Chef, author and TV personality Laura Calder has a new book, The Inviting Life, an inspirational guide to homemaking and hosting in the millennium. We sat down with her to discuss everything from hosting tips to her favourite kitchen items.
Why were you inspired to write The Inviting Life, and not another cookbook?
Food has always been about the context for me. In my cookbooks, you’ll find a lot of looping in and around the recipes in search of the greater value of good eating, its civilizing effects, and so on. I’d reached a point where I wanted to get the recipes out of my way so I could explore those broader areas more deeply and articulate my philosophy.
What does The Inviting Life mean to you?
It’s about the value of making a welcome home for ourselves and others, of seeing home not just as a place where we lock ourselves away, but as a place we can open up and use for the greater good.
You like the idea of approaching decorating the same way French women dress – “effortless, unselfconscious with individual flair.” How can homeowners find their home style?
Being sensitive to what truly lights us up on the inside is important – and can save us a lot of money. When we choose the things that delight us every time, we build an environment around ourselves that’s a true reflection of who we are. The other thing is not to copy. Take ideas and inspiration, of course, but we should always make things our own in the end.
As a chef, what is your ideal kitchen look and layout?
I need a clean kitchen, but otherwise, I’ve learned to be fairly flexible because I’ve moved around a lot. I dislike sterility in kitchens, preferring them to feel like rooms, which is why I like a lot of things in view, rather than hidden away in cupboards – baskets of onions, pots hanging on hooks, that sort of thing. I also prefer kitchens that aren’t too, too big. Otherwise, it’s like jogging around a track just trying to make a cake. A galley kitchen or basic U-shape have always worked best for me.
When it comes to whipping up your fabulous fare, what are your essential kitchen items?
A microplane grater is something I don’t know how I ever lived without. It’s in my hands several times a day, for everything from citrus zests to parmesan to nutmeg to garlic. I’m also very keen on my Korean mortar and pestle. It’s unlike any other I’ve tried. The inside has sharp ridges that will turn things like peanuts into butter in a matter of seconds. I got mine in Korea, and I cannot fathom why they’re not for sale here on every corner.
Do you have a fail-safe recipe?
Tarragon chicken is fast, elegant and loved by basically everybody. That and some green beans with toasted almonds, and dinner is done.
How can everyone get into the “home-cooking habit” and build a cooking repertoire?
We all learn by doing, and so the main thing is to do it. Force yourself to buy raw ingredients rather than ready-made things, and it will get you started. My husband’s daughter used to come over here, open the fridge and say, “There’s nothing to eat!” Twenty minutes later there’d be a frittata and a salad on the table, and she’d be saying, “Where’d this come from?” Now, when she sees nothing but ingredients, she’s more likely to recognize the possibilities in them.
What are your best budget-hosting tips?
People should be generous according to their means and not stress about trying to match dollar for dollar (what the Joneses might have done). If you’re going to make something cheap and cheerful, you can always manage expectations by announcing the fact right at the invitation: “Come for a bowl of chili on Friday!” or “Pancake breakfast Sunday at 10!” Picnics are a great way to bring people together, too, without having to blow the account. It’s a potluck with a bit of romance: Everyone contributes, and you can eat on blankets on the lawn (or even on the floor, if you’re indoors). BYOB, of course.
How can hosts get out of the kitchen and mingle more with guests?
Unless you have a brigade of staff, there’s one way, and that’s by having things ready in advance with only minimal last-minute touches required.
If you could host a dinner party and invite three special guests (past or present), who would they be and why?
Madame de Staël is an historical figure I’ve always admired. She was an 18th-century Frenchwoman of letters who ran a celebrated salon in Paris and was one of Napoleon’s arch-rivals.
Carla Bruni (the singer-songwriter and wife of the former French president Nicholas Sarkozy) because she’s one of the best examples of a woman who lives life on her own terms.
Carolina Herrera, the fashion designer, because she is the epitome of elegance.