Express & Star

Dinner parties and BBQs: Your guide to summer entertaining

The gauntlet was thrown. A couple who owned a Michelin-starred restaurant and thought I was a bit too big for my boots were coming for dinner.


And, rather than me reviewing them – as I had for the previous ten years – they were going to review me.

The man who’d dazzled Michelin inspectors and earned plaudits from the Harden’s Guide, which had named him the UK’s number one chef, outside London, would be sitting at my table, eating my food, then writing a review for readers to tell them whether I could cut the mustard. Which, as it turned out, I could. Well, sort of…

Dinner parties. Who’d throw one?

The answer is simple: those of us who are too foolhardy to know any better. And so for a decade or more, my principle source of relaxation became cooking for others. I’d spend hundreds of pounds that I didn’t have, devote myself to prep that usually took at least a day, and then after they’d gone, I’d wash up after them – and thank them for making the effort.

I’d gently caress together eggs and flour to make silky ribbons of pasta. I’d reduce stocks infused with freshly picked herbs to make delicious sauces. I’d burn money on chef’s gadgets – fine, toys – so that I could make restaurant-standard ice cream, or sous vide a chicken breast until it was perfectly cooked.

Cutlery and crockery was procured, ingredients were sought out, booze was stashed away – and the best part was giving it all away and seeing people smile.

I know. Utter. Utter. Madness.

There was a trade-off, however, and it’s this. A decade after working my way through money that might more sensibly be spent on, oh, I don’t know, a second hand car, I can now contribute 2,000 whimsical words on the joys of cooking for others while seeking to entertain you, dear reader, while you munch on your toast and sip your cup of tea.

Because I am fully qualified – I am the BA, MA, MPhil, PhD, Professor of the Dinner Party. I know how it feels to spend a day cooking a seven-course dinner for friends, only to have one – thank you, Henry – tell me how much he enjoyed the sauce on the beef, without realising that was the only thing on the goddam flippin’ menu that came out of a jar.

I’m not bitter. Though I wish the sauce had been.

But I digress. We’d started with the time the Michelin-starred couple came to supper. Chris and Judy Bradley, late of Mr Underhill’s, in Ludlow, had grown tired of me writing about their food and not quite getting it right.

So they proposed two stories. For the first, I would go to their restaurant and spend the evening working as a waiter.

“Great,” I said. “What time do I start?”

Judy told me. “Ten o’clock.”

“Ten o’clock. But won’t service have finished by then?”

“No. Ten o’clock in the morning. And bring your own iron. You’ll be ironing the tablecloths.”

I graduated to delivering a plate of food by the end of the evening, though hadn’t realised just how nerve-wracking it was to walk 15 metres while carrying a raspberry souffle. I didn’t drop it, though they decided not to renew my contract.

The other idea was simple. They’d come to dinner then review it. And so I cleaned and polished, I peeled and scraped, I bubbled and boiled, I chilled and froze. I created a five-course menu that I hoped they’d like: a cappuccino cup of butternut squash soup, a slow-roast beef fillet with wild mushrooms, you get the drill. And it almost went perfectly well. Until I forgot to heat the plates just before serving the main course. And that messed up my timings, which meant they had hot food on a cold plate. Damn. Damn. Damn.

They scored me seven out of ten – and I like to think I was worth it, and they weren’t being kind, though ever since I’ve baked my plates for longer than a loaf of bread to make sure I don’t repeat the rookie error that stopped me from getting an eight.

The coffee, incidentally, was the low point of the evening. I didn’t then have a coffee maker and tried to cheat with some instant stuff. They smelled a rat – literally, in the case of the coffee – and deducted a point straight away.

But enough of rambling introductions. As summer turns to Great Britain’s Very Own Rainy Season, the only thing for it is to invite your friends round for dinner.

You can stay in, if the weather’s awful, or head out and fire up the BBQ, if it suddenly turns nice.

Think of us as your personal chef and concierge, all in one, who’ll guide you through the pitfalls, while dotting this Weekend’s cut-out-and-keep guide with a few wry anecdotes, about the time that we got it wrong.


We write from a position of strength. After all, we are the barbecue’ers who once invited a long-lost friend over for a Saturday afternoon meat-fest, only to put a disposal barbecue on stones that became so hot they exploded and showered his kids with molten rock. Funnily enough, the friendship wasn’t rekindled and we never saw him again. But, hey, Steve, if you’re reading, mate, no hard feelings. And if you fancy coming round again, you’d be more than welcome.

