Lynn Handmacher Chanin’s 66th birthday on Nov. 10 was fast approaching. A “Dear Friends Dinner Club,” which started in 2010, included Chanin and her husband Butch Fowler, along with five other couples. Before COVID, the friends ate dinner together monthly at each other’s homes. But since the pandemic, they had not been gathering. After seeing Margot Alfie’s Facebook posting about her driveway dinners, Chanin didn’t have to let COVID interfere with celebrating her birthday, discovering a safe way to celebrate it outdoors in her East Cobb neighborhood.
Postponing or canceling a joyful birthday or anniversary celebration during the pandemic was not an option for several other Jewish Atlantans. Neither was staying at home with a spouse sitting across a kitchen table sharing some birthday cake or relying on FaceTime or Zoom to connect with family and friends. Instead, they discovered an intimate setting to hold their milestone events at chef Alfie’s Marietta home on her large concrete driveway.
After finding that Alfie had a Nov. 8 Driveway Dinner Date available, Chanin suggested to her friends through email to incorporate her birthday celebration with dinner on Alfie’s driveway. Friends Kathie and Stevie Alhadeff, Ashley and Peter Lewman, Rosalie and Bart Agrow attended the party, along with Chanin’s parents – Betty and Burt Handmacher.
Like Chanin, Alfie brings a Sephardic background to her dishes.
Born in Mexico City, Alfie’s four grandparents emigrated to Mexico from Damascus, Syria, in the early 1900s. Alfie grew up in a multicultural family cooking two distinct cuisines.
Chanin’s great-grandfather was one of Congregation Or Ve Shalom’s founders; there have been six generations of her Sephardic family living in metro Atlanta. She easily gravitated to Alfie’s Middle Eastern four-course menu.
Starters included hummus with garbanzo, eggplant carpaccio, labne spread, Israeli and Arabic olives with pitas. Second course was lentil soup followed by a choice of two main courses of either beef and lamb keftedes or sumac fish accompanied by harissa-roasted carrots and “celebration rice:” white rice with almonds and golden raisins. Individual dessert triangles of Syrian baklava finished the celebratory meal.
Alfie surprised Chanin with one traditional Middle Eastern dessert: a gluten-free tahini large muffin with a side of raspberry sorbet, being mindful of Chanin’s food sensitivity. With a candle lit on the sweet treat, smaller mini-muffins surrounded baklava slices on other individual plates.
Chanin described her birthday party to the AJT as being both a joyful occasion and “being a blessing, to be surrounded by my husband, both of my parents who are in their 80s in good health, and a few of my very dear friends.”
Leaving the Bubble
How did five friends, who have remained close since the days their children attended the same Atlanta Jewish Community preschool, plan a special birthday for the youngest among them? The four friends, already past their mid-60s, could not wait till Mona Wolmer would celebrate her 65th milestone Oct. 2.
Since the pandemic, the women and their husbands get together for weekly Shabbat dinners in Wolmer’s large Sandy Springs garage, where they each bring their own meals while sharing a large challah. At one Friday night dinner, Wolmer recalled when the group made it clear that they were not going to let her birthday party celebration get away because of COVID.
Wolmer’s friend Rita Chaiken, who with her husband Fred had enjoyed a Driveway Dinner earlier this summer, suggested the party be catered by Alfie on her driveway, which followed CDC guidelines. Wolmer recalls everyone enthusiastically saying yes!
“None of us go outside our homes; we live in our little bubbles, but being together as friends, we feel safe,” she said.
Wolmer’s birthday dinner party menu Oct. 4 revealed the Middle Eastern side of the chef’s dual Mexican-Syrian heritage. A traditional birthday cake was replaced with a Syrian baklava dessert, with a candle gracefully inserted into Wolmer’s portion.
“It seemed like a never-ending 65th birthday celebration,” Wolmer recalled. She told the AJT that the festivities started on erev Sukkot, her actual birthdate, when she joined with her friends in the Chaiken’s sukkah. The next day she met up with her family, including her 3-year-old grandson, to celebrate their shared birthday weekend, followed by the driveway party. “It all felt so special in these times of COVID,” she said.
Having her party on Alfie’s driveway “felt like I was sitting in a five-star restaurant.” Wolmer confessed that it had been eight months since she was served a meal, without her doing the cooking. She added that having the party with her close group of friends, following COVID safety guidelines, was the right choice to celebrate her milestone birthday this year.
Fusing Mexican and Middle Eastern
By coincidence, Marlene and Hyman Sukiennik both had October birthdays. They decided to celebrate the two happy occasions as one party with 10 friends on Alfie’s driveway Oct. 25. Marlene selected the international menu, which ended with Malva pudding, a dessert of South African origin.
During COVID, in lieu of a restaurant or private home party, the September birthdays of Alfie, Dara Brenner and Karen Senft were celebrated Sept. 2 at Alfie’s home. The eight women, including the birthday honorees, who sat on the driveway, had become good friends after taking a Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project trip to Israel nine years ago. JWRP has since changed its name to Momentum. The friends raised their glasses of wine to offer each other good wishes in what became both a birthday party and their annual Israel trip reunion. An international menu fused Syrian and Mexican dishes.
Several people who were looking for a party location during COVID heard about Alfie’s Driveway Dinner Dates location and menus through Jewish Moms of Atlanta’s Facebook site or through other recommendations.
Cobi and Bennie Cohen and Sophie and Sorin Vainer, who didn’t know each other, reserved the same date for their wedding anniversaries. Allan Regenbaum, a longtime friend of the chef, was also having dinner that evening with his wife. He took out one of Alfie’s tropical beach paintings from her garage and walked it over to all the tables, holding it up as a backdrop for photos. Cobi Cohen said using the art made celebrating her eighth wedding anniversary feel even more special. Alfie observed that “with conversations between the tables, what started out as an anniversary celebration of a married couple sitting at their own table became a shared festive occasion with newfound friends by the end of the evening.”
Federation Inspires Innovation
Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Alfie said, “I was offering in-home chef services and cooking at people’s homes for their private parties, and now they are allowing me to cook for them in my kitchen.”
Jori Mendel, vice president of innovation for the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, encouraged Alfie to attend the Federation’s Path by Plywood course last summer. Alfie credits course leader Phil Ventimiglia, and Innovation Manager Russell Gottschalk, along with fellow participants, for their guidance.
For party amenities, white china, silverware, linen napkins, glass wine goblets and water glasses are set out on small tables for two spaced 6 feet apart. There are party balloons and confetti is sprinkled on the linen tablecloths; flower arrangements and candles are provided. Guests bring their own wine or other alcohol drinks.
As COVID still hovers, using a venue with safe distance seating outdoors at Alfie’s driveway is an option for celebrations, as long as the maximum guest list is 14. It also helps if the weather cooperates, but there’s always her heated garage. A 50th birthday party is booked in December and 14 friends already reserved the driveway to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
- Flora Rosefsky
- STYLE Magazine
- Chanin Fowler
- Butch Fowler
- Margot Alfie
- east cobb
- Kathie and Stevie Alhadeff
- Ashley and Peter Lewman
- Rosalie and Bart Agrow
- Congregation Or Ve Shalom
- Rita Chaiken
- Dara Brenner and Karen Senft
- Cobi and Bennie Cohen
- Jori Mendel