THE BUSINESS of DINNER
LThe underground restaurant – aka supper club – scene in the UK is thriving. Flick through Round to Ours, the cookbook compilation of popular London supper clubbers Jackson & Levine, and you’re almost guaranteed to start mentally planning a killer dinner party. aura Jackson and Alice Levine sure know how to set the mood and fill a table – and it’s pretty inspiring. The Londoners met at a jumble sale, bonding over a vat of chilli. At the time they were still at the start of broadcast careers so had plenty of time and not a lot of money. Hosting was a mutual passion – “laying out a feast and creating that warm feeling that comes from full stomachs and noisy chat” – so a few months after they met, they started their paid supper club.
It’s since had some pretty big endorsements in the UK with The Observer Magazine calling it, “The hottest supper club of the year”. On the back of that success, the home cooks have collated some of their menus into their first cookbook, Round to Ours – 24 occasions, from brunch to lunch to dinner. They’ve also included advice on table settings, creating the right mood with lighting and music and secret weapons in the pantry.
Here, we chat to the pair about their voyage into the land of supper clubs.
When did your interest in food begin? ALICE: My mum is an amazing home cook - for as long as I can remember she has made incredible family meals and all my friends always comment on her dishes. She now has a big allotment so when I go home we have lovely fresh produce too. I learned a lot from her. LAURA: I’ve always been interested in food but I think a turning point was when I started working for the catering company the Admirable Crichton – I worked on some wonderful events from a private dinner at the King of Kuwait’s house, to a banquet of 200 people at the V&A museum.
Are you self-taught cooks? L: Yes we are home cooks, definitely not chefs. We are still learning so much from cooking for the supper clubs. We practice a lot, and don’t always get it right, but I think that’s what a lot of people experience when they are cooking for friends and family – so hopefully we’re all in it together. At the end of the day, people come round to see you, they are not there as restaurant critics.
For the novice, how would you describe what a supper club involves? A: It involves opening your house as a restaurant for the evening – essentially cooking dinner for a bunch of strangers (and charging them for it!). So that entails transforming the space, planning the menu, cooking, choosing the playlist, washing up. It’s all in your hands.
Had you heard of supper clubs when you started yours? L: I had been to Ms Marmitelover [Kerstin Rodgers aka Msmarmitelover is credited with starting the supper club/pop up/underground restaurant movement in the UK in 2009.] A: And I had been to the Gingerline [Gingerline specialises in “creating nights of mystery and delicious dining along the East London Line”.] L: We didn’t completely know what the definition was so we just made up our own.
What was the main impetus to start one? A: We wanted to try one as a challenge more than anything. We both loved cooking and wanted to see if we could do it. L: We wanted to write about food, too, and knew we needed to show we were passionate and keen and had some skills. It seemed like a good showcase for what we could do.
How would you describe your supper club? A: Very informal. We try to pitch it somewhere between a dinner party with friends and your local restaurant that you go back to time and time again because they know your names and you always have a good time. L: Our food is always influenced by the season, and we call them feasts because we want them to be plentiful. It’s as much about having a great night as it is about the food being perfect. People always meet new friends at our dinners, which is a brilliant feeling – so if we burnt the dessert, it’s not the end of the world.
If you had to share one piece of advice with someone who is thinking of starting up a supperclub, what would it be? A: We are a partnership and do everything ourselves but we rope my brother and Laura’s sister in for serving duties sometimes. I think having friends on hand as support is really helpful, especially for the first one until you
“At the end of the day, people come round to see you, they are not there as restaurant critics.” – LAURA JACKSON
find your feet. You could get them to come early and they then get to eat with everyone, so they have a nice meal as a thank you.
When thinking about the elements for a gettogether, what comes first? A: There are a few simple elements to making a dinner party or gathering go with a bang. Great company, an inviting space, brilliant food, fun music and lots of drink (this can generally start off good, and get progressively worse in quality as the party stretches on into the wee hours). We think of them in equal measure – the food is, of course, very important, but if you are sitting under a 200w bulb and the room is freezing, you won’t have a good time. Likewise, if someone has come on their own and you haven’t made sure there is someone interesting for them to sit next to, the night could bomb. It’s about the alchemy of all of those elements.
What’s your most fail-safe dish? L: A roast chicken is such an easy, simple centrepiece of a dish. You can either serve it whole and let people carve for themselves or shred into a salad. At the moment we love to cook it with garlic and lemon and serve with a salsa verde and jersey royals. Completely stress free and just so delicious. Pop the skin back in at the end on a high heat with extra salt to make chicken crackling.
What dish have you received the best feedback about? A: Someone told us the other day they made our salted caramel brownies with their 8-yearold and he said they were the best ever – kids know chocolate, so I’m taking that as the greatest accolade.
Have you had any theme nights? L: I am allergic to themes and I hate fancy dress so I am a bit of a killjoy on that front. A: We did do a Scandinavian feast once and everyone very much enjoyed the help yourself vodka dispenser and brunost (caramel cheese) We also held a supper club in the middle of Victoria Park at night and decorated the space like A Midsummer Night’s Dream – so you didn’t know what was inside and what was outside. That one slipped passed the Laura theme ban.
Your ultimate supper club guest list? L: David Attenborough, Claudia Winkleman, David Hockney, Rhianna, Victoria Beckham, and Alice, of course!
THIS PAGE: Round to Ours is filled with tips on everything from table settings, to mood lighting and what music to play to host a truly successful occasion.
Bavette, Radicchio and Anchovies Apple Thin with Crème Fraîche