My secret recipe for a successful dinner party

<preform>Thanks to Nigella and Jamie, we've become a nation of hosts and hostesses, spending some &Acirc;&pound;39bn a year entertaining our friends at home. Ed Caesar </b></i>finds out what's being served at Britain's top tables</preform>
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Restaurants are so two years ago. Prompted and cajoled by seemingly ubiquitous TV chefs, the great British public now spends £39.5bn a year cooking for guests at home, with the average family hosting no fewer than 14 fully fledged dinner parties a year. It marks a significant volte face for a nation of diners who have traditionally viewed entertaining guests in their own home, some of whom they may not even have met before, as far too much to bear.

Restaurants are so two years ago. Prompted and cajoled by seemingly ubiquitous TV chefs, the great British public now spends £39.5bn a year cooking for guests at home, with the average family hosting no fewer than 14 fully fledged dinner parties a year. It marks a significant volte face for a nation of diners who have traditionally viewed entertaining guests in their own home, some of whom they may not even have met before, as far too much to bear.

Nigella and Jamie may have triggered this new-found urge, but behind the raft of statistics suggesting everyone now fancies themselves as a Ready Steady Cooker, lies a less savoury tale. While dinner parties are all the rage at present, all the evidence suggests most of us would rather eat at a friend's house than our own. And why not? With free food, great company, and service, other people's houses are becoming our restaurants of choice.

So who are these people who are servicing the nation? And can they throw a decent party? The Independent takes the order at Britain's new top tables.

Jilly Cooper, Author

Leo, my husband, was the great cook, but he's got Parkinson's now so we don't do dinner parties so much. We used to have wild, drunken dinner parties down here in Gloucestershire. Leo made anything, amazing lamb and shellfish. He makes a seafood salad of absolute wonder. We used to drink buckets. The great thing about living in Gloucestershire was that everyone was always late, and it was out of the mobile signal. No one knew where they were going. Dinner parties were what everyone did back then.

The secret of a good dinner party is when you are so drunk you can't remember what you've eaten. I think an extended period of drinking before starter is absolutely essential. Dinner parties are also the nicest way to talk to people. At drinks parties, people are always swivelling off and talking to someone else. At dinner they have to talk to you. Dinner parties can be ghastly. We had one where it was scallops for starters and the cat ate half of them. What a disaster. They can go terribly wrong.

Al Murray, Comedian, (The Pub Landlord)

I do really like to cook; we often have people round. We also, quarterly, have a "great, big, fuck-off, come-round-my-house-get-smashed party". It's not the classic dinner party, but it's all in the spirit of throwing your doors open to your friends and enjoying fine wine and good food. The main dinner party we tend to do is a late Sunday lunch. I'll get a big, plump, organic chicken from the local butcher in Chiswick and do a classic Sunday roast. And for pudding I'll do a tarte tattin. And if I picked up a tip from Gordon Ramsay, it was put in more salt than anyone would expect. As long as you only eat like that once a week you're all right.

I like the New World wines. My wife's from Melbourne, so we normally have an Australian. And wine's the key to a good dinner party. We've got a butler's sink. When people come round I fill that with loads of bottles of champagne and ice. That's civilised, isn't it?

Sometimes with parties you have to do something different. So tonight, I'm throwing a premiere party with a big red carpet and a plasma screen in the living-room. It's important, because if you're seeing the same fucking people all the time, you change things round, and suddenly, new people. It's like meeting them all over again.

Ann Widdecombe, Politician turned agony aunt

I very occasionally have a dinner party. But sometimes I go to them. My signature dish is roast lamb, mint sauce and redcurrant jelly. It always goes down a treat. I give dinner parties only for friends [and] it's normally a fun occasion. They're always low key, and there's no scope for networking. I serve proper, hearty meals, not this nouvelle cuisine rubbish.

I've never had any nightmares at dinner parties when I have invited groups of people who have not got on, but I have been at other people's parties where that has happened. I'm not a real wine buff, I just try to serve a reasonably decent one. But I always do four courses. I do a starter, I do a main course, I do a dessert, and then I do cheese and biscuits and port. Lovely.

Ruth Rogers, Chef/proprietor River Café

What is a dinner party? Those formal things where you have drinks before and then you go into the dining room? I haven't been to one of those in ages.

A dinner party is the worst phrase ever. It's old-fashioned. I say to my friends: "Do you want to come over and have supper?" Dinner parties provoke expectation and performance.

Everything is much more spontaneous and casual now. Friends come over, and we eat. That's it. I love having parties in the River Café. It's very nice, because it's my own restaurant, and it's very warm and welcoming.

When I cook at home I like to cook the belito misto. I love doing that. It's Italian, and you can put a whole platter of meats on the table. The thing that everyone loves are the sauces: dragoncello, which is made out of tarragon and egg yolk and capers, and is really delicious, and we also have salsa verde, which goes down well. To drink we'll have a Fonto di Piazzi Classico, which is lovely too.

It's great when you have lunch and there are kids and adults mixing, and you can relax. We eat and it's all one big space. I hate those things where you go into the dining-room and you have to look who you're sitting next to. The secret of entertaining well for your friends is just having people who you really love over, and being really relaxed yourself. There's meant to be a happiness about being with your friends.

