A good friend had a group of us around for dinner. I say us; I wasn’t invited so I wasn’t there. But I knew all about it, because nothing stays secret for long on social media.
The Snapchat and Instagram posts started flooding in. Not Facebook, though, because apparently only our parents use it (I missed that memo too). There were posts cooing about hand-made pasta and ricotta, and a new take on tiramisu. Things got a bit drunken. It looked like my kind of night.
Naturally, I was furious. I like to be involved. I have anxiety about not being invited when I’m at my own party. Beside myself, I bailed up said friend over a coffee. She went silent, looked at the floor, and sighed deeply. My mind was racing: what grave offence had I committed; whose grandmother had I poisoned? Or (most likely scenario), was I just an intolerable wanker? I did go to Christ’s College, after all.
She looked at me nervously. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said (which I most certainly did), “but I was worried that you’d judge my cooking.”
I ought to point out that I would like to hope I’m the least judgemental person on Earth. I may look and act vaguely like Prince Philip, but I’m told the similarities end there.
This is a major source of hilarity/frustration/ incomprehension to me. There seems to be a general consensus that inviting a chef or food writer to dinner will result in Gordon Ramsay-esque humiliation. We’ll spit out the truffled béarnaise and throw the croquembouche against the wall, if it isn’t thrice-Michelin-starred perfection.
The truth is, most of my kind shy away from that sort of thing when we’re trying to enjoy ourselves. Anthony Bourdain, having endured this for most of his adult life, put it rather well: “I just want f*****g meatloaf.” Nothing wrong with a good meatloaf, I can tell you.
The few dinner parties that I do get invited to always seem to involve some element of stress: crashing, banging, swearing, feverish stirring. Who the hell said it should be stressful? I’m always bewildered by this. It’s as if, after too many episodes of Masterchef, we’ve just resigned ourselves to the idea that cooking for friends is always going to be a complete bloody nightmare. Nonsense.
A Saturday brunch service where 800 people are expected through the door and you’ve only prepped 50 crumpets and you’ve just spilt raw duck-liver parfait all over yourself and the eggs aren’t poaching and the sourdough situation is looking dire and the asparagus is overcooked and the dishy has just cut his finger and there’s no more cooked bacon and the microgreens are running out because you forgot to order them last night and your phone is going off in your pocket and you know it’s either your editor about last week’s dodgy recipe or the oyster people saying that they can’t deliver on weekends after all: now that’s stressful.
Cooking at home is, and should always be, a pleasure. We should all be doing it a lot more often. The next person that apologises to me self-deprecatingly about their cooking is going to get one in the face. The disasters, the abominations, the filth that I’ve served up with little more than a laugh and an air of confidence, and nobody knew any different. Alcohol certainly helps. If your four-days-of-prep sixteencourse dégustation for your potential inlaws ends up a complete bloody disaster, giggle, slug back some more of that overpriced chardonnay and tell an amusing joke. Chances are, they won’t know the difference. And if you’re on the receiving end, just do the same. Food should never be used as a weapon with which to judge your friends. Unless, of course, they really deserve it.
I hope to use this column as the perfect excuse for spending a lot more time down in the Bay. Invite me to dinner. I’ll be expecting meatloaf