Monday, 21 February 2011

The Montpelier Basement - Behind the scenes

The last time I actually wrote about our Bristol supperclub ‘The Basement’ was just after our second event in October last year. We were complete novices back then embarking on an exciting new venture, fresh faced, young and naive. Much has happened since then. 12 suppers later, and we’ve been transformed into grizzled veterans; complete with scars, burns and wry smiles that seem to say ‘we’ve seen stuff’. But, and this is the nice thing; one of the reasons that we continue is that each event is still as incredibly exciting as the first.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it all takes a hell of a lot of work. In the weeks before there’s the actual administration, announcing dates, emailing backwards and forwards, replying to people who want to come and filling spaces if people drop out. (Last minute cancellations being the absolute worst nightmare of a supper club. The ingredients are bought to order, and it’s not like a restaurant where you’ll get passing trade to fill those places), luckily we’ve not been troubled too much in this regard, *touch wood*

Then there’s setting the tables, cleaning the cutlery and glasses, ironing tablecloths (and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of napkins), drawing up seating plans and building a fire. This is all before we’ve done menu planning, emailed this out to our guests, and then spent at least a couple of days shopping.

Buying ingredients for a supper club presents it’s own problems. You want to cook pork cheeks? Superb. Now try and ensure you’ve got two each for 34 people on the exact weekend you want them. But what’s this? There’s been some kind of balls up at the butchers and the aforementioned porcine cheeks order hasn’t turned up in full and it’s too late to find anything else. So do you scrap that idea and cook something else entirely? It’s often a logistical nightmare I tell you.
Then there’s the sheer bulk of what you have to buy. How about 30 onions, 20 leeks and six kilos of pork belly? Not having a car means I’m slowly developing the squat, muscular build of a man who’s forever humping heavy bags of vegetables and meat for miles and miles in an urban environment.

The night before (or sometimes two nights before, depending on what’s on the menu), we begin to cook. Preparing as much as we can in advance to give us a fighting chance on the actual night of the supper. We have a four-burner hob and one oven. Trying to cook an eight-course menu on that for 17 can be incredibly tricky unless you plan it carefully (as we’ve learnt to our cost when horrified, we discovered three things we should be cooking, had to be in the oven all at the same time, at different temperatures. As you can imagine, much panicked juggling ensued!)
So we bake tarts, make ice cream and simmer stocks, normally working well into the night. The morning of a ‘Basement’ involves getting up early, shopping for last minute items and then cooking, cooking and more cooking. We write a ‘to do’ list; stick it up on the kitchen window and cross stuff off as it’s complete.

No matter how much time we think we have to prepare, the last few hours before a supper always pass in the blink of an eye. There’s normally the slightest moment of calm, a limbo where we wait for the first guest to arrive, and then we’re off, it’s wacky races (I’m Dick Dastardly, and I wont tell you who ‘E’ is……..Ok, who said Mutley?)

We both cook, and love it, sharing all the prep and the actual cooking on the night but we’ve also learnt to play to our individual strengths. ‘E’ has much experience of managing restaurants and waitressing, so she normally takes on the role of maitre d’ and waitress (Moving through the diners, smiling and balancing ridiculous amounts of plates on each hand “gracefully, like a swan” as one of our more poetic diners put it).

My own skill set lies more towards verging on being utterly OCD where it comes to tidiness and organisation. Basically, in between cooking, I wash up and put stuff away like a man possessed. (Finding enough space to plate up 17 dishes is hard enough even with the worktops clear!)
Obviously there’s some overlap, I sometimes act as greeter, clumsily bring dishes out to tables or clear them away and ‘E’ sometimes helps with the washing up (although she absolutely detests doing it), so actually it all works like a well oiled machine…sort of.

One of the main problems is getting the food out all at the same time and hot, but we’ve become pretty adept at getting this right. Making sure the plates are warmed beforehand is a must. (So, just one more thing to cram into the oven then yeah?).

Normally the main course involves much frantic activity, more often than not it’s served with accompanying vegetables and side dishes, which means mucho hob juggling trying to cook everything and keep it hot.

But once it’s all out and our guests are eating, it’s cheesy grins and high-fives. We’re over the ‘hump’ and it’s all downhill from here, (often literally, this is normally my signal to start drinking…. extravagantly). We come out of the kitchen for a bit, mingle, chat to everyone and have a drink with them before finishing off with the desserts and our signature savoury of Gorwydd Caerphilly and Bristol Beer Factory rarebit.

Then, feeling immensely satisfied, elated and buzzing it’s more mingling, chatting and drinking until in the early hours eventually people start to call it a night and drift off home.

Then it’s a sit down, a chat over a drink about how we thought the night went, perhaps a swift tidy up (That would be me), and then off to bed, to get up early and probably do it all again the next day. (Our preference of late is for back to back ‘Basements’ on a Friday and Saturday, it makes for a more manic time, but it means that people who want to come, can and we get some weekends off too…. it’s a tiring win/win).

