The art of hosting

An artful table setting, a collection of elegant glassware, a curated flower arrangement. After enduring long periods of separation from our loved ones, it feels like hosting is no longer about this kind of aesthetic detail, but rather about the desire to take care of each other, and ourselves.

“It’s not so much about the cooking. It’s more about breaking bread together and getting into the details of life.” JAYDEN ALI

To explore this idea, we gathered around the table Erchen Chang, creative director of BAO restaurants in London; Charlie Porter, writer and author of What Artists Wear; and Jayden Ali, director of JA Projects and co-curator of the 2023 British Pavilion in Venice. Together we discussed their earliest memories of family gatherings, how the dinner table is the perfect setting for cultural exchange and why, sometimes, a take-away is the best option.

DANIELLE PENDER  I wanted to start with childhood memories of gatherings and dinners or family meals. What were they like? Whose house would you be at? What were you eating? Erchen, would you like to start? 

ERCHEN CHANG  My family is quite large. I have six aunties and uncles. So, we always had these large family meals with my grandma cooking. She would prepare these banquet-style meals, where she’d go into the wet market in the morning and cook the whole day. It was always chaotic but very joyous. She would also join us to make sure we were eating well—she was really good at multitasking. Because of those early experiences, where there was so much going on, I became the type of person who watches and observes everything that’s going on—I do this in the restaurants now. I watch how people eat, what they’re drinking; I wonder why someone isn’t eating. 

JAYDEN ALI  Thinking about this has rekindled all these amazing memories of my grandparents. I’m half Trinidadian, half Turkish. The Turkish side of my family is a typical Turkish London family, they live on Green Lanes, a road which is full of locally-owned restaurants, but the best restaurant was always in my grandparent’s garden. They grew fig trees, and my grandma would make stuffed vine leaves and pastries in the kitchen, whether it was for a big day or event like someone’s wedding, a Mevlit [a Turkish death ritual, ed.] or a funeral. There’d be this smell emanating from the grill, and my grandad would be there with the hoover in reverse, blowing air on the coals to stoke the fire where they’d be cooking these incredible cuts of meat. My grandma and grandad really held those gatherings together. 

CHARLIE PORTER We were very domestic. My parents weren’t particularly social, and we lived in the middle of the countryside, but I have three sisters so meal times always felt busy, they were such an important part of our day. My parents are artists and were teachers, so it meant that they were always around at the end of the day when we would all gather around a table. It wasn’t particularly about discipline in terms of how much you ate or when you left the table—it was just a total pleasure to be together. I think my attitudes to cooking, gatherings and my ideas of living well all stem from that. 

DANIELLE PENDER So, when you have people over now, what’s your favourite thing to make? Or what kind of atmosphere do you like to create?

CHARLIE PORTER Something super simple, like bread and hummus, then just fish in the oven. Very, very elemental, nothing to show off with but using the best ingredients possible. Also trying to break that thing of being stuck in the kitchen and be part of the conversation, but I’m actually hoping to pick up some tips as part of this conversation; talking about hosting makes me want to do it more, and better.

ERCHEN CHANG I’ve been very focused on opening the restaurants over the last few years, so I’ve mostly been meeting friends there, but recently I had a baby so my partner and I have had friends over to the house, which has been a super nice and intimate way to bring friends together. I am the type of person who usually goes all out, from buying the best produce I can get, to creating an after-meal numerology reading alongside a tea ceremony, but since having the baby I have had to tame myself recently. I often cook noodles, and before I gave birth, I cooked a lot of stock that I kept in the freezer because I knew I would be too tired to cook when the baby arrived, so that has come in very useful.

DANIELLE PENDER Jayden, we’re coming to your house for dinner. What are you making? What are you wearing? What are we going to listen to?

JAYDEN ALI I have to admit to not being much of a cook, but thankfully, my partner is a very, very good cook. I play more of a host role, making sure everyone’s got their snacks and drinks. I’ll put on a little bit of WhizKid playing in the background, which is contemporary West African Highlife, Afro Beats Music, to set the tone. Recently we had eight people over for dinner and my partner made a delicious set of curries. She’s also a set designer so she’d laid the table beautifully, we had candles, the house was looking good, we’d got out the separate set of cutlery, there were placemats, but it wasn’t formal, it wasn’t all matching. I could tell that everybody missed being around the table together. There’s something really special about engaging in those conversations you have around the table that are kind of origin conversations, as well as kind of current affairs and political discussions. You know, you each talk about your childhoods, your passions, you find out about someone’s bizarre passion— they’re really lovely moments.

