Monday, 26 July 2021

Let’s play ‘fantasy dinner parties’

HERE we go: £163 for the babysitter, taxi across Oxfordshire and back, top bottle of Burgundy and a copy of Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s book Rome.

HERE we go: £163 for the babysitter, taxi across Oxfordshire and back, top bottle of Burgundy and a copy of Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s book Rome.

The dinner party I’d been dodging for ages. The invitation announcing “At home with!” simultaneously landed on the doormat, inbox, Facebook and text giving three months’ notice. There was no escaping.

Taxi arrives. My Burgundy magicked away. Swapped with a Yugoslavian Laski Riesling, not forthcoming, warm as the soup.

Depressing mix of guests. Table plan social engineering put mums (who all knew each other from school) at one of the table. Chaps who’d never met talking about work. Ambient background music felt like a meditational retreat.

Dinner was served. The table went quiet. Silence you could spread on toast. Something burnt from M&S with three pieces of brown mange tout. Not enough wine. I’d left the babysitter with a very decent coq au vin.

People should be the stars of a dinner party, not food, but this took the biscuit. Carpet tiles would’ve been tastier, although a Jo Malone orris and sandalwood candle overpowered everything.

Dinner parties can be karaoke cheffery - host in the kitchen all night cooking something for the first time in heels (the boys I know). Succession of courses, jumping up throughout dinner, clearing and serving, your hospitality will be as rare as the beef.

Where you dress up to eat in your own home, table laid with stuff you never use - name cards stuck into slots in gilt farmyard animals, napkin rings, charger plates.

Dinner party food should be good, but not showing off. Cooked from the heart. Cooks do it at home for love, chefs do it in public for money.

Guests take centre stage, not the plate. A gorgeous casserole wins applause - comfort of the carbonnade is underestimated when it comes to a spontaneous, informal, flirty, gossipy supper. A recent fantasy dinner party poll listed Stephen Fry, Sir David Attenborough, Billy Connolly and Dawn French as most wanted guests.

My fantasy dinner party: I’m with you, clean shirt, anecdotes polished, New Zealand sauvignon blanc, attacking the Twiglets.

Jesus is in the kitchen. Lemmy and William Shakespeare have written and composed a special song for the evening. Louis Armstrong plays a live after-dinner set. Sir John Mortimer raconteuring, George Harrison has bought his ukulele. For curiosity I’ve invited Donald Trump and Justin Bieber. Jesus spent time with the Donald. Justin spent the evening taking selfies and texted Marie Curie to pass up the salt. Suzi Quatro had to chop Justin’s food up for him. Jesus cooked a memorable dinner.

Speaking of which, imagine 12 chefs at a dinner party. The gossip: favourite restaurants, overrated restaurants, most memorable meals.

You can join us if you like - at 5.30pm on Saturday, April 30, I’m with a team of Henley’s favourite chefs including Shaun Dickens, Ryan Simpson, a host of foodies and cookbook writers chatting passionately about our favourite culinary experiences.

It’s taking place as part of the Henley on Food weekend at Shiplake College. Ticketing details are available at or call (01491) 575948. Perhaps stay for dinner at the Pop Up Supper Club, offering an amazing menu cooked by the Roux-trained chefs Terry and George.

I can’t wait for Henley on Food, which continues on Sunday, May 1. Meet John Torode, Lisa Faulkner, Madeleine Shaw, Cyrus Todiwala, Frances Quinn, Antony Worrall Thompson. Street food, stalls, champagne bar, and loads of children’s events at the UK’s first food-based literary festival.

Oh! The Caldesis’ beautiful new book, Rome, that I gifted the dinner party host — I prefer giving a book rather than flowers, makes me look smarter. You can meet Katie and Giancarlo at Henley on Food at 11.30am on the Sunday.

They will be talking about their book, subtitled “Centuries in an Italian Kitchen”, collaborating with Rome’s best chefs and a fresh look at recipes passed down through the generations by Romans from all walks of life.

* Paul Clerehugh is chef proprietor of the Crooked Billet, Stoke Row and London Street Brasserie, Reading. Catch Paul every week on Food on Friday (2pm, BBC Radio Berkshire) for lighthearted food chat, recipes and current affairs.

More News:

POLL: Have your say