*This article was written before the Coronavirus pandemic and social distancing restrictions came into force. It has since been updated as lockdown restrictions ease.
Twenty-five friends are pitched up at a giant, white linen tablescape. Artichokes wrapped in monogrammed velvet ribbons sit as place settings, speckled brown glasses overflow with orange wine, quartered pomegranates hold court as centrepieces with thin pastel candles flickering as the room’s only source of light. Charity shop-bought plates are scraped clean of roast lamb, hasselback potatoes and salsa verde. Behind a hubbub of laughter and cheers-ing of tequila shots, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack roars. Welcome to Laura Jackson’s ‘Friendsgiving’ dinner.
The 34-year-old hosts the meal every November in the Sanderson floral wallpapered front room of her Victorian town house.
‘Dinners always start with 10 guests, then I think, "The more, the better!" Soon I’m like, "Oh God, there’s not enough food. I’ll have to put on a few big bowls of potatoes",’ Jackson says in her Yorkshire accent. ‘But the food doesn’t matter; I just love having friends over.’
If you’re one of the 140,000+ people who follow Jackson on Instagram you’ll probably have seen the pictures and know that no one can fold a gingham napkin or turn a tangerine into a centrepiece quite like her.
If you don’t, then catch up: Jackson is leading the at-home socialising movement. In 2019, she launched Hoste with a newsletter and podcast, HOSTEing, about entertaining for a crowd who don’t want to recreate their parents’ dinner parties, but do like having their friends over – and dressing up the place a bit for the grid, too.
Picture a modern-day Nigella Lawson with the wardrobe of Chloë Sevigny – she cooks, she entertains, she knows how to match a tablecloth to her Ganni dress. And, with restaurants suffering a devastating decline over the last year Jackson has become the new dining-in crew’s role model, appealing to a generation of interiors and food addicts who want to host at home.
‘[In the last year], people have seen a new value in hosting, but also spending time with people they really care about,’ says Jackson. ‘If you go to a restaurant, you might not get to talk to the person at the other end of the table. You might have to be out by 9pm or spend £40 on a bottle of wine.’
She suggests getting friends involved in the hosting experience by asking them to bring a course.
‘I get excited when someone asks me to bring dessert or a cocktail mix,’ she says, insisting that you don’t have to be a great cook to be a good host. ‘It’s more about the presentation. Even if you want to buy everything ready-made from the supermarket, or just roast a chicken and cover it in fresh parsley.’
It was during lockdown that Jackson’s skills really went viral, with her campaign #makingamealofit leading thousands to host ‘dressed-up’ dinners as a distraction to world events.
‘I’d have NHS nurses in shared houses message to say, “We’ve been at work for 48 hours straight, but we’ve all booked a night a week to ‘make a meal of it’.” I was hardly on the frontline tackling Covid-19, but to bring just 0.1 per cent of happiness was lovely,’ she says.
Growing up in Huddersfield with her sister Anna and three step-siblings, Jackson loved hosting, even as a toddler.
‘My mum liked having dinner parties and, with so many kids, everything felt like an event. There was always someone to have imaginary cups of tea with,’ she recalls. Her desire to please guests came early. ‘Mum tells this story that we were at Pizza Hut when I was really young and I decided I wanted to make party bags, so I got sanitary bags from the loo and stuffed them with bits that I found lying around the table,’ she laughs.
Moving to London to study events management at Greenwich University – ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved organising parties’ – inviting friends over for dinner became an affordable way to socialise.
‘I would make a big pot of guacamole, a Mexican chilli and tacos, guests would bring the wine and I’d bank four dinner invites in return, so I’d be winning.’
While at university, she auditioned for a television show that led to presenting jobs on T4’s music show Freshly Squeezed alongside Nick Grimshaw, Take Me Out: The Gossip on ITV and The Clothes Show on BBC. Through her TV work, she met fellow presenter and food fanatic Alice Levine, of My Dad Wrote A Porno fame, and the pair started hosting supper clubs, which became so popular they released a cookbook, Round to Ours, and a sellout Habitat homeware line.
Today, home for Jackson is a double-fronted Victorian terrace house in east London’s Forest Gate with her husband, photographer Jon Gorrigan, their daughter Sidney and newborn son Remy. The pair bought the renovation project five years ago and have taken their time with the restoration.
‘I never thought I’d be able to afford my own house when I moved to London, so I’m really proud of it,’ she says.
She admits she’s an Instagram, Pinterest and design magazine obsessive (her favourite accounts for inspiration are @cabanamagazine and @domsli22). Jackson says rooms are filled with a mix of personal mementos rather than trend-led designs. Standout features in the house are: the deep green living room, with a pair of worn gold striped armchairs bought for £150 on eBay; a set of Corrine Day prints propped against a bedroom wall; and a walk-in tiled shower made from tadelakt, a Moroccan waterproof plaster.
Their life, Jackson says, is entirely based in the kitchen.