“A hot pot or barbecue grill immediately sparks a conversation about how you eat each dish, why we eat it in a certain way, what the nuance of a certain flavour is—it goes deep into that cultural exchange of knowing and understanding where things come from and what they mean.” ERCHEN CHANG

DANIELLE PENDER  I love the idea of exchanging origin stories and childhood tales over the dinner table. I wanted to ask you about the idea of the dinner table as a setting for cultural exchange. Charlie, what do you think about that?

CHARLIE PORTER  To me, food is anthropology. So when people gather around the table, it’s a way of telling stories about who we are without having to ask someone explicitly to tell you their story. 

DANIELLE PENDER  Erchen, I guess your work is very much about those cultural exchanges; of bringing Taiwanese food to London and twisting it a little bit. What are your thoughts on the dinner table as a place of cultural exchange and food as anthropology?

ERCHEN CHANG Sometimes, when friends are over, we cook Taiwanese food. I will make a hot pot or barbecue grill that immediately sparks a conversation about how you eat each dish, why we eat it in a certain way, what the nuance of a certain flavour is—it goes deep into that cultural exchange of knowing and understanding where things come from and what they mean. Thinking about how we see and approach food in different ways makes me think of my in-laws, who are over in London at the minute. We’ve been cooking with a lot of really good British produce because they’re Cantonese, so at home, they eat very classic Cantonese meals with rice, steamed fish and poached meats. We’ve been making roast pork with a bean stew for them using meat from Mangalitsa pigs from Cornwall, and they’re learning about local British produce from the food we’re making them. In return, they’re cooking really nourishing, Chinese medicinal broth for me to drink over 30 days as it heals my body after giving birth. I’m learning from them about what I need to be eating and when. They’ve also been making me black vinegar and ginger pig trotter—a traditional dish where a whole pot of this is prepped ahead, reboiled and fortified every time before eating. It’s supposed to improve your Chi, replenish and warm the blood, expel cold and dampness, boost collagen and restore vitality to the woman’s body. I dread every time a large plate of this is put in front of me, but I do feel very warmed up afterwards!

DANIELLE PENDER  Jayden, you mentioned before your dual heritage of Trinidad and Turkey. Did they cross over at the dinner table?

JAYDEN ALI  The pageantry of my hosting is reflected in the hybrid culture I grew up around. I grew up in Bethnal Green; I’m a Black-presenting man with a deep Turkish foundation. I’m a sometimes-cockney sounding person who grew up in a predominantly Bangladeshi environment, and it’s often through conversations around the dinner table or the nuanced ways of eating that those details come out. For example, I always eat with a cloth, or a serviette held on my knee, and I’ve inherited that from my mum, she inherited it from her dad—it’s quite a Turkish, Mediterranean thing to do, to always have that cupped cloth at the ready. I think there are cultural signifiers that permeate most of my eating in every single meal.

DANIELLE PENDER  What about the power dynamics involved in hosting?

JAYDEN ALI  I think it’s really interesting to invert that dynamic of hosting. We had this project a few years ago in the Barbican conservatory, where we worked with Kent Refugee Action Network, which does amazing work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We worked with them to set up this restaurant in the Barbican conservatory, where we made this amazing baklava and Syrian dishes. It was a moment where the power dynamic was inverted, where the people involved, who always feel on the edge of society, were doing the hosting in this great civic building in the middle of London.

CHARLIE PORTER  The British idea of hosting is very much tied into the class system. It can sometimes come with a negative connotation of a place where you don’t feel welcome, whereas in many other parts of the world, hosting is about generosity, of welcoming others in and gathering people together. We have stereotypes of this stiff, English way of being—Downton Abbey exists for a reason. That’s why I love places like the Rochelle Canteen or what Jeremy Lee does at Quo Vadis, where it’s all about the cooking and a sense of bringing people together to create an alchemy.

DANIELLE PENDER  Erchen, the BAO Fitzrovia space was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. What was it about that scene that inspired you?

ERCHEN CHANG  The space in Fitzrovia is on a tranquil, leafy street, just around the corner from the busy, crowded zone of Oxford Street. When we first saw the corner space with the large windows, we immediately thought of Hopper’s Nighthawks, imagining what it would be like at night when it would be very dark. Edward Hopper’s paintings explore the same ambience that we strive for at BAO—the moment of solitude we try to capture, and the underlying feeling that runs through my artwork Rules to be a Lonely Man. It’s a good place for people watching, you’d perhaps see these two people at the bar; there’s a funny chemistry to their dynamic, so that scene really set the tone of the space.

