You might think that a wedding planner to the wealthy Hamptons set—the kind of wealthy that can build a replica of Coney Island in the middle of a field for a wedding reception and fly Miley Cyrus in to perform for the guests, well, you might expect that wedding planner to be judge-y or fussy or not-very-nice.
But Jill Gordon, the wedding planner who coordinated that Coney Island extravaganza, complete with Mermaid Parade, and who over more than 25 years has planned countless sumptuous dream weddings in the Hamptons through her eponymous company, Jill Gordon Celebrate, is the opposite of not-very-nice.
A day tagging along with Gordon as she tastes wedding cakes, tours a working farm wedding location, meets with a mixologist in a field of edible flowers, and buys a chicken from the local farm, reveals that while, yes, she is detail-oriented and exacting in her standards, her discernment and coordinating capabilities are just part of why she has been so successful.
She listens intently, takes delight in the creative work of others and builds relationships with clients and providers alike, pushing young creatives and makers to level up. She also carefully nurtures the network she has cultivated since her childhood summering and weekending in East Hampton.
Virtually all of those memories start with local food.
“I grew up in the city, but this [East Hampton] is where we spent time as a family. We were such a food-driven family; the joke was always that my mother had to visit four farmstands to make a salad,” she says in her bento box of a home—70s modern—in the quiet green-ness of Northwest Woods, sharing her desk chair with a tiny rescue dog named Mr. Big. The airy house is punctuated with her own art—stones, shells and paper painted with rustic, elegant swirls of earth tones and gold, and her latest passion: ceramics. “I went to a private school in New York; it wasn’t everyone in the world coming out here. It was the late 60s and it was so nice,” she reminisces.
Gordon—an only child—remembers trips to the beach, her Tarzan swing and biking around with friends. She also helped get the food on the table for the big dinners and entertaining her parents did. Her dad, descended from a bootlegger turned legitimate liquor distributor after Prohibition, stayed in the booze business, while her mom was a jewelry designer who had a shop in East Hampton for a time.
“We’d go to the Amagansett Farm Market, which was amazing. I remember the bulk grains—it was the 70s hippy moment—and I’d spend my allowance on penny candy; Round Swamp Farm; we’d get food for the beach at Loaves and Fishes, then on the way back, stop for corn. My father would grill whole bass from Stuart’s; he was a grill master. Then in the fall we would get bushels of tomatoes and spend the whole weekend processing them.”
Her first jobs were at different area shops; even when she went off to college at UPenn, she came back to work in the summers. But around that time, the idyll ended; her parents divorced and her mother moved to London while her dad stayed in New York. Gordon found herself adrift.
“At the time the people I went to school with were going to Wall Street,” she recalls. “I didn’t want that, but at the time somehow I didn’t know I was allowed to do something creative.” Instead, she traveled around the world for nine months. When she returned, still feeling directionless, a friend of a friend recommended her to boutique caterer Henry Banister in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“That’s how I learned the back end of the business,” she says. “I worked really hard. It was challenging to present well to the clients while also schlepping pots and pans around at 2 a.m. I loved it and I hated it.”
After three grueling years she returned to East Hampton for a lazy, rejuvenating summer, when friend and oftentime colleague Mary Schoenlein—of Mary’s Marvelous fame—asked Gordon to fax a help wanted ad from The East Hampton Star. On that page happened to be an ad for a catering manager for Red Horse Market.
Cue end of relaxing summer. Gordon nabbed the job.
“I loved the place; it’s the ultimate food person’s fantasy,” she says. “I was a 30-year-old, just a baby, but I had experience and I was good at it.”
There was no actual catering division at the market then. Over the next intense two and half years, Gordon learned everything about running a catering business in the Hamptons. Once again, she was ready for a break and once again, the world had different plans for her.
“I had decided to leave,” she recalls. “But then a friend of a friend was getting married and having a wedding and they asked me if I could coordinate. There weren’t many wedding planners around at that time. I had never done it before, but they gave me a $500 deposit. I went right out, created a logo and printed business cards.”
And so in 1997, with that first June wedding at Georgica Pond—with food by Janet O’Brien Catering and a seasonal pink peony theme—Jill Gordon Celebrate was born.
“I didn’t know how to build a business, but I knew how to throw a party. And I wanted to do it without having to lug dirty platters myself. Don’t get me wrong; I still get my hands dirty and I move tables and carry produce, but it’s much less.” she says.
She may not be lugging pots and pans, but she is front and center with suppliers, who are almost all local. On a recent July morning she was tasting a naked chocolate layer cake and fresh berry tart with pastry chef Dorothy Stone, a 10-year area resident who arrived when she married a Sag Harbor native. Gordon discovered her through Harbor Market & Kitchen and they began to collaborate.
“Jill was a huge factor in me getting into wedding cakes,” says Stone. “I thought I couldn’t do it; it was intimidating to me to do layer cakes. I had done it in school [at Johnson & Wales, RI], but not since. She pushed me, saying ‘I know you can do it.’” They have been collaborating for two years.
