From pork-wonton mini brains to eyeball cakes, the Halloween-obsessed actor Neil Patrick Harris and his partner, the talented chef David Burtka, share grotesquely good party ideas.
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What happens at Hollywood’s best Halloween party? Vampires drink cocktails brimming with blood, contortionists twist themselves into human serving bowls and a mad scientist passes around a science-lab beaker of human brains in lieu of an hors d’oeuvre platter. At least that’s how it goes when actor Neil Patrick Harris and his fiancé, the chef and E! News correspondent David Burtka, throw their annual Halloween bash. “I am ravenous about Halloween,” says Harris, one of the masterminds behind these shocking yet weirdly delicious stunts.
Harris’s elaborate Halloween parties are the stuff of Hollywood legend. When he and Burtka started dating eight years ago, he says, “David discovered that my backyard haunted houses involved six fog machines, buckets of fake blood and two weeks of preproduction. He realized, ‘Oh, I better learn to like this holiday. Quick.’ ” Jeff Probst, host of Survivor and a regular guest at these parties, says, “You’ve got to be pretty serious when you go to Neil and David’s for Halloween—they throw it down. Dressing up as Zorro doesn’t cut it.”
Related: Halloween Desserts
When Harris and Burtka met, they were both actors in New York City; Burtka impressed Harris by cooking for him and expanding his horizons beyond fast food. The couple relocated to Los Angeles when Harris was cast as the lecherous Barney on the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother in 2005. There, Burtka turned his professional focus to food: He attended Le Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena, then wrangled a sought-after internship at Babbo back in New York City and finally opened an L.A. catering company, Gourmet M.D., in 2008 with his classmate Molly Hanisee.
Today Harris and Burtka are both so devoted to Halloween that they rent a large storage locker to hold all their ghoulish decorations and props. In recent years, their annual October blowout has evolved from full-on nightmare—like a woman with her mouth sewn shut behind a sign with “speak no evil” painted in faux blood—to a party that balances scares with other thrills. That could mean a sideshow performer escaping from a straitjacket and dancing on broken glass, or barbecued ribs arranged on a platter to resemble a cadaver’s rib cage. “People are so used to the same old Halloween stuff at parties, like pumpkin soup served in the pumpkin,” says Hanisee, who works with Burtka on the evening’s food. “We want to do something different.”TV host Jeff Probst plays with his food.Photo © John Kernick.
Their most recent Halloween fest featured contortionist Bonnie Morgan, who at one point folded herself on the dining room table as guests helped themselves to Bat Wings (crisp fried chicken wings coated in an inky glaze of black-bean and soy sauces), Mini Brains (wontons filled with gingery pork) and Monster Slime (a creamy, herb-packed Green Goddess dip). “Usually, we try to make food look beautiful,” says Hanisee. “At Halloween, it’s also about all the gags we can come up with.”
The overall effect is a trompe-langue—the brain tries to reconcile the conflicting information it gets from the eyes and the mouth. “You allow your mind to play games with you on Halloween,” says Harris. “When a guy comes charging at you with a chain saw, you know it’s not real, but you can’t help but scream and run. I’m really enamored with the conceit that you can create absolutely delicious food that looks disgusting.” He adds, “It’s like a little haunted house on your plate.”
Los Angeles–based Gavin Edwards has written for Rolling Stone and the New York Times.
David Burtka’s Halloween Menu
Realistically hand painted red-velvet-cake balls look disturbingly like human eyeballs.Photo © John Kernick.
Bug Guts Pasta
Best Halloween Wines
Wines for a Halloween party.Photo © John Kernick.
2010 Charles Smith the Velvet Devil Merlot ($12)
Big, lush and chocolaty, this Washington state Merlot comes in a bottle with a big black pitchfork on the label.
2009 Bogle Vineyards Phantom ($16)
Black in hue, this plummy blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Mourvèdre from California has a label depicting silhouettes of gnarled old vines, probably located on a desolate hillside. Next to a graveyard.
2009 Spellbound Cabernet Sauvignon ($16)
Rob Mondavi, one of the fourth generation of Mondavis to make wine in California, produces this balanced, affordable Cabernet from vineyards in the Lodi region.
2008 Clos des Fées les Sorcières ($24)
The name of this southern French winery translates, more or less, to “the walled vineyard of the fairies,” and the name of the wine itself to “the witches”—hence the pointy-hatted woman riding a broomstick on the label. It’s a juicy, spicy, Syrah-based red blend.
2011 Owen Roe Sinister Hand ($24)
Primarily Grenache, this Washington state red is full of raspberry and currant flavor. The label has a severed hand, relating to an Irish legend about two families, a boat race and a desperate attempt to touch the finish line first.