Food & Drink

Dinner parties become an art, motivator for Sea Pines resident

David Ellis watches wife, Barbie, serve hors d'oeuvres April 12 during a dinner party at their home in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. Dinner parties are David's specialty. During the Heritage golf tournament, he hosts a barbecue at his home that overlooks Harbour Town Golf Links.
David Ellis watches wife, Barbie, serve hors d'oeuvres April 12 during a dinner party at their home in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. Dinner parties are David's specialty. During the Heritage golf tournament, he hosts a barbecue at his home that overlooks Harbour Town Golf Links. Sarah Welliver/The Island Packet

Like every Heritage week, the party at David Ellis' Sea Pines home ends when the barbecue runs out. He's preparing 100 pounds of pulled pork for barbecue sandwiches this year. Preparation started Monday when he began cooking the meat in 10-pound batches. The party doesn't officially start until Friday. But some friends come late Thursday just to have the first taste of the meat mixed with one of his various sauces. If it's any indication of how many people pass through, he estimates he'll go through about 600 paper plates by the time the tournament ends Sunday.

He'll ask nothing in return of his guests, not even the ones he doesn't really know. A good party -- raucous laughter, close friends, tender barbecue -- is all he wants in return.

The Heritage party is Ellis' largest party, but not his only soiree of the year. Dinner parties are his specialty. On a given night, for no special reason, close to two dozen friends will enjoy a multi-course meal. His friends compare the experience to a night of fine dining at a gourmet restaurant.

It was just six years ago when Ellis wasn't sure how long those evenings of food and friends would continue. He was diagnosed with a rare cancer. In response, he went all in. He followed through on plans to expand his dining room to fit a table that seats 20. He built the kitchen of his dreams. As it turned out, cancer didn't get the better of him. Life went on. And so did the party.


A seat at an Ellis party is a "coveted invite," neighbor Mary Jo Wills said.

Preparations for a typical dinner party begin the day before and continue through the next morning. Ellis hires help from Sea Pines Country Club -- two young men who help cook, plate the food, serve hors d'oeuvres and wash dishes. He used to do it all himself, but that meant Ellis, an amiable Mississippi native who loves to tell a good story, missed out on his own party. Now he enjoys the night with his guests.

At a recent gathering, dinner starts with a cocktail hour and hors d'oeuvres for a group of about 20 friends and neighbors. The hired servers circle the room with trays of appetizers, which include a plate of thick slices of caramelized bacon -- a story in itself. Ellis was once at a wedding where bacon -- just bacon -- was served as an appetizer. Bizarre, he thought. His skepticism vanished when he took a bite. He pestered the caterer for the recipe, but didn't get it. Ellis went home and figured out the recipe himself. It's now a staple at his gatherings.

Ellis rings a bell to signal guests to seat themselves at the long, mahogany table custom-made in England. Salad is topped with a crab cake and homemade remoulade. The entree is a filet of a fish in a lemon caper sauce served with bright circles of spinach madeline and carrots louise. Dinner ends on a sweet note; pecan pie made by Ellis' wife, Barbie. The key ingredient is a vanilla extract concocted by a pharmacist friend in Mississippi.

In the Ellis household, Barbie is a master at breakfasts and a few dishes of her own. David is the head chef. The couple's weeknight meals are small dinner parties in themselves. Ellis cooks French, Italian, Thai or whatever captivates him at the moment. He's going through a Cajun phase right now that includes ordering muffaletta from New Orleans because he can't find someone who makes it locally. He's taken cooking classes during trips to Italy. He draws on his Lebanese heritage and makes kibbe, a rice and meat dish. The dinner parties are an extension of his passion for food.

"It got to the point where it became just as easy to cook for 20 as it did for four," he said.


Ellis has been around the kitchen for most of his life, helping his mother make nut cakes and other sweets. The Southern boy grew up to be a lawyer, returning to Vicksburg, Miss., to practice. The parties started there.

He'd have crawfish boils and pig roasts. He'd hunt with friends and host end-of-season game parties with venison, duck, rabbit and rattlesnake.

The Ellises had been coming to Hilton Head Island since 1995. He bought his current house in Sea Pines a little more than 10 years ago with plans to move there permanently. In 2005, he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. If he was lucky, doctors told him, he might live two years. The fight required long bouts of chemotherapy.

The couple decided to redesign the Sea Pines house's kitchen after years of talking about it. They added a center island with stove, two refrigerators, two sinks and enough room for friends to gather around while Ellis cooked. They expanded the living and dining rooms on the back of the house that overlooks Harbour Town Golf Links.

Ellis ended up going through chemotherapy for 37 months. In 2007, he and Barbie permanently moved into their home, now perfect for entertaining friends. When Ellis finished chemo, it wasn't long before he got cooking.

"Heaven didn't want me and the devil didn't want me either. So I'm stuck here for the time being," he said. "And that's not too bad a thing."

Heritage is a wonderful time for Ellis. His house overlooks the conjunction of three holes, so it's a nice stopping off point for the friends he's met throughout the years. He tells old and new friends the same thing: Stop by. Grab a bit a barbecue. Stay for a bit or move on. He'll just be happy you came.

"I love to entertain," he said. "I love to make people happy. I like having people laugh, and having good times."

Cajun Pasta

3 pounds shrimp, peeled

1 pound crabmeat

1 stick butter

2 cups onion, diced

2 cups sweet red peppers, diced

1 1/2 cups celery, diced

2 pounds grated white cheddar cheese, extra sharp

1 cup flour

1 quart seafood stock

1 cup green onions, diced

1 cup parsley, diced

3 tablespoons minced garlic

Cajun seasoning and Louisiana Hot Sauce, to taste

Melt butter in a large pot on medium to medium-high heat. Add garlic as butter is melting. When butter is melted, add onion, celery and red peppers. Saute for5-7 minutes on high heat.

Add flour to the vegetables a little at a time, mixing well. Add seafood stock in small amounts, using all of the stock.

Bring to a boil and add cheddar cheese, stirring constantly. When cheese is completely melted, add the shrimp and reduce heat to medium.

Add crabmeat, green onions and parsley. If you want a thicker consistency, add more cheese. If you want the consistency thinner, add more seafood stock. Cook for 10 minutes on low heat.

Season with Cajun seasonings auisiana Hot Sauce to your taste.

Serve over cooked tagliolini pasta or another thin, flat pasta of your choice.

Recipe by David Ellis of Hilton Head Island