James Ramsden is a London-based Yorkshireman. In addition to running the Secret Larder supper club, he has written about food and cookery for The Times, The Guardian, Sainsbury's Magazine, and lovefood.com, among others. His first book, Small Adventures in Food, will be published in June 2011. Read him online at www.jamesramsden.com.
There’s something surreal about looking around your flat and seeing it’s filled with a group of strangers. Home cooking is such an inherently friendly, personal thing that doing it for people you’ve never met before seems odd at first.
But this is the fun of a supper club. Since starting the Secret Larder almost a year ago, we’ve had over 500 people through our front door, some of whom we’ve known but many of whom we haven’t. We’ve had seemingly every nationality under the sun; we’ve had 15-year-olds with their Mums and 70-year-olds with their grandchildren. We’ve had coeliac, dairy-allergic guests get so drunk they started eating whipped cream and bread pudding from a bowl in the kitchen. Not long ago an Argentine vegetarian ate more pork belly than seemed humanly possible.
When my sister and I first decided to set up our own supper club, not a great deal of thought went into it. One day it wasn’t there and the next day it was. God knows how these things were launched before the days of facebook and blogging, but with these media at my fingertips it took all of 10 minutes to scribble a blogpost and start a facebook group announcing the inception of The Secret Larder. We’d quickly booked up the first couple of dates. Then, after a fortuitous mention in some hipster newsletter, we were all of a sudden booked up till the end of May.
Shit. What the hell do we do now? We’d promised to exhibit a different artist each fortnight, have guest chefs of varying levels of commitment and skill, and, well, food. The food part was, to a point, the most straightforward. I knew what I wanted to cook, a sort of modern British home cooking that was, with any luck, something guests wouldn’t do at home. But the food is only one part of it. The supper club had to feel right.
We spent a small fortune buying chairs and extra tables, glasses, crockery and cutlery. Saucepans were upgraded and walls painted. Cupboards were cleared out to store fold-up chairs and table legs. Heart-stopping amounts of olive oil were ordered and cotton napkins were sent down from an unlikely little pound shop in Edinburgh. Artists arrived to exhibit their work and leave optimistic price cards. No one, we later found out, goes to a supper club wanting to spend yet more money on paintings.
The first night was nerve-wracking. We rearranged the room – an open plan kitchen, living room, dining room area – a full three days before the event, laying the tables and planning menus, orders of work, fridge space and oven rotas with meticulous attention to detail. For three days we lived in a weird domestic restaurant.
And Baden-Powell would have been proud. Aside from the odd burnt brandy-snap basket and, I was later tactfully informed, some underseasoned remoulade, it all ran smoothly. The three days of preparation and three sleepless nights all paid off.
These days it’s somewhat more casual. The day before (the supper club runs every other Thursday), I’ll do the shopping and maybe a couple of dishes that can be done ahead – stews and ice creams, pastries, and petit fours. It’s all doable in a day, really, but I prefer cooking to be mellow and enjoyable instead of frantic and furious.
At some ungodly hour on Thursday morning Marky Market goes to Smithfield and Billingsgate and picks up his week’s orders, usually tipping up at mine around 8am with bags groaning with meat and fish. I tend to go for the slow, cheap cuts. It’s more practical to be able to bung something in the oven mid-afternoon and forget about it than frying something last minute and having to smoke out the flat when guests are arriving.
And they really are the most peaceful days of the month. I potter around the kitchen doing bits and pieces, chopping vegetables and grinding spices, while Mary lays tables, mops floors, and irons napkins. At around 4pm we start to watch the clock. In two hours we’re allowed a drink, and with any luck by that point all of the prep and the majority of the cooking will be done.
At 7pm the helpers arrive – usually friends or kind people who’ve offered via Twitter –whom we ply with booze as recompense for their evening spent handing out food and getting barked at.
The first guests appear around half seven, ushered upstairs by whichever poor sod pulls the short straw and has to stand in the street in an apron looking like a lunatic. We give them a drink and let them make nice with each other. On occasion conversation is hesitant, guests unused to going to a ‘restaurant’ and talking to other ‘customers’, but on the whole they are all best friends by the time they sit down for dinner.
From this point it’s all a bit of a blur. After four courses, chocolates, and coffee, the guests, not to mention the staff, are usually several sheets to the wind and the volume in the room has gone up considerably. At midnight we start making noises about last tubes and early starts and quietly nudge stragglers towards the door. They sign a visitors’ book on the way out, besides which a box for any donations is subtly (ha!) placed. (Donations tend to comply with the ‘suggested’ £30, which is enough to make it a worthwhile exercise, though I wouldn’t recommend this to someone trying to make a living, at least not on a bi-monthly basis.)
And then we collapse on the sofa, purple-lipped and content, gossiping about guests and chewing on any remaining scraps of food.
It’s something I look forward to every fortnight, and I hope we keep doing it for a long time to come.
Photograph by Kavita Favelle