Here’s how to take care of the perfect barbecue:

-Don’t use those awful, supermarket, chemical-soaked barbecues. They’ll make your food taste of white spirit. Buy some proper charcoal and a proper barbecue and wait until the coals are ready. Then get cooking.

-Make sure you’ve set up an area for dishing up food, another for sitting down and eating, another for prepping. Don’t do things on the fly – you’ll end up tripping over the Pims and flipping a hot gridle onto Aunt Mavis’s lap.

-Make a toppings station. A great barbecue is all about the toppings. So set aside an area for that, so people can drop crispy fried onion rings, garlicky sauces, or delicious salads onto the side of their plate.

-Don’t skip the sides. Make sure there’s plenty of corn, salsa and sesame sweet potatoes to go with your beef shortrib or your Hawaiian chicken skewers.

-Make sure there’s dessert. After your guests have eaten their own bodyweight in protein, they’ll need something sweet to prevent an outbreak of the meat sweats. So make sure you’ve made the most of the summer’s harvest by offering plenty of soft fruit-based desserts.

-The tunes are all important. Create a killer soundtrack that puts the Beats into barbecue.

Dinner Parties

We’ve thrown so many that at one stage some wise old owl suggested we open a pop-up restaurant, in our own kitchen.

The key is simple – make sure your chair is the one that’s nearest to the kitchen, so you can pop out to the stove without knocking your guests to the floor.

The other trick is just as simple: make sure you do all your prep in advance. The joy of a great dinner party is the conversation. Yes, the food’s important – and sometimes, very much so – but the evening is even more so. Your guests have come to socialise, to spend time with you, to hear your stories and tell theirs. So make sure you’ve prepared everything in advance, so your sauces just need a little heat, your desserts are perfectly chilled, or just need a little heat, and your mains need no more than a warm-through before being carved and served.

There’s a clue in the name ‘party’ and such occasions are not about slaving over a hot stove while your guests enjoy your booze but not your time. The best parties end up in the kitchen – or the garden, or the bedroom. It depends what sort of party you’re throwing.

The New York Times suggests planning two weeks in advance, by sending out invitations, pinning down guests, planning your menu, and making sure you’ve got whatever special tools, plates or garnishes you’ll need.

When you plan your menu, the most important thing to remember is this: the menu should be composed almost entirely of dishes that can largely be prepared before your guests arrive – freeing you up to host.

On the day before, you should prepare as much of the food as possible, including the dessert, while also cleaning your home, especially the areas in which you’re guests will be, and making sure the dishwasher is ready for its biggest workout of the year.

On the morning of your party, prepare your mise en place, setting out all of your ingredients, sauces, and garnishes, then two hours before, make sure you’ve chilled the wine, set up a drink station, and put flowers on the table. Oh, and one other thing, make sure you dress for the evening. It’s no good hosting a dinner party dressed in your PJs, even if that’s what you’ve been cooking in while you’ve prepared.

Oh yes, one other thing. Make sure you know about any intolerances – to food, not your taste in music – before your guests arrive. Always have a simple pasta dish, or some salad greens, on hand, in case of an emergency when a guest declares they don’t like the chilli – thank you, Rachel – or peanuts – thank you, peanut-haters – that are a part of your menu.

What to do when it goes wrong

My first dinner party came when I was 23. Or maybe I was 22. Whatever the age, I know this much: I was precocious enough to think I could cook spinach gnocchi for two mates for work – having never cooked it before in my life.

As a kid growing up on the mean streets of the Black Country, I’d got a penchant for two things – not girls and booze, that came long before I was 22 – but, instead, good food and live music. Having never picked up a guitar, the next best thing was dinner.

And so Pete and Emily were invited round for a genuinely awful dinner than degenerated the moment I bought the wrong sort of spinach – frozen, with loads of water, rather than fresh. The gnocchi became an inedible green sludge that disintegrated in the pan. Humorously, almost laughing themselves into oblivion as I watched, horror-struck, Pete and Emily lied about having really looked forward to eating them.

There was an emergency Chinese takeaway nearby, thankfully, and so we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, eating out of aluminium foil cartons, while making jokes about who was the worst chef. I think we all knew there was no one able to seize my crown.

The evening ended, somewhat bizarrely, in a fug of orange liqueur – God bless Grand Marnier – and a series of cartwheels on the front lawn, which kind-of suggests a little too much Grand Marnier had been imbibed.

The point of the story, of course, is this: if you’re unsure of yourself when it comes to dinner time, just make sure you’ve got the number of a decent Chinese takeaway to hand.

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