Come dine with me: How to save the dinner party from extinction

The student-founded Supper Club aims to get younger people into dinner parties.
The student-founded Supper Club aims to get younger people into dinner parties. Photo: Scott McNaughton

The bestseller lists are dominated by cookbooks. The appetite for online recipes and cooking shows is insatiable. Grocery sales are always climbing. Australians must be cooking but anecdotal evidence suggests that we're not inviting friends and family over to enjoy the spoils. We find out why we don't say "Come for dinner" as often as we used to, and discover strategies for stress-less entertaining.

Why don't we have people over more often? I asked – on social media, on talkback radio, in the queue at the supermarket – and the answers flooded in. Too busy. Not confident. A hassle. It's expensive. Messy house. Unruly kids. Delivery beckons. Noisy parrot. They might find the sex dungeon. (Yes, really.) People have all kinds of reasons to avoid hosting friends and family at home.

For Wendy Maslin, it was a traumatic experience with peas that made her realise how out of practice she was. Maslin, a 35-year-old product developer, had been a confident cook as a teenager but had fallen out of the habit during her busy, social 20s. On a recent holiday in America with her boyfriend, she watched her easy-breezy host cook peas.

"She put frozen peas in a bowl, covered it with Gladwrap, poked holes in the top, shoved it in the microwave and then drained it out," she recalls. "It made me really self-conscious to watch her. I used to cook frozen peas all the time but now I couldn't remember how I did them. Did I put them in the microwave or on the stove? Did I use water? I hadn't done it in so long and I felt completely at sea."

It got worse. "Our host was a farmer and at the end of the night, she gave me a massive chunk of meat as a gift. 'Here, this is for dinner tomorrow night, we'll come to you.'" Maslin panicked. "She was telling me to cook it for 30 minutes at this temperature, then 20 minutes at that temperature and I was frantically trying to write the instructions in my phone. The next night I turned to my boyfriend and asked him to cook it."

Wendy Maslin preparing smashed avo and eggs for friends.
Wendy Maslin preparing smashed avo and eggs for friends. Photo: Simon Schluter

She felt a keen sense of failure. "I used to cook roasts – it was common sense and intuition – but I'd completely lost my mojo," she says.

Back home in Melbourne, Maslin was determined to polish her kitchen skills. "I decided to master one thing to cook for friends: smashed avo and poached eggs," she says. For the next three Saturdays, she practised solo.

"I experimented, I took photos, I wrote notes," she says. She finessed the amount of lemon and seasoning in the avocado, the crispiness of the bacon, the swooshing of the simmering water for the eggs. On the fourth Saturday, she had two friends over to eat them.

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"I was nervous. I was under pressure. I had everything very organised and planned out," she says.

And? "It was fine. My friends were like, 'Yeah, whatever, it's food.' It made me think, this is really just brunch, we should do this more often. It was more about the conversation anyway."

"Of course it's about the conversation," says veteran dinner party host and food writer Rita Erlich. "The point of getting together over a meal is that you eat together, drink together and talk. Food has a big place in that but it's the medium by which people are brought together."

Food writer Rita Erlich: 'If it's good enough to eat, it's good enough to share.'
Food writer Rita Erlich: 'If it's good enough to eat, it's good enough to share.' Photo: Darren James

Erlich likes restaurants but she thinks the richest connections happen at home. "We can talk uninterrupted by loud noises bouncing off hard surfaces, and waiters wanting to introduce us to our dishes," she says. "The biggest bonus is that you avoid splitting bills. There's no, 'I only had one glass of wine, I only had tap water.'"

So why don't more people entertain? Erlich speculates that cooking has become performative and intimidating, thanks to shows like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules. "They've made people think they'll be judged," she says. "Especially for those who are learning how to cook or unsure of their ability, there is the sense that they might be found wanting by an imaginary panel."

She encourages people to take the pressure off. "If it's good enough to eat, it's good enough to share," is her mantra. "Not everything has to be a production. For people who are unsure of cooking, my advice would be to only cook one course.

Marinate meat overnight to get ahead of prep.
Marinate meat overnight to get ahead of prep. Photo: William Meppem

Start with antipasto – buy olives, pickled vegetables, maybe some salami, arrange some cherry tomatoes and bocconcini on the table. It gets people interacting.