Mark Butcher, Cricketer

I never have dinner parties. I don't cook. I like dinner parties, but at other people's houses. I suppose if I was forced at pain of death to cook something I probably could. But I always eat out; home is strictly for sleep time.

If I'm going out with a few friends, I'll go to the Treehouse in Croydon. It's a bistro-type place and it's very good. But if it's a special occasion, if we've had a series win or something with England we get taken out to nice places like The Avenue up in St James' and they do a good bottle of Chateau Montrachet. Really more into my wine than my food. I like the Bordeaux. Anything like a St Emilion if its red or the Montrachets and Burgundies if it's white is perfect.

Ed Victor, Literary agent

I entertain in a variety of ways. I love going to the Garrick Club because its much nicer not to be fussing over food in your own home. So I take the private dining room there; it's a beautiful little yellow room with a fire and a circular dining room. What we do is have champagne in the morning-room then we'll go into the PDR where I've chosen the menu, usually traditional English things such as smoked haddock soufflé with anchovy sauce. It's great for me, there are no dirty dishes afterwards.

That is stress-free for me but I can do dinner parties at my house too. We've got a table that seats 12 and I've got a housekeeper-cook at home who can make delicious dinners I have taught her how to cook.

We have a monthly dinner with Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser, because my wife and I play bridge with them. They always like to be served roast beef from Allen's the butcher. It's a wing-rib, which we cook to perfection with vegetables, and cheese for dessert.

For other occasions, I like to do an American dish which is a Julia Childs' mustard-coated leg of lamb. We also serve a lot of River Café stuff. Ruthie's [Rogers] dinner parties are sublime. She asked me around to dinner recently because I was on my own. She called me at 5.30pm and asked me what I wanted to eat, and I said: "Oh Ruthie, whatever you want. But the one thing I would love for dinner, you haven't got time to make. It's a bolito misto." When I got there, there was a huge pot bubbling with bolito misto, served with salsa verde. Now that's a pal.

In the Hamptons, I barbeque. It's very casual. Everyone sits down while I'm using the wood-burning barbeque. It's normally tuna or swordfish with Long Island corn.

Jessica Ogden, Fashion designer

I'm not good for throwing dinner parties. If one good friend came over, we might make something to eat together, and I'll enjoy that. I might even say: "Come over and we'll get a takeaway." But with friends you haven't seen for a while, the point is that you're making an effort for them; takeaway doesn't really fulfil that purpose. If you're going to do it, you have to do it really well, and I just don't have the time.

To be honest, cooking really isn't my thing. It's too much stress. On the other hand, and this probably sounds awful, I do love going for dinner to other peoples' houses.

Restaurants are great too, but there's something special about a friend cooking for you, there's more put into it. I don't really go in for anything too formal. I guess my ideal is something casual, when you've all pitched and made something together. And it would be at someone else's house.

Toby Young, Author

I used to cook a lot when I was a bachelor living in London. But I was ruined by five years in New York where no one under 40 has dinner parties. They either get takeout or meet in restaurants. Sometimes they will host dinners at restaurants, which is fun.

In many ways it is a lot easier to meet a group of friends at a restaurant. Everyone can order what they want, and you can arrive late and leave early or whatever. There's a sense at dinner parties of being trapped if you don't like the person you're sitting next to.

To tell the truth, my wife does most of the cooking now, and she cooks an amazing roast chicken. But we've only had maybe a grand total of 10 dinner parties in the past five years.

The secret of having a really good dinner party, although I wouldn't claim to be any great expert, is getting the right mix of interesting people. It's fun to introduce people to each other, but there should be a combination of strangers and old friends.

Jenny Colgan, Author and comedian

I don't believe in lavish dinner parties. I can't stand fancy-food dinner parties where there are two people in the kitchen and you never see them. I go to dinner parties for the company.

I would always take a lasagne or a fish-pie, lots of wine and interesting people over five courses of fraught social conventions. I don't even have a big dinner table, so there are always people sitting on the floor and mishmashed knives and forks and stuff.

Something like roast chicken is great, because it's easy and everyone's eaten it a million times, so everyone can just relax.

As for wine, the older I get the less I drink and the fussier I seem to have become over it. It's really important to choose your wine carefully, because everyone remembers those awful student evenings where you're drinking sherry at half past 10 in the evening.

So the important thing is to buy some good stuff, and loads of not-so-good stuff in case people decide they want to stay.

J G Ballard, Author

There are few consolations of being my age. But there are a couple: you don't have to dance and you don't have to go to dinner parties. Having said that, I've been the happy guest at a great number of very entertaining dinner parties in my life, and where I met all sorts of interesting people. But they are for people who are younger than I am now.

The dinner parties of the chattering classes are huge markets for opinions, where opinions are bought and sold. They are intellectual trading centres.

Now I just go and have dinner with friends at restaurants, and I'm a great wine drinker; in fact, it's the only thing I drink. The trouble is, if you go on about wine you sound like the leading character in Sideways. Because watching that film I cringed with embarrassment, because so many of the things that Miles said, I had said too.

But I have never, never hosted dinner parties at home. The place was always just too chaotic. Better to host a dinner at a restaurant by far.

Comments