“When people gather around the table, it’s a way of telling stories about who we are without having to ask someone explicitly to tell you their story.” CHARLIE PORTER

DANIELLE PENDER Jayden, Charlie, are there any specific dinner scenes from art or film that stick in your mind?

JAYDEN ALI Recently, I’ve been looking at Yinka Shonibare’s Diary of a Victorian Dandy, a series inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. They’re a series of staged photographs in which Shonibare, as a black disabled man, is projecting himself into the prominent position of this white aristocrat. The images hold that tension and hold a light up to inequalities of society, but they also encapsulate that fantasy of seeing two sides of someone’s life, the very grand stately attractions and then the end of the night when they’re at their wit’s end and full of shame; that after dinner debauched scene. It’s a comment on artifice— everything is artifice.

CHARLIE PORTER For me, It’s the film Moonstruck and the American diner. Seeing an American diner as a kid I was always like, “wow, those places exist?” The first time that I went to New York with my now husband, we landed at around midnight on a Saturday, and we went to this place called Veselka, a Ukrainian diner. Before the pandemic, it was open 24 hours, and it really made us think about different ways of living—how if we lived there, we could work until later and go out for food at 1 am. So, the American diner always struck me as the ultimate idea of being hosted— somewhere that was always open to you.

DANIELLE PENDER How important is the tableware for you? Do you have some favourite pieces?

CHARLIE PORTER I’m really into the things that we eat off, but I only have a few really specific bits. My favourite bowl is by the American artist Andrea Zittel. Her art is all about ways of living and functionality. She creates these bowls to fund her art practice. The ones I have are AZ West, you can get different sizes, and I love eating my lunch out of this bowl. These plates are melamine. I got them from Crate & Barrel in New York about fifteen years ago, I have two bright pink and two blue, and I just love eating on plates of that colour because it’s so kind of wrong.

JAYDEN ALI It’s interesting how you have an attachment to different bits of cutlery or crockery. I’ve got a really nice Japanese butter knife made out of bronze with a polished edge, and it’s just so satisfying to make toast with that knife.

DANIELLE PENDER Erchen, the ceramics in the restaurant are all handmade. How did you work with the ceramicists? What did you want to achieve?

ERCHEN CHANG Owen Wall was the first person we worked with, and atthe time, I was really into the films of Yasujirō Ozu. The eye line in his films is really low, and I wanted a plate that did the same thing, that was kind of floating off the table so that your eye can really focus on the food. With the BAO plate, we worked together to achieve that kind of thickness and glossiness that really resembles the BAO—although it’s a plate, it still evokes that feeling of something fluffy, soft and cute.

DANIELLE PENDER And whose place do you love going to for dinner?

ERCHEN CHANG Probably my sister-in-law’s because her partner is a really good chef. The flavour is just a bit different to how we season the food. He might just be making a tomato tripe or a fish stew, but it’s just totally different from something I make. He uses herbs from his own garden; everything is super fresh and simple—and super tasty.

JAYDEN ALI I have two sets of really close friends, and we’ve ended up in this kind of cycle of rotating around each other’s homes. We try to do it every six weeks, but it’s not so much about the cooking. It might end up with a takeaway or leftovers. It’s more about breaking bread together and getting into the details of life. It’s just a moment where those closest to you will be receptive to you, and you can say or do whatever you need to in that safe space.

DANIELLE PENDER I love that idea of getting a takeaway, where it’s more about coming together than creating this perfect dinner.

CHARLIE PORTER I’m a big advocate for the takeaway as an example of hosting. If you’ve got friends who don’t live in the catchment area of a certain restaurant, it’s a great thing to do. We have friends who come over to ours for Tayyabs. For dinner, I love going to my parent’s house, after not seeing them for so long during the pandemic. I love to see how my mum cooks. I’m often in wonder at how she does it. It’s always really simple but really good cooking. I learned to cook from my mum and my grandmother, and I think about cooking all of the time, so it feels like I’m thinking about my mum all the time; it’s a really nice way to connect to her.

Erchen Chang The creative director of BAO, a successful group of restaurants in London, Taiwanese chef Erchen Chang studied sculpture and media at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. 

Jayden Ali An architect at the intersection of architecture, urban strategy, art and performance, Jayden Ali is the co-curator of 2023 British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

Charlie Porter A writer, fashion critic, art curator and lecturer in Fashion at the University of Westminster, Charlie Porter lives in London. He is the author of What Artists Wear.