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Tony Tobin - How to win the dinner party wars

PUBLISHED: 10:58 26 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

Surrey Life's celebrity chef, Tony Tobin, cooks up some really good food

Surrey Life's celebrity chef, Tony Tobin, cooks up some really good food

It should be a pleasant occasion - a chance to catch up with old friends over a bite to eat and a nice glass of vino. In reality, however, a dinner party is nothing more than a cooking war. Well, let battle commence...

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It may come as a shock for readers to learn that, every Saturday evening, thousands of battles are fought out in the kitchens of Surrey. The apparently friendly trappings of these battles belies their ferocity, consisting - usually - of the benign ingredients of wine, stories and laughter. Beneath the surface of each, however, lies the latest campaign in the perennial Dinner Party War.

Like all wars, it starts with a small incident: a newish friend or acquaintance invites you and your partner for dinner. A seemingly friendly gesture but when you sit down to eat, a dish appears that starts the first skirmish. It is excellent: well-cooked, beautifully-presented and above all delicious. The war proper starts when you are leaving at the end of the evening and utter the fatal words: "You must come over to ours for dinner..."

As a chef, I am only too aware of how competitive food can be - you may have read last month's column and seen me battling it out on the BBC's Ready Steady Cook every fortnight - and I promise you, when it comes to dinner parties, it's a war out there...

However good the dishes, the wines and the presentation on that first evening, yours must be better. It must subtly trump everything that came out of their kitchen. So, you read your cookery books, you rehearse your preparation, you look for that 'special' bottle of wine - perhaps even buy new plates or cutlery (certainly a new tablecloth and napkins) - you choose the perfect music and, above all, you hunt down some main ingredients that will strike that winning blow. Thankfully, you win the second battle. But the war is not over... at the end of the evening they invite you back to theirs again in a few months. Months? They now have months to prepare. And, of course, they win that battle so you have to invite them back again.

Every month at The Dining Room, my restaurant in Reigate, I hold a gourmet evening where I demonstrate how to cook and present some of the dishes on our menu. It is one of the favourite nights of the month among my guests - and the reason? It can help them to gain an edge in the Dinner Party Wars they are waging. So, this month, I thought I would offer three winning tips from a battle-hardened general!

The first is simple: spend as much as you feel you can (depending on how badly you want to win the battle) on the main ingredients and choose recipes that let their flavour stand out on the plate. Don't smother or swamp them and don't be tempted to scrimp on the main ingredients and think you can win with sideshow frippery. How many F1 cars have go-faster stripes?

The second: go for height. The best chefs know how to build a dish from the plate upwards so that a diner's first instinct is to turn the plate and admire the architecture of the food. As heat rises it is also an efficient way to stop dishes going cold and it means you won't be tempted to put too much on the plate. You can use metal 'frames' to make rice or salsa into a perfect circular base for a wonderful piece of fish (try brill wrapped in best parma ham) and remember to top your structure off with something crispy or twirly: nothing more than a mouthful but the chef's equivalent of a race day hat!

Finally: timing, timing, timing... Starters can usually be prepared beforehand leaving you to concentrate on getting your main course plated up perfectly. You will no more win the war with overcooked food than you would with tired troops. Concentrate hard on ensuring that your meat or fish is cooked (and rested) to coincide with perfectly crisp and crunchy veg.

So while schools everywhere are giving up on competitive sport, why not reawaken the competitive edge in your household - invite someone to dinner!

Tony's Gourmet Evenings...
Tony Tobin is holding a Gourmet Evening at the Dining Room in Reigate for details of the November and December events - or to make a reservation for any other time - call 01737 226650. Now is also a good time to start thinking of Christmas bookings as places are often snapped up early!

Reader question

This month's recipe idea is prompted by a reader question from N Brown of Guildford who says:

"I'm a vegetarian and I like to try and have an interesting and varied diet, but I really come unstuck when it comes to taking lunch to the office. I'm so bored of cheese and salad sandwiches and would love a couple of quick and simple ideas..."

My first response is this - ditch the bread and buy some Tupperware! It is very easy to make yourself a fabulous salad and take it to work in an airtight container to keep it fresh. Here's one that I love - cherry tomato and alfalfa salad with balsamic vinaigrette.


  • Take a bag of mixed greens (preferably including rocket and spinach)
  • Add a handful of sliced cherry tomatoes and a cup of alfalfa sprouts.
  • Given that this is a lunchtime dish, consider adding some carbohydrates: croutons or perhaps pasta or noodles.
  • Seal it up, take it to work and keep it cool and just before you eat your salad sprinkle it with Parmesan shavings and drizzle on some balsamic vinaigrette with some basil and black pepper (take it along in a separate little container). You can even push the boat out by adding a teaspoon of yellow mustard into the dressing for extra zing.
  • To vary the dish, just keep adding different ingredients like cold sugar snap peas, fresh uncooked peas etc. Absolutely delicious and it won't leave you feeling bloated all afternoon like a sandwich!


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