"Then a simple main course might be chicken thighs, marinated and cooked in the oven, or a huge salad with grilled chicken, asparagus, lettuce, some avocado. You could bake a cake for dessert but you can also finish a meal with fruit in season, maybe nuts in the shell and a couple of good cheeses. It's about friendship and engaging, not getting in a flap and the more you do it, the easier it gets."

Central Coast mother of three Deborah Rondo, 46, laments the fact that she's fallen out of the habit of having people over. "It used to be a way of life, we'd do it every weekend," she says. "I had a cookbook on salads and I'd love going through it and picking a new dish, putting effort into it."

Share-friendly coleslaw with green papaya and crispy fried school prawns is a crowd-pleaser.
Share-friendly coleslaw with green papaya and crispy fried school prawns is a crowd-pleaser. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Somehow life became too busy, entertaining became a chore and the "come for dinner" scenarios dried up. Looking back, Rondo thinks she put pressure on herself, both with the house and the food.

"I would clean up only to have people come over and mess it up again – I had anxiety about the work I'd have to do when people went home," she says. "It's pressure we put on ourselves though. If I go to someone's house and they apologise about the mess it's clear to me that it's not important – I'm there to see them, not the house."

If she does have friends over now, it's an extension of an afternoon in the backyard pool. "It's a packet of salad from Coles, dressing on the table, sausages on the barbecue – that's what I can manage without feeling stressed," she says. "But you know what? No one complains. They're happy to be here."

At the other end of the spectrum, Sydney importer Jean-Marie Liere, 70, is a confident entertainer.

He grew up in France and Mexico and his parents were always keen hosts. "It was just normal," he says. Now Liere offers French dinners via Airbnb Experiences, an online portal for activities, inviting four to eight people at a time to his two-bedroom apartment. He offers advice garnered from decades of dinner parties.

"Above all, relax," he insists. "You're not inviting the pope or the prime minister or the rabbi. And even if you are, it's the same. We used to have the priest over for lunch on Sunday and my parents were very welcoming but they didn't make a big deal of it."

Having said that, a little primping brings a sense of occasion. "Clean your house, buy some flowers and get out your best tableware and cutlery," he says.

Over-reaching with your menu is an error. "Use proven recipes and don't experiment – this is not the moment to try sole duglere [a complex poached fish dish] for the first time," he cautions. "Present your food nicely but don't try to make it five-star. Just be natural, be yourself because people come for you, they don't come for an image of you."

Denny Baring, 23, is studying science and commerce at Melbourne's Monash University. In January he started Supper Clubs, a closed Facebook Group with 150 members that aims to get young people together for dinner parties.

"Someone writes a menu, posts it, says how many seats they have and people comment to grab a seat," he says. The gatherings are usually about 12 people – often at the parental home – and the menu is based on monthly themes that have included fermentation, Mediterranean and mushrooms. After the meal, the host adds up what they've spent and attendees split the cost, which usually works out about $25 a head.

"We're uni students and we don't have much money but we're watching shows like Chef's Table and we're into experimental and interesting food," says Baring. "But I find a lot of restaurants are inaccessible to young people – it's partly the expense but also fine dining feels like it's reserved for the older, upper class."

Baring cooked his most recent dinner at a friend's father's house and made a vegetable carpaccio inspired by French chef Alain Passard and another assembly with roasted, pickled and fermented beetroot, hazelnuts and seaweed oil.

"We're trying to make good food accessible to young people by taking current, modern, creative food off the white cloth and into your mate's living room, where you can have a drink, chat, walk around and not feel judged," he says. "It can be stressful doing the cooking, but the events always end up being relaxed and fun, and everyone helps with serving and cleaning up. We try and pretend that it's a bit fancier than it probably is, but really it's just a bunch of people getting together to eat and drink. It's definitely more fun than going to a restaurant."

What stops people having guests over for dinner?

Here's a selection of responses from my straw poll.

■ Messy house. "I'm not sure the dining table is still under that pile of accumulated junk."

■ Feral kids.

■ Traumatic memories from 2002 of the flopped souffle.

■ "My friends are such serious foodies, I'm scared to cook for them."

■ "I never got invited back, so I gave up."

■ "People have too many dietaries – it's too hard to cater for vegans, Fodmaps and keto all at once."

■ Pets! Cats everywhere, barking dogs, sweary parrots.

■ Expense – when spag bol turns into salmon blini followed by lamb backstrap and an empty wallet.

■ Horrible kitchens that make cooking a chore.

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