We’ve all been there, at the dinner party of doom. An abyss where the conversation is drier than the Kalahari, the £4.99 bottle of ‘Italian White’ doubles up as paint stripper and the pork loin (that’s becoming texturally synonymous with a shoe), has been in the oven for so long it’s practically paying rent in there.
Life is hard enough without having to endure that kind of torture, and under the watchful gaze of dinner party aficionado and all-round hosting god Alexandra Dudley – she’s going to ensure that scenario never happens again.
As a food writer, content creator, supper club maestro and host of the podcast Come for Supper, she knows a thing or two about having friends around for food. Leaning into the allure and riotous fun of that 70s hosting era we all miss – it takes just one conversation with her to become giddy at the prospect of hosting your own soirée filled with dinky martinis and devilled eggs.
We caught up with her to get the 411 on hosting, including plenty of time-saving hacks and fuss-free fixes alongside her honest confessions of kitchen faux pas and guest pet peeves. Lace up your apron, dust off the coupes, and crack open several jars of anchovies – you’re about to host the dinner party of the century.
When did you fall in love with hosting?
This is a long-winded answer, but when I was very young, I used to play restaurants and hotels with my siblings, and I would be everything. I’d be the waitress, the maître d and the head of the spa – I even used to get out all the different cereals we had and make them into a cereal buffet like you have in a hotel. I think I really enjoyed the performance element of hosting, which is the part I think people find most intimidating.
Then, as I got older, I saw my parents host great parties. I have a very strong memory of coming down after they had hosted a dinner party, and I would go into the kitchen, which would reek of cigarettes, and there would be Bendicks chocolate wrappers everywhere. I would go around sipping old cups of coffee, a little bit of red wine, and things of the sort. It was like its own landscape, and I found it fascinating – like exploring another world. The music, the laughter and the whole thing I just love – I think I get that part of me from my parents.
What is your go-to dinner party menu?
Naturally, this changes, but it’s probably something quite lazy. I’m a big believer that it’s not a very good hosting move to be stuck in the kitchen. Like, don't make a risotto if you have a couple of friends for dinner because it’s not very sociable.
I will do three or four big platters of vegetables and salads when properly entertaining. Usually, I love using squash or rice dishes that aren’t cold, but I’ll cook them earlier, and they’ll be at room temperature. Everyone loves it, and it’s vegetarian-friendly.
I also love doing a big fish – say, a couple of big breams or trout. I think people tend to shy away from cooking fish when they entertain because they think they're going to cook it wrong. But if you undercook a chicken, that’s really bad, so the risk factors of that compared to fish are the same, really. And yes, fish is more expensive, but it’s like buying a big beautiful cake. And when you cook it with lots of butter and vegetables around it, it makes the table seem so much more impressive.
I also like to do a canapé or a snack – it’s a bit retro and old-fashioned, but I love it. It could be banderillas, gildas, some anchovies on a plate or even just some hunks of bread with some ugly, raggedy pieces of grana padano, honey and thyme. They’re the easiest thing to make and elevate the evening.
What’s your go-to dinner party cocktail?
I mean, god, I love a martini. But in winter, I often do a jug of Negroni that you can make in bulk or a French 75 made with icing sugar over sugar syrup for ease. In summer, I love to make mango margaritas, where you freeze the mango beforehand and blend it with tequila and lime to make a kind of slushy with amazing viscosity.
I think it’s also fun when you’re entertaining to make a bar – I make one on top of my washing machine. All you need to do is chop some lemons and limes and put them into a bowl, get a bottle of gin or vodka, or whatever spirit you want, grab some fancy Fever Trees or soda bottles, and voila, people can make their own drinks. People love those elements, and having a bar where you can build your own is so fun.
Tell me about a dinner party disaster
While studying at art school, I was the go-to for entertaining and dinner parties and stuff like that. I said I would make a raspberry-infused meringue tower (very Jeremy Lee of me) and a Bavarian cream for a big dinner party in Streatham. I made these meringues, and they were Ottololengi, huge and beautiful. I suddenly realised I hadn’t put baking parchment down, and there’s no way in hell you’ll get a meringue off a baking tray without any parchment. I was in my dressing gown with my hair in a towel and just balled my eyes out because I had bigged myself up so much. I had to go and buy M&S meringue nests on my way there, and I kind of saved it with a smashed meringue, Marie Antoinette-esque dessert.
There was another time when I hosted a test for a supper club in my house, and I’m not joking, but I don’t know if this rice was expired or what was happening with it, but it wasn’t cooking. I cooked it for five hours, and it just didn’t cook – it was rock hard. It just didn’t work, so I had to fob it off and forget about it. Generally, all rice is quite stressful – cooking instructions cannot be trusted.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
This is a hard one – probably Nora Ephron or Meryl Streep, and maybe also Nigella Lawson – I want to hear about her life and marriage; she’s gone through so much stuff, and she’s just a monarch in my eyes. I would be a bit intimidated by Nora Ephron, though, I’d need to think about who else I had at the table.
What’s your dinner party pet peeve?
I would say punctuality on both sides – don’t be late. I went to a dinner party, and we didn’t eat until 10’clock, and I just thought – is this a joke? Also, being an hour late arriving is just not ok. I also think it’s good to be tidy but when the host is getting up and washing up constantly, that’s quite stressful and creates an unrelaxing environment. I also don’t like when people start eating before everyone has sat down. I know people have different rules; my husband's family eats as soon as the food is out, which means people are almost finished when his mum sits down.
What are your seven dinner party hosting tips?
I think people get overwhelmed by it, but it’s so much easier than you think – it doesn’t need to be mise en place, but there’s always something you can make beforehand.
Make a pudding
Even if it’s just ice cream with hot chocolate sauce, finishing dinner with something sweet is nice. My mum always used to get those chocolate cigar wafers, and it’s great to put them in a whisky tumbler with some Hackney Gelato or Green & Blacks ice cream, and you’ve got pudding sorted.
Don’t push the boat out too far
A dinner party is not the time to make something you’ve never cooked before; it just puts pressure on yourself, and you don’t want that.
Use your kitchen properly
Think about what you’re cooking – something for the oven, something for the hob, etc. If it all has to cram into the oven, that won’t work.
Always have water on the table
It’s a boring one, but it is always quite awkward or a mood-killer if someone apologises for being thirsty – it just makes you panic that they’re having a terrible time. Just have a jug on the table and make it accessible.
Think about the table
You want to keep everyone at the table for as long as possible, and you don’t have to make it look spectacular, but it’s little things on it that keep people there. I’ll have a little bowl of chocolates, nuts or fruit after dinner, and there’s something nice about that sense of people unravelling the table – a bit like at Christmas with a big bag of clementines or plate of cheese. If you’re not going to make a pudding, little extras are just fine – get out a bowl of Maltesers or Jelly Babies, and people love it. The little things go a long way.
Add one element that’s more than your average dinner
Whether it’s drinks at the beginning or canapes, it will elevate the dinner party