In a world where we learn of ‘stranger danger’ at a young age, the concept sounds almost alien. You pop round to a strangers home, in a location only revealed to other guests, take a bottle of wine or two, meet a group of other strangers, eat, drink, pay and then you leave.
This is the world of the supper club, where the hosts are often home cooks enthusiastic about what they’re doing, though not necessarily with years of training or hours in a busy restaurant kitchen.
As a scene it’s been steadily growing, with hundreds in London and numbers steadily climbing up north, something we can probably lay at the door of that double dip recession and people wanting to spend their money on quality rather than quantity. It’s a real value for money dining experience.
One of the most prolific hosts in Manchester is Iain Devine, known to most as The Drunken Butcher, he operates at least one supper club a month, from his home in Sale. An ex-chef, his supper club adventure really kicked off following a series of pop-up events in the city centre. I had to ask, why?
“Ever since I stopped cooking professionally I’d missed the buzz of cooking multi-course meals, and using ingredients and techniques that don’t work for just myself and my wife. I was almost continually cooking for friends and family, and was basically doing supper clubs for them.
“I love cooking, I don’t think any supper club would work if you didn’t do, so they’re certainly not money-making enterprises! If I wanted to earn more in the food industry I’d be better off delivering pizzas.
“It’s all about good food, good company, and providing people with an enjoyable evening.”
Mary Edge, hostess and cook behind Madge’s Gaff in Liverpool, agrees.
“I first got the idea from a Sunday supplement around 18 months ago, where it was all about pop-ups. I’d never actually heard of a pop-up! One of the pop-ups that was mentioned was Miss Marmite and also ‘Find a Supper Club’.
“It caught my imagination, this idea, of being a home cook, and throwing the doors open for a slap up meal, which is basically what I do. I’m not a restaurant chef, I don’t sell stuff at farmers markets, I’m just a home cook who likes cooking, baking and entertaining – having people round. It’s a hobby for me, since I’ve gone part-time from my teaching job, it’s really freed me up. I’m so enthusiastic, not just about what I usually cook, but new stuff. I like to set myself little challenges. I go for things I’ve not done before, I often show the process on Twitter or Facebook. I like to choose the more unusual dishes that you’re not going to see all the time.
“It’s not always perfect – we’re not called Madge’s Gaff for nothing, it doesn’t matter. People just bond, they start off with nibbles and drinks before they sit down and this social element is a significant part of the night, it’s like a gathering if you went to a party.
“Throwing open the house every 5-6 weeks to friends and strangers, and those strangers become friends. Monica and The Spice Club really inspired me – I did a lot of research into supper clubs in and around the Mancunian scene. And the images of her first supper club inspired me.”
Mary sets her menu around things she’s never done before and likes to keep things secret.
“Madge’s Gaff is a secret supper club, where guests don’t know the menu beforehand and only gain admittance with the password, which somehow adds to the anticipation and piquancy of the evening. There’s something in all of us that likes the idea of being part of something that no one else knows about. Iain’s themes, however, are sometimes a little more creative.
“I like bad jokes and can’t resist a pun! I tend to think of a theme, usually an ingredient or a country and go from there, ‘Flock & Roll’ or ‘The French Connection’. On other nights I like to have an underlying concept that runs throughout the menu, for instance the ‘2014 – the year so far’ nights that are coming and a best-of compilation, ‘Now That’s What I Call Supper Clubs’.
“I’ve also taken to coming up with menus in conjunction with guests to create a bespoke menu catering to their individual tastes such as a Deep South Feast and a cheese themed menu.”
Both Mary and Iain are seeing their clubs grow in popularity and their guests are now trying their hands at hosting at home.
“Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I feel quite chuffed that a couple of people I’ve never met before have come and have since moved on to do their own. I’m really quite pleased about that.” Mary quite rightly asserts.
With future collaborations, charity events, pop ups and sell out evenings, it looks like the supper club is here to stay.
WHERE TO GET A TASTE
Manchester’s oldest and best-known secret supper club is The Spice Club (above). Monica and her family provide some of the most fragrant, freshly prepared Indian feasts and guests are welcome to pop into the kitchen for cooking demonstrations. More information can be found through their site spiceclubmanchester.com
Relative newcomer to the Liverpool supper club scene, Helen’s Kitchen in Liverpool started as a food lover’s site but has soon grown into a supper club. Information on bookings can be found via Find a Supper Club.
Manchester Foodies, Jamie and Anna, can now add supper club hosts to their CVs, following a series of very popular events. From Modern Comforts to Mexican, their adventures have been well received. Details can be found through their twitter account @mcrfoodies.
East Avenue Bakehouse in Liverpool offer a Slow Food Sunday, a unique, extended version of the Sunday lunch – with five courses showcasing fresh local produce with complimentary wines. Although there is no menu each feast features at least one meat, one fish, one vegetarian, one soup and one dessert course. Details can be found on eastavenuebakehouse.co.uk.
Another North Manchester offering is from Sue and Ian Waxman and their Chicken Soup for the Soul supper club. Their Jewish and Middle Eastern themed nights proved successful. Follow @schmalznpepper on Twitter.
Wendy Swetnam is a chef with over 11 years experience and has been operating her (completely vegetarian) supper club in Old Trafford for quite some time. Bookings can be made through wendyshousesupperclub.co.uk.
Trove Bakery in Levenshulme have been hosting Season’s Eating, with the club making a brief foray to The Liquorists’ earlier this year. Two chefs create a four course menu, with a seasonal theme. Bookings can be made via trovefoods.co.uk.
– Charlie Hooson-Sykes