But wait, the work doesn’t end there. Did I mention trying to get wine stains out of tablecloths? Or the problem of trying to get rid of all those empty bottles? God knows what our bin-men think; let alone our unsuspecting neighbours. Our recycling bin is normally bursting at the seams with 40 odd empty wine bottles on most Mondays…

If you fancy coming along and contributing to our Monday wine bottle mountain, then drop us an email at
and we’ll add you to the mailing list.

Oh, and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @montpelierbsmt

Mwah Mwah


Fiona Beckett said...

Great post, great experience . . . We've been to the 'basement' twice and absolutely love it. Runs like clockwork so I'm more than impressed by the work behind the scenes. Keep at it x

millerdesignuk said...

You make a great team - we've only been once (so far) and loved it! Looking forward to the next visit - its my favourite place to eat in

Gail said...

Really want to come, wondering how to swing a weekend in Bristol now!

Anonymous said...

All sounds achingly familiar!

PDH said...

It sounds like you are having good fun though, when I was cooking for a living I was muscly like a whippet. Every morning we'd have to shift what seemed like half a tonne of produce and potatoes just to get through the door. Then the meat would arrive and we'd fall on it like a team of carnivorous squirrel chopping and trimming what we needed for the day and storage it away for when it was needed.

The one thing that I remember from college though and always served was a simple phrase one of my tutors used:

Mis-en-place - Preparation!

Just remember most of your stocks, sauces and slow cooked meats are probably better if they are cooked the day before then lovingly reheated. If it saves you some time on the day of the club it's worth doing!

Food Urchin said...

Brilliant post mate with some sound advice, it's tough juggling our diary at the best of times but Mrs FU and I rilly rilly want to visit you guys in Bristol soon. See what all the fuss is about!

Kavey said...

Pls can you add me to the mailing list, ta.
All my recent stops in Bristol have been on a Sunday night but I'm determined to plan a weekend to visit the basement ASAP!

miss south said...

I'm exhausted just reading that...

By the way hydrogen peroxide (try any small independent chemist) poured neat on a wine stain will take it out like a dream. Leave for about ten minutes, then wash as normal. It doesn't bleach like chlorine bleach, but works like those expensive oxi products at a tenth of the price!

Anonymous said...

Great "DVD extra" Dan. Thanks for showing us behind the curtain.

Glad you're doing this, it sounds like you're really enjoying it.


PDH said...

You'll have to forgive the English on my last comment... Clearly wasn't awake when I wrote that!

Dan said...

Fiona Beckett - Thank you! I'm glad it seems like it runs like clockwork out in the dining room, we must be doing something right then! x

Millerdesignuk - What a lovely thing to say, thanks Helen. We'd love to see you at 'The Basement' again x

Gail - Would be amazing if you could, although watch this space.... we may be making an appearance closer to home at some point this year ;)

Restingchef - Hahahaha yes indeed, you know :)

Pavel - Great image and great advice. We try to follow it as much as possible, everything we can prep in advance we do. It all pays off on the night (in particular its lovely to be able to cook washed and shredded leeks/Savoy/greens instantly rather than faff around preparing at the last minute). We look forward to hearing news of your supper club soon mate.

Food Urchin - Thanks dude, and not long till your own foray into the supper club scene begins. Saturday, Brentwood Theatre in Essex right? (Believe there may be last minute spaces available people so go,go,go!).
We'd love to see you and Mrs FU in Bristol, I'll be in touch re: Friday dates.

Kavey - That's twice you've been to Bristol and I've missed you now madam. I will add you to the mailing list; we'd love to see you :)

Miss South - Now that is an amazing frigging tip! thank you, will give it a go.

Roastpotato - Hahahah DVD Extra indeed. I am enjoying it immensely, it's hard work but great fun.

Sanchita said...

So much goes on behind the's hard to imagine unless someone attempts to do something similar. Great post! Enjoyed reading it :)

The Ample Cook said...

Congrats to both of you. Such hard work and it looks like you've both executed it beautifully from your photos and your diner's comments. Bloody well done.

Hollow Legs said...

I've only ever done two stints of intensive cooking (see Macmillan Coffee Morning and Helen's Big Lunch) and they were only ever buffet affairs - that was exhausting enough, so the work involved with this is immense.

(We're doing a charity dinner for 55 soon. Oh. Em. Gee.)

Dan said...

Sanchita - Yep, it's surprising how much work is involved. Thank You.

The Ample Cook - Jan thank you. Coming from a pro like you, means loads x

Lizzie - Thanks! 55!? bloody hell, good luck with that, I'm sure it'll be excellent.

Anonymous said...

Great Post, sounds like the hard work is paying off!

I love the look of that dessert, and you always have the most amazing sounding cheeses!

Keep up the good work!


@LucMartin said...

"this is normally my signal to start drinking... extravagantly"

Love this line