Secret Society

There’s something that feels deliciously exclusive about a supper club. Linsey Parkinson meets Sophie Needham, the chef behind Chorlton Nights.

Rather than being about fashion or food snobbery, Manchester’s thriving supper club scene is all about really great dinners, served by people who just love to cook.

“I’ve always wanted to do this – I guess I’m just a born host,” Sophie smiles. “When I eat at friends’ houses, I can’t resist getting involved. I interfere, drive them mad and they end up shooing me out of their kitchens!”

Sophie, a professional baker, actually began her supper club adventure in Leeds, opening her doors to serve home-cooked, four-course dinners to 16 total strangers. She moved to Manchester with her partner Alex, staying briefly in the city centre, before finding her literal and spiritual home in Chorlton.

“We knew it had to be Chorlton after I read an article about Unicorn. We became like foodie tourists from then on, travelling here from town pretty much every weekend: not only for the shops, but also to eat at Jasmine, which is still one of our favourites.”

The monthly supper clubs take place on Saturday evenings in a top secret location, somewhere near Sandy Lane. The Chorlton gatherings are smaller than the ones in Leeds, but Sophie still works hard to make sure everything’s just right. “I’ll spend all of Friday and Saturday buying and preparing food. I love to shop locally – good ingredients are absolutely vital. Fruit and veg are from Unicorn or Elliotts; it’s Frost’s for the meat and if fish is on the menu, there’s no finer place than Out of the Blue.

We’re very lucky here: the people selling – and buying – food in Chorlton know their stuff and really care, so it’s very easy to find the best seasonal produce.”

“I love Mediterranean-style cuisine, with simple, fresh ingredients and summery flavours. I always bring back ideas from my travels – my August menu was inspired by a recent trip to Turkey, with mezze, flatbreads and lots of spice. I like to serve food ‘family style’, where everyone digs in and helps themselves because it makes for a lovely, convivial atmosphere.” Sophie not only devises the menus, then shops and cooks, but she’ll also serve you on the evening and provide everything except the alcohol (which you bring yourself).

“I do try to get as much prepared beforehand as I can, so I’ll be able to have a sit-down with my guests at some point. I love meeting people and we sometimes sit up talking long into the night. It’s always very friendly – unless the conversation takes a political turn! I know avoiding politics is an old cliché, but I think it’s truer now than ever!

“I still love to eat out and do so as often as I can: there’s so much choice in Chorlton. As a chef though, you read a menu in a different way. For example, if I see lamb cooked two or three different ways, it tells me that I’m probably in good hands. The chef has more than likely butchered the meat him/herself and created a menu based on what looked good in the market that day. That’s something I always like to see: cooking well is about understanding ingredients, rather than just following recipes.”

Sophie’s tip for food in 2017? “The end of the fashion for ‘small plates’. Who wants small plates, really?”

Now that’s exactly the sort of thing I’d want my dinner party host to say.

© Linsey Parkinson