, though Don always advises them that less is more. As the pizzas come off the grill, each guest tries a slice. Debates break out over which creation is the best.

“It’s kind of become a cult thing to do,” Don said. “Everyone likes to come over and have grilled pizza.”

Another pair of entertainers – local food and wine experts Guy and Beth Bower – have become well-known for a meatier type of summer theme party.

They learned about “asado” parties while on a trip to Chile in 2007.

“It’s historically a South American gathering of friends outside around an open fire grilling all manners of meat products,” Bower said. “This is not a party for vegetarians.”

At the end of their trip, their Chilean tour guides invited the Bowers and their friends for a backyard cookout. The Americans brought the wine – good stuff produced in Chile.

They arrived to find a fire blazing in the bottom of a halved, 55-gallon barrel, a grill resting over the top of it.

During the next seven hours, their hosts grilled steaks, pork, seafood, fresh vegetables and more. Part of the tradition of a Chilean asado, Bower said, is that guests don random hats when they start feeling really good.

The Bowers came home and replicated the party in their own backyard and have been doing it ever since.

They invite between eight and 12 people. Guy buys quality meats around town: flank steaks, pork loins, sausages from Yoder meats. He also picks up seafood such as shrimp and lots of seasonal, grillable vegetables such as artichokes and peppers.

He fires up his backyard grill, using woodchips. Sometimes, he’ll use more than one grill at a time.

The Bowers will supply several South American wines, which they serve in the backyard. (They also supply the hats.)

Guy grills two or three items at a time, and as they come off the grill, they’re chopped into bite-size pieces. Often the Bowers will display the items on a giant silver platter.

Guests roam around, sipping wine, sampling meats and veggies and chatting.

“All you really need is a big table and a big cutting board,” he said.

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