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My Halloween party: David Burtka

The celeb chef shares his festive food and decorating ideas.

If anyone knows how to throw a Halloween party, it’s professional chef David Burtka and his husband, actor Neil Patrick Harris. The annual shindig at their L.A. home is infamous for drawing A-list guests. Since relocating from L.A. to New York City to raise their children (six-year-old twins Harper and Gideon), the festive gurus admit to having toned things down but still make a point of getting creative when October 31 rolls around. “We’ve scaled it back a bit,” says Burtka. “Either we do an adultish dinner or a pumpkin carving party for the kids. But we still try to give the holiday the attention that it deserves.”

Burtka is currently working on a cookbook, Life of the Party, which will debut in spring 2019. "It's centered around seasonal cooking and entertaining and will go beyond just Christmas and Easter—it'll have snow day and spring garden parties as well." Here, he shares some of his tips for transforming everyday dishes into Halloween masterpieces, healthy recipe ideas, and more.

What are your party essentials?

"I’m the food guy so I put together a bunch of really gruesome-looking, yet delicious meals. I love having multiple scares happening. We either hire a friend or get a neighbor to dress up in a mask and hide in the bushes, and scare guests at the top of the stairs. For decorations, you can dry out fresh flowers and spread the dead petals around your house or paint them black. We also have a rule that everyone has to wear a costume and you can’t get in the door without one. Lighting and music is always the best thing for a party. Have people come in with their favorite ghost stories and huddle around a fire. Or dim the lights down and take turns putting flashlights to the bottom of your face and tell a ghost story. Just have fun, that’s the main thing."

What types of scary dishes do you serve?

"Neil loves the mini pork dumplings I make. You close the wonton wrappers on each other in a very messy way and you actually boil them and they look like shrunken brains. We also do cake balls and paint eyeballs on them. For healthier options, I like poaching shrimp on a bamboo skewer, which straightens them out so they look like fingers. I’ve also done a brain made of tuna tartar and stuffed with sushi rice and avocado. I’ll make a roasted squash and baby kale salad and serve it out of a giant rubber spider. I call it 'Bug Guts Salad.'"

What's the secret to making regular foods spooky?

"Don’t be afraid to throw props in for the presentation. Start with setting a good table by using things like fake bugs. Serving crowd-pleasing dishes like chili and soups out of cauldrons is always a hit and you can make cocktails look like they're smoking with some dry ice."

How do you stay fit during a candy-filled holiday?

"Neil and I really like to eat as much as we can, in moderation, but it’s not 'Oh I know Halloween is coming up so I have to work at the gym more.' Exercise is an everyday thing. Neil and I don’t work out together, though. We get too competitive (laughs). He’s a different beast in the gym. He’s really into handstands and more balance stuff and I like getting my workout done with weights at least three times a week and cardio. I take a lot of spin classes. Equinox is such a great gym that it’s hard not to find great stuff there all the time. Right now he has to be super skinny for the part that he’s playing (Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events), this lanky sort of creepy character. But when Halloween comes around and the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are flowing, he’s known to eat two king-size pieces in one sitting.

We try to live our lives in balance. If you have a really fattening meal, you eat really lean the next day and lots of salads and vitamins do the trick. I see these parents who don’t let their kids have any fun treats and I think doing that means they'll just want it more. My kids don’t really ask for sugar that much but it's all about moderation."

Do you have any healthy cooking advice?

"I use whole ingredients for everything and don't rely on things I have to open from a package. Go to the farmer's market for your produce—it’s always healthier to eat foods sourced within a 10-mile radius. Grocery stores carry everything nowadays, so while you can get a pineapple in the winter, you have to think about how long it's been sitting on a truck or airplane. I don’t eat tomatoes during the winter. Not only are they flavorless, but I’ve heard that they are picked green and then sprayed so they'll get the red coloring. It's upsetting that our food industry is so messed up right now and it’s our mission and our duty to eat locally. I also believe in eating grass-fed meat from local butchers. It might be a little bit more expensive, but your body is worth it."