I spent years living out of a suitcase, touring the world. Maybe that’s why there’s nowhere I’d rather be than at my own dinner table with friends and family.
I love cooking. We have five young kids so meal times can get a bit hectic but over the years I’ve learned a few things about hosting a crowd.
It may sound obvious but if you shop well, then you’re off to a flyer.
Chefs spend a lot of time and effort sourcing the best produce - in fact the world’s greatest cooks are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths for their ingredients.
Of course that’s not totally necessary, although it can be quite good fun - but in short, the better your ingredients, the less you have to work with them or spruce them up. I love visiting my local farmer’s market and picking up some fresh produce and unusual ingredients to use in my cooking.
The best restaurant kitchens are always meticulously organised, with all of the preparation work taking place early in the day to take the pressure off during service. I always try to make sure that I’ve got as much done as I can ahead of time. So if you’re going to roast up some spuds, make sure they’re oven ready before everyone starts arriving and maybe get a few cloves of garlic peeled and ready to throw in halfway through cooking.
Having plenty of chopped fresh herbs prepped for throwing around is always a good bet, too.
Usually, the simpler things are, the better. I think the more you entertain, the easier it gets and you learn to relax and enjoy your evening.
These days I tend to do most of my experimenting on the kids and stick with stuff I know and love if we’re hosting a crowd.
I think if you feel relaxed and happy in the kitchen, it rubs off on your guests. When it comes to choosing a dish - shoulder of pork is more or less fool proof.
A big joint like a whole shoulder will be more forgiving than a smaller cut and will slow-cook beautifully throughout the day so all that needs done once people start arriving, is for you to prepare a delicious, rich and fruity cider gravy.
I’ve found at the majority of dinner parties that guests quite like getting stuck in and helping in the kitchen - whether it’s fixing drinks, helping with a salad dressing or setting the table.
Think about some simple jobs beforehand so you are ready to delegate when your guests arrive.
Well I would say that wouldn’t I? But I think even if you’ve got a super-indulgent pudding lined up, it’s worth rolling out a cheeseboard, too.
It’s almost impossible to mess up cheese and when you get it right, it’s sublime. I’m particularly fond of serving cheese with cider at the moment.
Chaplin & Cork’s Somerset Gold connects brilliantly with my Farleigh Wallop goats’ cheese. They are both award winners so it’s a match made in heaven - they really do bring out the best in each other.
My granddad was a chef and a stickler for detail. Woe, betide anyone who attempted to serve hot food on a cold plate in his kitchen.
He was a big fan of cider, too and insisted on serving it in glasses that had been chilled in the freezer beforehand. You get a lovely mist on the glass that way.
I still have some of his glasses and continue to impress guests by serving cider at the table in that way, often garnished with a crisp, green apple wedge.
There will always be hiccups, that is guaranteed. It’s how you deal with them that counts.
I cooked some steaks when all the family came over to celebrate my dad’s birthday. I was just back from touring South America so I did them Argentinian style on the barbecue.
I heard Auntie Janet whisper ‘Look - he’s burned them!’ as they hit the table but in the end she liked her crispy steak so much I had to do her another one.
Dinner isn’t just about food, it’s the company and atmosphere that make for a memorable evening so keep smiling and everything will fall into place eventually. It always does.
• Alex James is the brand ambassador for premium cider, Chaplin & Cork’s and he has partnered with the brand to create a range of recipes and perfect pairings. Follow @chaplinandcorks or visit www.chaplinandcorks.co.uk for inspiration and to find out more.