‘I’d rather sleep in a big kitchen than have bedrooms.’ Wood-fronted cabinets made from repurposed Italian church floors from Retrouvius reclamation company sit proudly against a sea of hexagonal rose terracotta tiles from Maitland & Poate, with wide open shelves housing a feast of mismatched plates, bowls and jugs mostly bought from charity shops or eBay.
‘It’s sad but [in recent months I've looked] at restaurants that are closing down for things they’re selling off on eBay. And I always have “Indian block print fabrics” as a saved search.’
In the centre of the kitchen, under dome-hanging lights, there’s a custom school table – designed by a carpenter after they couldn’t find one big enough for the space: ‘It’s where we have wine, we chat, I argue with John, we discuss anything important and where we have the nicest of times. It’s everything to me.’
It’s also where the pair host most of their dinners. ‘We go into different roles – John goes to the door to welcome guests and washes up. He’s good at getting people drinking while I’m in the kitchen, pretending not to stress about the food,’ she says.
As for what’s to eat, Ravinder Bhogal and Skye McAlpine cookbooks are piled by her bedside. Jackson has done stints at restaurants – such as Lyle’s (chef James Lowe ‘taught me how to poach trout in oil’) – and Rochelle Canteen, where she learned how to make their signature dressing.
‘Email restaurants you love and ask for a “stagiaire” – French for kitchen work experience – attach a CV and tell them why you love their food. Normally they’ll say yes.’ She also suggests keeping paper menus when you eat out, to inspire your own dinner party menus.
Travelling also provides inspiration for her dinners, with meals from trips to Sicily, Mexico City and Sri Lanka written up as Hoste blog posts. ‘When we travel, we always end up meeting someone and having dinner at theirs. In Morocco, we sat next to this couple and we were like “Shall we put our tables together?” So we did.’
She also goes on road trips to the Netherlands and Belgium in a quest to unearth the ultimate kitchen cabinet.
‘I always bring something home,’ she says, pointing to pots on a shelf from a recent trip to Dorset. ‘It’s the best dinner icebreaker when people ask where something is from and you can say “Well, I’ve got a great story about that…”.’
Trips also inspire themed dinners. ‘I hate fancy dress, but I love a themed dinner. It makes it easier to have a subtle note running through the night.’ Past themes include Burns Night, Jane Austen, Uno – with games between courses – and a lot of Mexican nights. ‘I’m doing an Italian night for a friend’s birthday, as we all wish we could be there,’ she says. ‘I’ll print Italian menus, serve a spritz to start and we’ll have meats from Lina Stores – the theme gives a purpose to the night.’
Her killer trick for dressing a table?
A quality tablecloth, flowers to add height and texture (try @kittengraysonflowers or @wormlondon) and candles – her current obsession is all things from Wax Atelier. Jackson also recommends mixing vintage cutlery (‘search for stainless steel ones from Sheffield factories’) with modern sets from Sabre Paris – sold at Arket – and glassware from The Edition 94 and Hay with mismatched charity shop plates.
Last year, Jackson launched her edit of affordable homeware with high-street hero Next. ‘I always want to do things that don’t price people out. The collection includes table mats, plates and a trifle dish I’m obsessed with.’
Building Hoste’s followers is next. ‘A lot of our grand ideas – taking over Italy’s Villa Lena for a weekend, a Russian supper club – were put on hold.’ But that won’t slow her down. Instead, Jackson launched Hoste-themed dinner party boxes last autumn. ‘We’re working with independent suppliers – you get food, a menu, candles, napkins and a playlist.’
And her ambitions don’t stop there. She wants to design a table range and a whole recipe hub website. ‘I’d love to write another book and do a TV series… But really it’s about going with the flow – and, no matter what, I’ll keep cooking.’
Your pre-dinner checklist:
‘I send handwritten invites if I can. For Hoste Supper Club, I’ve worked with artist Tess Newall. But I’ve just collaborated with Papier London, which has lots of affordable options.’
Buy vintage crockery
‘Etsy and eBay sellers have realised that people want vintage tableware, so it’s become more expensive. Kempton Antiques Market is great, but seaside charity shops are best for cheap finds.’
Turn off the lights
‘Our living room has wall lights, which makes it feel warm and relaxed. Turn off ceiling lights and use candles for ambience. Buy cheap church candles and pop them in a fruit as a centrepiece.’
‘Always nail your starter and dessert before people come. Do something like a plated salad and a tart or crumble for dessert, so you don’t have to worry about cooking when guests arrive.’
Think of tablecloths as fashion
‘I’m obsessed with Heather Taylor Home tablecloths. They’re not cheap but, like an expensive dress you’d wear a lot, think of it as an investment piece with the amount of people you’ll have for dinner. Or just buy the napkins...’
Plan a playlist
‘I always theme the music to my food so, if I’m cooking Italian, I find an Italian playlist on Spotify. Same with Mexican or French themes. Or I play a film soundtrack – probably Call Me By Your Name.’
This article appeared in the November 2020 edition of ELLE UK.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.
In need of more inspiration, thoughtful journalism and at-home beauty tips? Subscribe to ELLE's print magazine now and pay just £6 for 6 issues. SUBSCRIBE HERE
You Might Also Like