If you’re throwing a dinner party for New Year’s Eve, or looking to host a supper club with friends in the new year, then look no further – Alexandra Dudley shares her tips for serving up feasts with a sprinkling of sustainability sparkle.
I hosted my first supper club back in 2015. I can remember not being able to sleep the night that the ticket sales went live. I tossed and turned making mental lists of people I could coerce into purchasing a ticket. Friends, cousins, perhaps my neighbour…? Come morning I opened my inbox to find a one-line email from the café owner: ‘We’ve sold out!’
I couldn’t believe it. Firstly, because we’d decided to serve a fully plant-based menu. Although the wellness bug was alive and bouncing, it was still an idea that was relatively niche. Trying to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash before they even got to eat anything was going to be tricky enough. Let alone telling them there wasn’t going to be any meat there.
But by some miracle the supper club had been picked up by a vegan community website that cited it as “the thing to do.” Half the guests had found the supper club through the site and the other half simply came because they wanted to eat my food. Both things flabbergasted me and although the worry about empty seats had lifted, the pressure was on.
It was, thank goodness, a wonderful evening. The food went down a storm; in particular my trio of desserts (because quite frankly three puddings is always going to be more fun than one). I got the supper club bug and that was that. From then on, I hosted two or three a year finally settling on my series of ‘garden suppers’ where I’d play pop up restaurant in my flat, move my kitchen table into the garden and praying that it didn’t rain.
These days I am far more relaxed about hosting supper clubs. A lot has to do with hosting most of them at my own home where I understand the way the oven works and I know how far I have to walk if I run out of olive oil. But I have made countless mistakes along the way, including having to make my diners wait almost an hour for their main course. In this case I was cooking in a pub and hadn’t quite accounted for the sluggish oven. Nonetheless; in the end it was all fine of course. The house wine flowed, there was good bread on the table and the starter had people talking.
With every supper club and every mistake I’ve made, I have gained another nugget of ‘to do’ or ‘not to do’. Although I am far from reaching perfect, I have certainly worked out some hacks that keep things running smoothly and so far have proved to help create a wonderful evening where guests truly enjoy themselves and relax – which is what really counts, after all.
Plan your menu well ahead of time
When you’re cooking for lots of people (especially strangers) it’s crucial to be prepared. I try to do a full run through of my menu a couple of times before the evening, cooking enough for four or six people to get a bit of a feel for how it will feel to cook the dishes for many more. I make sure to always eat the leftovers too.
It’s also a good idea to get as many ingredients ahead of time as you can too. Things like nuts and grains can be bought well ahead of time and if there is anything specific you need be sure to leave plenty enough time to go shop elsewhere if your usual supplier is out. I try to let my suppliers know well in advance what I need whether it be a certain type of squash or a lot of herbs; just so that they can make sure they have it in stock.
Invest in good bread (and good butter)
It sounds like a minor factor but good bread can make or break a supper club. Having some good bread on the table gives you a bit of a buffer if you’re running behind on the food. We are so lucky these days with a whole host of good sourdough bakeries but even a nice supermarket loaf warmed in the oven would do if you are short of time.
If serving butter I love to make an infused one. It sounds and looks more complicated than it actually is but can be a delicious ‘little extra’ that people really appreciate and remember. I have infused butter with the likes of black olive and chive or sundried tomato and rosemary or things like ras el hanout and crushed toasted almonds. You can go wild with it and all you need is some good organic butter and a handful or so of ‘infusing’ ingredients. If you’re opting for a plant-based menu, some good olive oil goes a long way or a bowl of tahini with some sprinkled nuts or sesame seeds atop. I’ve hosted dinners and supper clubs where I’ve slaved away in the kitchen and all people talk about is the bread and butter. Trust me when I say it matters.
Always devote some attention to pudding
People tend to shy away from puddings when entertaining. They can seem too time consuming or technically daunting, and whilst I admit that I do like a bit of a flashy pudding you don’t need to spend hours and hours making one. I think the key thing to remember is that this is the last thing your guests will eat before leaving so it will be fresh in their memory. Chocolate is always a winner – a good chocolate aquafaba mousse is a great one to serve as you can do all the prep ahead of time. I love to serve it with some roasted or booze-soaked fruit. Bear in mind that people are usually close to being full when it comes to pudding so be conservative with portion sizes; it is far nicer to have guests feeling pleasantly full rather than stuffed.
Be thrifty when it comes to the table
There is no need to have everything uniformly perfect when hosting a supper club. Part of the fun of it is that it isn’t a restaurant experience so don’t panic if you have slightly mismatched cutlery or chairs. When it comes to dressing the table you can do a lot with a little. Rather than spending hundreds on table linen, I am a big fan of going to fabric warehouses and buying fabric by the meter to make tablecloths and napkins too. If you have a sewing machine you can do some hemming otherwise invest in a good pair of fabric scissors and just cut as straight as you can.
A big bunch of flowers is an obvious choice for a table display but in actual fact it can be rather inconvenient forcing guests have to crane around it to see each other. Large flower bunches can cost a huge amount too. I prefer to invest in a few pretty stems and create a line of stem vases. You can collect small bottles from a host of places; I’ve collected mine from various thrift markets, charity shops and even repurposed juice or sauce bottles. Another nice idea is to go for foliage and create a runner down the table. Greenery often costs less than flowers and you can find eucalyptus or some sort of leafy stem at most florists. Eucalyptus lasts a long time too and brings a lovely aroma to the table.
Think about the little extras
This really follows on from the good bread point, but it really is the little things that make the most difference – things that one wouldn’t necessarily do when cooking at home. I always like to serve a welcome cocktail to set the tone of the evening. I love to make a big batch of fruity or jasmine tea and let it cool in the fridge. If I want to make it alcoholic, I’ll add vodka or gin and something with a touch of sweetness like Cointreau while for a mocktail, I’ll add in some homemade cordial. Often I make a carrot peel cordial with organic carrot peels which works beautifully well especially when paired with vodka, Cointreau, a splash of soda water and a slice of orange. It’s nice to think about something to close the end of the meal too; whether it be fresh mint tea or a plate of chocolate bark. The method for chocolate bark hardly calls for a recipe. Just melt some good quality dark chocolate and pour it onto a parchment lined baking tray. Sprinkle with toasted nuts, seeds, coconut and dried fruit. Let it cool in the fridge and snap it before serving.
Specify an ideal time for guests to leave
One thing you don’t want when hosting a supper club, especially if entertaining at your own home, are any guests who just won’t leave. Coming to a supper club is a joyful thing to do so naturally people tend to get merry and relax. I like to include a ‘guests are kindly asked to leave at 10.30pm’ on the ticket link or email confirmation just to ensure everybody knows before coming.
Ask for help
If there is one thing I have learnt from hosting it is that there will always be some hiccups along the way. I’ve had the lot! From ovens refusing to heat to freezers breaking and food burning. It’s a very good idea to ensure you have an extra pair of hands on the evening and preferably earlier in the day to help prep too. From setting the table to printing menus, things always take longer than you expect and the washing up is far nicer when there is someone to talk to. When it comes to mishaps or issues, two heads are always better than one.
Have fun and don’t apologise
My final piece of advice would be to enjoy it. If things start to seem overwhelming, take a deep breath and relax into it. Hosting supper clubs is an incredibly fun and rewarding thing to do. Any problems or substitutions go unnoticed most of the time so if you accidently forgot to include the garnish on one dish or had to make a last-minute change to the menu, don’t worry and don’t apologise. You’ll only be drawing attention to it and its highly likely that no one noticed. It’s much more probable that they are all focusing on the food, the buzzing evening, and having a lovely time instead.