Food writer James Ramsden knows how to throw a dinner party. He runs The Secret Larder – a critically acclaimed London supper club.
He’s written a book called Do-Ahead Dinners, designed to help home cooks prepare food in advance, and regularly discusses culinary trends on Radio 1.
Read how James became the host with the most and find out how planning ahead can save you time and money, plus how to host the perfect dinner party.
The Supper Club for Strangers
Having grown up on a farm in Yorkshire, it’s no surprise that James ended up cooking for a living. But rather than work in a traditional restaurant, he hosts dinner parties for strangers at The Secret Larder.
“It started off in my flat. Once a fortnight we’d pretend we had a restaurant, 20 people would come and we’d cook them dinner. They would chip in a donation and bring their own wine. And it’s gone from there really. Now we’re doing it for 30 people every week in the back of a coffee shop in Holloway.”
The Secret Larder isn’t much of a secret these days. Whether you call it an underground restaurant or a supper club, it’s one of the most successful in London.
“Now we’re doing it for more people, we’re being a bit more ambitious with the food. I don’t want to do weird stuff – it should be comforting and cosy and homely – but I like to throw in a few ingredients or ideas that people won’t have encountered before. It’s really fun. It’s a good way of meeting new people,” says James.
De-Stress your Dinner Party
According to James, the secret to the perfect dinner party is doing as much as possible in advance. When The Secret Larder was held in his flat, it was important to keep mess to a minimum due to the open-plan nature of the space. For home cooks, it’s simply about enjoying your evening.
“It’s much less stressful if you’ve got everything done before people turn up. If something goes wrong you’ve got time to rectify it – and there aren’t people there to see you mess up.
“I would never do something ahead that would be better done last minute, but anything that can be done ahead, should be.”
That’s the philosophy behind James’s book, Do-Ahead Dinners. Unlike a traditional cookbook, this encourages readers to get the prep out of the way hours or even days beforehand.
“Food is much more forgiving than a lot of people realise. I would never cook a piece of fish ahead and reheat it because it’s not going to be as nice, but a lot of things improve when they’re done in advance – like stews. A fridge is crucial,” he says.
Save Money by Planning Your Menu
For James, The Secret Larder allows him to enjoy cooking while getting something back financially. But he’s also got tips to help home cooks keep the cost of entertaining down.
“Cooking doesn’t have to be expensive if you plan your menu well. Do something delicious and vegetarian, which is inevitably cheaper, or get to know cheaper cuts of meat. Pig cheeks are one of my favourite ingredients – they’re dirt cheap, utterly delicious and incredibly easy to cook.”
Another tip is to use what you already have in your cupboards.
“Work out what you’ve got and use that. If you’re trying to do a curry, understand that you might have to spend £10 on spices and you’ll probably only use 70p of that. It’s all about forward planning. You can cook something delicious for six people for under £20 if you’re clever.”
Being thrifty doesn’t stop when the meal’s over. James often has leftovers the day after the supper club, but this is a plus because it’s another opportunity to save money – and enjoy his dishes all over again.
“I often find a lunch of leftovers almost more delicious than the original meal. There are plenty of great ideas online for jazzing things up. And you feel much better because you’ve used them – it’s like you’ve got a meal for free.”
Simple Tips for the Perfect Party
James has plenty more advice for hosting a great dinner party.
“It’s a cliché, but keep it simple. There’s nothing nicer than being cooked for, and people aren’t as judgemental as you think. It’s not Come Dine with Me or Masterchef. It doesn’t have to be a big deal or a stress-fest. It should be a pleasure, so try and make it that.
“I’d much rather go to someone’s house, have a shepherd’s pie and have them really happy and relaxed and actually hosting, than have them try to recreate something from Heston Blumenthal’s book.”
Other tips include making sure you don’t run out of alcohol and buying the best ingredients you can afford.
“I don’t like to be prescriptive, but a beautiful free range, corn-fed British chicken is going to taste better than a battery-reared £2 chicken,” says James.
And if things don’t go to plan, you can always turn to your guests for help. Many hands make light work and if everybody does their bit drying the plates or loading the dishwasher, you’ll be back to enjoying the party in no time.
“Don’t be afraid to enlist help. You always get people who ask if they can do anything –
say yes. It takes a fraction of the time if a couple of people muck in with the washing up after dinner. And then it’s all clear and you can relax for the rest of the evening.”
Take a look at the rest of the posts on the Euronics blog for more foodie tips, recipes and ideas.