It’s been a while since Woman’s Way caught up with chef Clodagh McKenna. In that time she’s moved to London, embarked on an intimate set of supper workshops and gone from strength to strength with TV appearances in the UK, US and Canada. With the publication of her new book, Clodagh’s Suppers, we couldn’t think of a better time for a chat.
“It’s my favourite book by far, so far. It’s a complete labour of love,” says Clodagh
“I wanted to make a guidebook for anybody who wants to start making suppers or having dinner parties at home. I thought it would be great to bring it out in the New Year. Everybody wants to have supper and invite people around and I think we just get frightened of it all and put it off and it just doesn’t happen.”
Clodagh moved to London three years ago and credits suppers with helping her expand and strengthen her friend network there.
“I started having loads of suppers at home and having all my friends around, it’s a lovely way to build friendships. It’s kind of life changing having people coming into your house every week for suppers.”
From this came the idea for the book, which she wanted to reflect a 360-degree approach to hosting, covering everything from setting the table to menus, planning and even the flowers.
Clodagh says that the appeal of dining at home is on the rise. “It’s so big now, all around the world, having supper clubs and having suppers at home. It’s become a trend and I think we all want to do it.”
She says there are advantages to be had dining at home over dining out. “Being in a restaurant is lovely but having somebody around your table creates memories in your own home and not in somewhere you might never go back to again. It’s just so good for your mental health, it’s a great thing to do for yourself.”
Plus, and a point that is very relevant at this time of the year, “It’s so much cheaper having suppers at home than when you’re going out for dinners and spending a hundred euros.”
Going hand in hand with the book is a series of workshops on supper where she welcomes attendees into her London studio for a day to learn from her. These are something she says she really enjoys. “There’s only ten people in the workshop, so I can really properly teach people how to do it as opposed to doing a big cookery demonstration for 200 people. It’s really intimate and really rewarding when everyone knows how to make bread for the first time or do starter main course and dessert.”
It seems like life in London is suiting her and Clodagh agrees. “It’s really exciting, I’ve really settled in here. I’ve been here for so long and I absolutely love it, I’ve a lot of friends here and my family are in England. It’s really lovely, I love London. I’ve been coming here for years and years and I’ve family here so it was always like a second home for me. Food wise, it’s very inspiring.”
This year looks set to be a big one for Clodagh. In addition to the release of her book she will be on our screens in a new TV show called Beat the Chef, which will air on Channel 4 in the UK. “It’s a new cooking show, there are four house chefs and I’m one of them which is really fun. It’s already filmed. It’s kind of MasterChef style, hopefully it will be a successful show.”
She continues, “The format is we’ve really amazing home cooks who come on with their signature recipes. We’ve a certain amount of time and we go into separate cooking stations and there’s a blind tasting to see who’s made it best. The whole idea is that they try to beat me.”
Is Clodagh competitive?
“I’m genuinely not a competitive person but it was really good fun, when you’re cooking like that on a show, you just get in and focus on doing the best dishes you can.”
Then there’s her weekly column in The Evening Standard and trips to New York and Canada every few weeks to shoot segments for shows she works on there. It sounds hectic but Clodagh says she makes sure to take time for herself saying, “I don’t work on weekends.” However, I’m not so sure she’s completely off the clock. When I ask how she relaxes she says, “Cooking, I’m such a nerd I just love it so much. I love the weekend to cook up gorgeous stews and broths or chutney or breads for the week,” but she adds, “I love walking in the countryside so I spend weekends in the country.”
It’s nice to hear someone who takes time out seriously, something we could all maybe try to do a bit more. “It’s a trait that I’ve always been good at, switching off from work,” says Clodagh, adding that it helps her to engage even more. “I love my work and I get excited about it on Monday morning.”
Clodagh Suppers by Clodagh McKenna (Octopus, €25) is out now. Beat the Chef is coming soon to Channel 4.
Clodagh shares her tips on making a beautiful table
Along with creating the menu, styling the table is definitely one of my favourite parts of planning a supper. I love being able to transform my table into a space that reflects the seasons and the ingredients that I’m going to use. Here, I share with you the best ways to create a beautifully set table that will make any supper even more special, and the great thing is that it can be done in advance, leaving you more time to enjoy cooking.
A handwritten menu perched in the middle of your supper table sets such a lovely personal tone. This can be done by using nice postcards or A5 blank white cards. I always write them in pencil (easy to rub out mistakes) and draw little illustrations of vegetables or festive images along the side. The following day, I clip the menu on my menu string in my kitchen as I love to stop and read back through them.
Texture is important to create a beautiful table, and good linen will soften and warm hard textures, such as wood or glass. It is worth investing in a good tablecloth and napkins that will last you through the years. I love natural linen as the more you use and wash it, the better it becomes. I have four different sets of linen – one for each of the four seasons. Soft blush pink for summer, mustard for autumn, teal green for winter and soft sage green for spring. The linen for me is the canvas to the table, and I build upon that, introducing colours through flowers, and crockery that reflect the season and work with the linen. As well as linen, I have a drawer where I keep different colours and textures of ribbon – these are to tie napkins with sprigs of seasonal flowers or herbs.
CROCKERY, CUTLERY AND GLASSWARE
Most of my crockery, cutlery and glassware come from second-hand stores and markets. This is the best place to pick up special pieces for your table without it costing a fortune. Don’t worry about not getting matching sets – I love to mix and match as it brings more personality to the table. Keep an eye out for flower vases, jugs and small bowls that can be used for sea salt, sauces and butter.
I recently picked up a whole set of Irish china for €20 in a charity shop in County Kerry. It’s well worth taking an afternoon out to forage through a second-hand store to find treasures for your table.
Like my food, I always use seasonal flowers. Seeing the seasons visually throughout my home makes me so happy and, on my table, it creates a seasonal moment. The flowers are fresher and usually cheaper when you buy in season. If you live in the country, go and pick wild flowers from the hedgerows. I do this most weekends. I like to use one to three types of flowers on a table, as any more in the mix and it gets too busy. A lot of the time I just use one variety, even if it’s just a simple bluebell in spring, as it makes such an impact. I place one or two stems in different-sized jars or vases around the table and one on everyone’s napkin as part of the place setting. Ivy running down the centre of a rectangular table can look great; add little night lights throughout and small jars of flowers. Big sprigs of tree branches look fantastic at the end of the table or on a side board – you can do this at any time of the year. The idea is to bring as much seasonality to the supper table as possible
Extract from Clodagh Suppers by Clodagh McKenna (Octopus, €25) which is out now.