Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? The pre-Covid days of hostesses-with-the-mostesses handing out vol-au-vents seem a distant, hazy dream. And yet: restrictions are opening up. We can once again gather with friends, and so dinner parties are back on the menu — albeit, at first, in gardens with a limited guest list. On the one hand: hurrah! We can show off the fancy cooking we perfected and gardens we lovingly pruned (or not, as the case may be) over lockdown. On the other hand: dear God, haven’t dinner parties always been a palaver? Has anyone ever managed to get the timing, the menu, and the vibe right all at once, without leaving the house looking like a bombshell hit it?
Image credit: Isabella Palmer
Yes, actually. So we interviewed them, to see how it’s done. Jules Thomas, the self-taught extraordinaire behind Oxfordshire supper club ‘The Secret Supper Society’ has been professionally inviting people round for dinner for nearly fourteen years. Her accolades include appearing on television with Mary Berry, and having Raymond Blanc tweet about her food. It’s safe to say she’s picked up a trick or two along the way.
The key to a successful evening is balancing the impressive with the attainable. Firstly, Jules stresses, you want to cook something that people wouldn’t make for themselves on a regular basis. But this doesn’t mean slaving over a hot stove and missing all the fun: make life easy for yourself, so that the evening feels effortless. If you’re canny with your menu, you can make as many things ahead of time as possible — having salads ready in the fridge, or tarts that can be served at room temperature. Jules even has a trick where you can make a risotto in advance: cook it up to twenty minutes in, then spread it out on a tray and cool it very quickly in the freezer. Keep it in the fridge, and when the guests arrive, you can reheat the rest of your stock, set your finishing flavours out (peas, parmesan, etc) and proceed for the final ten minutes of the recipe.
Image credit: The Secret Supper Society
A visual element is, of course, important. Although she acknowledges that edible flowers can be seen as a bit naff, Jules is a firm believer in them when they contribute flavour as well as effect: bright orange nasturtiums, for example, will look beautiful dotted over a green salad, but also taste peppery, like rocket. She encourages hosts to go in for a bit of theatre, be it something showy like a crêpe suzette (so retro it’s gotta be charming, right?) or just investing in a big paella pan to serve the food in. This summer, with everyone having bought fire pits, she suggests putting a rack over one and cooking some of the food there — very on-trend.
That brings us onto the fact that, for the foreseeable, dinner parties are to be a garden affair. The logistics of serving are a potential (literal) trip-up here, so Jules suggests you have lots of plates and cutlery on the table before you start, and also have a table nearby where you can put everyone’s dirty plates. That way, guests can work their way through crockery but keep the main table clear, without you having to ferry back and forth to the house. She also recommends sharing platters, to minimise the amount you have to carry out. As for her tried-and-tested recipes? Well, you’ll have to subscribe to her online school for them.
Image credit: Native Feasts
Muddy also spoke with Greg Jones, one half of killer supper club and home-delivery duo Native Feasts. Greg and his partner Chris both worked professionally at restaurants before their supper club days, and chef Chris has a Michelin star under his belt. For Greg, the key to a great night is to not be too stressed — guests will pick up on your energy. Although visuals are important, people care the most about the way the food tastes, so don’t drive yourself mad with the plating. In that vein, keep the table dressing relatively simple: just nice cutlery and crockery, the odd candle, and some flowers. If you get carried away, you might not have room for the food!
Like Jules, Greg emphasises doing as much prep beforehand as possible. Things that can either be served cold or heated up at the last minute are ideal. For canapé ideas, he suggests little tarts, arancini, or homemade hummus and crudités. Also crucial to a balanced workload is thinking about dietaries ahead of time: you don’t want a nasty shock on the day. For Greg, it’s important that everyone feels included, so try to give vegans and vegetarians a similar menu to everyone else, making the relevant subs where appropriate.
Image credit: Native Feasts
Greg’s keen that his guests should enjoy themselves from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. Key to this is getting them a drink, stat! People tend to arrive flustered, and a bit of wine helps smooth things along. That said, don’t neglect the non-drinkers: have something interesting (perhaps a seasonal elderflower mocktail) for people avoiding alcohol. You should also be attentive to the music and lighting: Greg believes this should change as the evening progresses. Start with a chilled playlist, then gradually increase the tempo and audio as people drink more and the vibe lifts. Conversely, consider dimming the lights as the night heads on, or relying on candles and soft lanterns when in a dark garden.
The most important thing stressed by both Jules and Greg is: enjoy yourself. Your guests want to see you, and the evening should be about having fun. If it still all sounds a little intimidating, you can find more tricks and show-stopper recipes at Jules’ online school. Or, if cooking and entertaining sounds like too much to think about at once, why not outsource? Native Feasts’ Feasts At Home service now includes a ‘Garden Party Pack’: a ready-to-eat / heat seasonal set menu for get-togethers of six people — convenient, eh?