“I love how organized she is and how she always has a vision of what she wants. It is always beautiful; she has great instinct for design,” Stone adds. An example of how Gordon works with her partners came last fall. “She suggested I use edible flowers all over a cake,” says Stone. “I wouldn’t have thought of that. She pushes me out of my comfort zone.”
It is part of what Gordon loves about her work. “One of the best things about this business is the collaborative aspect: working with good people, feeding each other,” she says. “When someone is young and has the potential, but they don’t realize it, you can help them see.”
Later that day, Gordon drives her 718 Porsche Boxster S—top down, stick shift—across the familiar, yet changing landscape to Foster Farm in Sagaponack for a meeting with Almond Restaurant co-founder Eric Lemonides and his life and work partner, Lee Felty. The couple will be getting married at the farm in September, and were walking the property with sixth generation farmer, Marilee Foster, to learn what the fields would be producing (as much of the food as possible will be local) and what a late summer landscape would look like.
“Back in the day so much more of this was farmland,” Gordon says along the drive. “It’s so different now, so many houses. But isn’t it beautiful? I never get over it,” she says. “We still have some farms because people here are engaged in it. But it used to be all potato and corn fields.” The farm wedding location delights Gordon who parks under a tree and slips off her fuschia Moroccan slides and into a pair of rugged boots she keeps in the car for such occasions.
Lemonides and Felty chose Gordon to coordinate the particulars since they have collaborated on other projects together.
“Our philosophy is not: ‘We want corn’; it is: ‘Is there corn?’” says Lemonides as they tramp through rows of growing crops. “That’s how we eat and that’s how it’s going to be in our wedding.” So, if the growing season cooperates there will be Foster Farm tomatoes and carrots and more in the reception dinner.
While the couple have their concepts, Gordon will be responsible for the realization of that vision. “She is making sure that we stay on track,” Fenty says, in the cool Sagaponack mist. “We know how to do it, but we are also all over the place. She has organized all the details. It’s giving us no stress at all.”
That means coordinating a whole weekend of events and hotel stays and transportation in addition to the flow of The Big Day.
From Foster Farm it is off to Balsam Farms to meet mixologist Jarhn Blutstein. This is a new partner for Jill Gordon, recommended by another frequent collaborator, and they are meeting to plan garnishes for frozen Negronis for an upcoming Dolce Vita-themed cocktail party. The two hop into a golf cart and set out for the edible flower beds. “I asked for two-inch ice-cubes with edible flowers frozen inside,” Gordon says. They immediately begin chatting about mutual connections in the world of South Fork hospitality (Blutstein’s husband is owner of steakhouse Mavericks in Montauk and lifelong besties with Alex Balsam; Jarhn Blutstein uses the Mavericks kitchen to make her syrups and infusions). Like modern-day gleaners, they pause to pick some of the last strawberries of the season. You would think they had known each other for years.
The nasturtium and mini-marigolds, a hunt for the elusive borage blossom and the colors of the other flowers energize Gordon; she is a woman who experiences beauty with joy and seeks to infuse every aspect of her work with it. And while she is a meticulous organizer with Plans A, B and all the way to Z, she doesn’t lose sight of the whole point of any wedding, big or small, over the top or modest.
“There are memorable weddings that I will forever be proud of, like the mermaid under the sea wedding—at the end of that I actually wept because I couldn’t believe we had actually done it, without a hitch; it was really amazing—but the most memorable weddings are about the couple, when people are kind and happy to be there. Beautiful is good, delicious is good too, but it’s about the love in the room. That’s what makes it work.”
Her work day is about over, but like her mother before her, Jill Gordon cannot resist a farmstand. “Oooh, we should stop at Iacono’s; they have the best chicken…and their eggs!” she says, and makes a quick detour. There she chats familiarly with the family while getting a 4 pound fresh chicken for a spontaneous meal. Consummate, meticulous architect of luxury weddings she may be, but both in her professional life and private life, there is room—indeed, need—to seize opportunity, roll with change and improvise. Whether it be a chicken dinner or a fabulous event, it is bound to be beautiful and seasoned with love.
The Logistics of Celebrating with Jill
Jill Gordon Celebrate works with just a few clients a year; eight is about average. Before signing any contracts, Gordon meets with clients—these days via Zoom—to assure that there is a good fit and that their visions are complementary. It is a big investment; a big wedding that includes weekend events will cost upwards of $2000 per guest. Planning usually begins nine or ten months before the date, but she has done them in fewer than six months (sometimes much fewer). The ideal amount of time is one year. Gordon dives deep into what the couple wants before crafting a plan. The budget is determined from the outset, with JGC charging on a hybrid model that is mostly percentage-based.
Gordon and her full time staff of two then set out to recommend and coordinate with vendors like Dorothy Stone for every aspect of the wedding weekend from accommodations, to transportation, to rehearsal and farewell events, rain contingencies (most of the weddings are tented). Gordon recommends vendors—after all these years she knows pretty much everyone—but it is up to the client to make the selection. She will work on a theme so that everything looks perfect. For her the timing of the ceremony and reception events is crucial. “It is the timeline and flow of events that creates the experience,” she says. “The guests can’t see it, and you can’t see it on Instagram, but what makes the experience is the progressive flow.”