Starting a supper club

Starting a supper club

by Gemma Harrison 06 November 2015

After attending a number of supper clubs, Gemma Harrison wanted to find out more about how they are run. She caught up with Great British Chefs contributor, Rukmini Iyer, to find out more.

Gemma can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

Gemma can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

The last few years has seen a boom in supper clubs — where aspiring (or even professional) chefs, cook an informal meal in their home or another venue for groups of people they may have never met. They can be a launch pad to opening a restaurant (such as James Ramsden’s Secret Larder) or just a way for someone who loves food to cook for other people.

I have attended quite a few of these events and always love to find out know what motivates people to set them up and what challenges they face — it often varies from person to person. From timing issues to staffing, venue restrictions to a myriad of dietary requirements, serving paying guests is more of a minefield than you might you think. To find out more about running a supper club, I spoke to Rukmini Iyer, one of our contributors who has recently started cooking for diners in her own home.

What made you decide to start a supper club?

While I love working as a food stylist, I recently realised that often my favourite part of the day on a magazine or book shoot is when everyone stops for a late lunch, usually made up of everything I've cooked so far that day. It's such a nice feeling to cook food that people want to eat (as well as photograph) that I thought it would be a nice creative outlet to start coming up with menu ideas for a supper club where people can relax and have a good time over the food I've cooked, rather than rush back to work to get the last shots of the day done!

Why is it called the Pomegranate Supper Club?

I thought it would be fun to cook food around a central ingredient – this time around pomegranates, which feature in quite a few of the dishes! Hence Pomegranate Supper Club.

Can you tell us about the type of food you will be serving and why you chose it? How do you choose what goes on the menu and what are your favourite dishes?

This time I wanted to go for a loosely Middle Eastern or Mediterranean inspired theme, as I've been cooking a lot of that type of food for the past year for my cookbook. I worked around my favourite seasonal ingredients (cauliflower, mini pumpkins) and thought about ways to cook them that would fit with the time of year and potential weather, so the courses got increasingly richer towards the end of the menu. It was also a great opportunity to make some of the dishes that I created for the Great British Chefs website, for a wider audience as I already knew they'd gone down well with tasters the first time around! My favourite dish was probably the slow cooked chicken pie, closely followed by the harissa prawn lollipops (probably because they were deep fried).

Rose chocolates
Slow cooked chicken and pomegranate mini pies with coriander chutney

Do you have to think about allergies or intolerances and does this influence your menu planning?

Of course, allergies and intolerances are always something to bear in mind — luckily with the dishes I chose, gluten or nut-free options could easily be substituted for the items containing them and with plenty of notice for vegetarian or gluten-free guests it wasn't too hard to come up with alternatives. Most of my family are vegetarian, so I like to come up with really nice substitutes that are as similar as possible in their flavourings to the meat option — so for one week, I slow cooked mushrooms in pomegranate molasses for an alternative pie filling to the chicken. It's a good creative challenge to come up with gluten-free flatbreads and breadcrumbs too!

Why did you choose to host the supper club in your home? What are the logistics like in the kitchen and do you have anyone to assist you?

I think hosting people at home is much more interactive for a cook than cheffing at a restaurant, which is why I chose to do them at home. Meeting guests and interacting with the people you're cooking for is for me one of the highlights of cheffing, so being able to welcome people to your house rather than being hidden away in a kitchen felt like the right way forward. I think for supper clubs, people are much more up for home style cooking in a more informal dinner party atmosphere, which would be something you'd potentially lose in a restaurant setting.

Logistically for a home kitchen, you just have to be very organised with prep, ensuring there's enough fridge space, and behaving as far as possible as if your kitchen is a restaurant kitchen — so checking the fridge temperature regularly, using thermometers to check the temperature of food before serving it and following all the standard catering food health and safety guidelines. I do food safety courses fairly regularly for work and am usually a bit of a health and safety nutter even when food is just styled for a photograph, so that end of things isn't difficult to apply at home.

I was very ably assisted both weeks by my good friend and supper club collaborator Danielle, who has already come up with the theme for the next supper club, and my husband Ken, both of whom were amazing help — table decorators, waiters and cheerleaders at various points! I wouldn't contemplate doing it without an assistant, as much for the moral as practical support.

What do you think will be the main challenges and what have you learnt so far?

The main challenges are making sure everything goes out on time, and to the standard that you would want — I've definitely learnt so far that my oven, despite its considerable size, is not happy or consistent cooking for 12-14 and it is on a final warning before getting replaced!

You left a career in law to compete on MasterChef and then went on to train as a pastry chef with Tom Kitchin - how have those experiences shaped your cooking?

MasterChef was an opportunity to be tremendously creative, coming up with imaginative dishes after learning techniques from books and BBC online videos. Whereas working at The Kitchin was a thorough and practical grounding in how a chef should work, think, prepare and conduct themselves during service — absolutely invaluable training. One allowed me to be creative with food, and the other gave me training in what it really means to be a chef and produce consistently good food not just as a one off, but all the time and in a professional way.

What are your plans moving forwards?

Danielle and I are planning roughly one supper club a month going forward; she is picking the charity next time as I chose Oxfam's Syrian Crisis Appeal for the last two. The next round of recipe testing is about to go underway in between styling and writing for work. It's nice to do something creative and interactive that raises money for a good cause (I'd rather this than a half marathon!).

What advice would you give to someone who was looking to set up their own supper club?

Pick the type of food that you really enjoy cooking, test your dishes over and over again and run it with a friend or partner whose advice you can trust. Also, handpick a few guests who you know will mix well with everyone else and help create a really good buzz in the dining room while you get on with the food.

Find out more about Rukmini’s supper clubs on her website.

Photography by Rukmini Iyer and Jaime Tung.

I think for supper clubs, people are much more up for home style cooking in a more informal dinner party atmosphere

Rukmini Iyer