October 20, 2020 – The drive through the rolling hills of northern Italy was almost cinematic.
Sisters Lauren and Merritt Palminteri had stopped in a small Alpine village with their grandmother Antonina, or “Meema” as they called her, to pick up provisions—a whole roasted chicken and a bag of fruit—before hopping in the car and continuing along the winding road.
They drove past meadows bursting with wild red poppies. “I had this yearning to get out of the car and pick them,” recalls Merritt, so they pulled over by the side of the road and enjoyed a simple picnic of roasted chicken, tomatoes and peaches in a field of wildflowers. “It was like a dream, it felt like The Sound of Music. It was unreal.” Lauren chimes in, “And a nice break from all the pizza margherita we were eating!”
Merritt was nine years old and Lauren was five—at the time, neither knew that this fleeting moment would have such a lasting impression.
“That was the first time we became aware of food in a different way,” recalls Merritt. “We hadn’t had chicken that way before. It was so moist, with a heavy salt and rosemary mixture. It wasn’t anything like the food in the 80s in the US.”
Now, 31 years later, that trip has inspired the Monterey sisters’ new outdoor dining concept, Plein Air Picnic.
Both Lauren and Merritt have had a lifelong love of food and entertaining. “We used to have a supper club together and we like to talk about food,” says Lauren. “I used to love throwing parties and until the economy collapsed in 2008, I was doing flowers for weddings as a side gig in New York before I went back to school,” adds Merritt.
Lauren worked at the Pebble Beach Company for several years. She helped coordinate culinary operations—including the annual epicurean extravaganza Pebble Beach Food & Wine—before transitioning to conference services manager with a focus on corporate events.
But when shelter-in-place orders took effect in March, like most of the resort’s staff, she was furloughed. She grew restless while out of work and when she learned her furlough would be permanent, began brainstorming business ideas with her sister.
Late this summer, they launched Plein Air Picnic to recreate the charm of that childhood picnic.
“It’s kind of hard to find pleasure in daily life right now, so a picnic feels a little bit like a delightful thing,” explains Merritt. She and Lauren have a menu of picnics for purchase for an effortless escape from the day-to-day. “It feels less like getting a takeout meal and more like a little event.”
Lauren oversees cooking and menu development. Merritt is an architect, but leapt at the chance to work with her sister, “I wanted to be Lauren’s right-hand man.” Her focus is business development and she brings her architectural eye to overseeing florals and styling.
The sisters take the guesswork out of preparing your outdoor feast.
“My favorite part [of my job] was always working with the different chefs and clients to develop the menus,” recalls Lauren. “Our hope was the packages were inclusive enough so, while we still customize some things, everything is chosen for you, so it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Packages are priced per person, with a two-person minimum. The Basic P package includes classic deviled eggs, crudité, cheese and crackers, citrus salad, ice box chicken salad and hearty farro salad ($45 per person). The Celebration Brunch includes a morning pastry or breakfast biscuit, seasonal parfait with Schoch Family Farmstead yogurt, citrus fruit salad and choice of two toasts ($50 per person). The Flora & Fauna Lunch includes a Cobb salad board, choice of two sandwiches and a seasonal fruit board ($50 per person). Extras like a cheese board ($50), crudité and dips (for four people, $45) and seasonal fruit board (for two people, $12) are also available.
Brunch boxes might feature a savory toast with buttered leeks, crème fraîche and Midnight Moon goat cheese or something sweet like toast with ricotta, strawberries, stone fruit and Tor’s honey. For lunch, there’s an open-faced niçoise sandwich with albacore, egg and olive or an ice box chicken salad sandwich with chicken, savory ranch dressing, shaved radishes and butter lettuce on a Parker house roll.
Lauren and Merritt tested about 90 different salads, sandwiches and toasts for Plein Air Picnic’s packages. Lauren expects selections will shift with the seasons, showcasing the bounty of fruits and vegetables from local farms, “If you look at The Basic P menu, we just updated some of the salads to be more fall-centric.”
But the Carli Boy sandwich emerged as one of their favorites and a staple for all seasons.
Riffing on their father Carl’s childhood nickname, “Carli Boy,” the sandwich sees pickled beets, hard-boiled egg, pimentón aioli and herbs on fresh, fluffy focaccia. “It’s named for our dad who hates beets,” explains Lauren. “Over time he’s made it absolutely clear how much he hates beets,” Merritt adds. “He won’t eat it, but we thought we’d name it after him,” says Lauren, giggling. Plein Air Picnic’s clients clearly don’t share Carl’s displeasure for beets—the sandwich has been a favorite for picnickers.
Locals may recall Lauren was the brains and brawn behind Bread & Butter Caramels, with her homemade treats for sale at the now-shuttered Bright Coffee, popups at Lilify and by special order. While she’s retired the Bread & Butter brand, she has a number of sweet treats available as extras to add to Plein Air Picnic packages, including chocolate chip cookies (1 dozen for $12), hand pies (four for $12) and custom birthday cakes ($55). (She also teases holiday picnic gift baskets coming later this year will resurrect some of Bread & Butter’s favorite caramels, including hot apple cider, brown butter pecan and adobo.)
While they’ve curated a selection of packages, the sisters welcome customization.
“Almost every single event has been a back and forth between us and whoever we’re making food for,” explains Merritt. She and Lauren are happy to accommodate dietary restrictions and can customize vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free picnic packages.
“Lauren likes dismantling the menus she’s created and making them work for anybody,” says Merritt. “Neither of us are formally trained chefs so we have zero ego. No one needs to validate our experience or our education. We just want to make food people like to eat.”
Interested in a picnic of your own? Peruse packages on the website and place orders online or by email and the sisters will be in touch to cater selections to your particular tastes. Because picnics are custom-made, orders must be placed at least 48 hours in advance. Orders are available for picnics within a 15-mile radius of Monterey.
“When the date and time arrives, we have boxes of food ready to go and can help you set up or we can deliver to your front door if you’re more comfortable with that,” explains Merritt. If it’s a special occasion, clients can also order a full picnic setup with wooden tables, pillows, blankets, plates, cups and cutlery ($100 for two to six people).
Lauren and Merritt have coordinated a number of backyard picnics for clients sheltering in place, but can also recommend their favorite local spots for picnics too—always in compliance with local regulations regarding public gatherings and social distancing, of course.
The picnics bring a breath of fresh air to local dining options as eateries continue to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and seek creative solutions to state and county restrictions on food service.
And while borne out of necessity during the pandemic, Lauren expects the concept will prove popular post-pandemic too, citing the appeal of takeaway picnics for tourists looking to explore Monterey’s breathtaking outdoors and creating their own cinematic moment here on the Central Coast.