Cult TV cookery show Come Dine With Me gave an architect an idea to build a new career on...
Like all guilty pleasures, it’s an unhealthy addiction.
But that doesn’t stop millions rushing for their weekly fix of Come Dine With Me.
The Channel 4 series, which owes more of its success to mockery than cookery, is never short of new gluttons for punishment, either – contestants queue up to put themselves and their culinary capabilities under the scrutiny of the nation, not to mention the cutting commentary of the show’s now legendary compere Dave Lamb.
Since CDWM first appeared on our screens back in 2005, it has become something of an institution; it’s even been credited with sparking a revival of the dinner party. The length of the country, steak knives and fondue forks are out and amateur cooks are pitting their skills in friendly rivalry across the dinner table.
But Sheffield woman Fiona Storrier has taken the ethos of the reality show a stage further – and made it her own reality.
She is throwing open cookbooks and home to play hostess with the mostest – and earn her living from it.
She’s tying on a pinny, chaining herself to her kitchen sink and inviting guests to Come Dine With Fi.
What makes this all the more unusual is that until a year ago, she was a high-flying architect. Is she mad, you wonder? Think of all the food shopping, the stress of getting perfection on your paying guests’ plates every single time – and then all the washing up.
Yet Fiona cheerfully says she’s in culinary heaven and doesn’t miss the career she devoted 30 years of her life to.
“When the Government stopped the Schools for the Future building programme I decided to quit and find a new direction. Most of my work had been in schools,” she explains.
She was 56 and didn’t know what that new direction was, though. Not until, with plenty of time on her hands, she discovered a love of cooking – and a fancy for daytime TV.
“For years I’d been a working mother; my aim was to get food on the table as fast as possible,” she says. “I’d never even seen daytime telly.
“But I found I loved experimenting with new dishes and throwing dinner parties for friends,” she says, slicing bread and blending eggs into cream as we talk at her kitchen work bench. She is calmly putting together a deluxe bread and butter pudding for four diners arriving in a few hours’ time. Thankfully, starters and mains are already prepped up in the fridge.
“I also discovered all the cookery programmes on daytime TV. I started watching Come Dine With Me – it’s quite addictive,” she smiles. “Like everyone else, I thought I could probably do just as well as most of the contestants.”
Not that she would ever have applied to be on the show: “No way,” she says flatly. “That voice-over man is SO condescending. And I’ve heard the film crew play tricks on contestants, hiding the mixer and such-forth, to get them into a panic. I’d never put myself through that.”
Besides, she had a far better idea; she and partner Tim Johnson could stage their own bespoke dinner parties for paying guests at their stunning home in the village of Langsett, on the edge of picturesque Pennine moorland.
“Pop-up restaurants and supper-clubs are all the rage in London; why not here,” she reasoned.
There was plenty of space. After Fiona and Tim moved into 140-year-old Ivy Cottage in 2005 they had added a stunning, hand-designed contemporary barn extension to what was originally the home of the Langsett Reservoir warden. It meant they could even offer bed and breakfast to diners who wanted to stop overnight.
To his credit, Tim, chairman of the Leeds practise Seymour Harris Architects, where Fiona had also worked after starting her career in her native Scotland, wasn’t phased by the thought of his partner wearing herself to a frazzle in the kitchen night after night to feed other hungry folk, nor did he balk at the prospect of having complete strangers sitting down at his dining table.
“Quite the opposite; he was up for it,” says Fiona. “Tim has even volunteered to be driver to guests who want to be transported door to door. He’s very sociable and loves playing host. Plus architects are always very happy to show off their handiwork – and we are both very proud of the home we have created,” she explains.
She knows there was another fringe benefit lurking at the back of Tim’s mind, too. “Great leftovers,” she grins. “I’d far rather have too much than not enough. And Tim is more than happy to polish things off the next day.”
Just as well there are leftovers; on dinner party nights, she and Tim are so busy they forgo their own evening meal. They greet guests together, then Fiona heads back to the kitchen while Tim does front of house and waits-on, scurrying to the kitchen for waiting dishes when she yells “Pass”.
“We work very well as a team; we did as architects too. There are only a few squabbles and that’s down to me occasionally getting fractious in the kitchen. I want the presentation to be perfect and the food to be as hot as possible when it gets to the table,” she says. Fiona prepared for her new role by taking a Heath and Safety course, researching quality local food suppliers, planting her own fresh vegetables and herbs to cook with – and even working as a barmaid at nearby pub the Wagon and Horses to pick up a few tips on customer service.
She threw her first Come Dine With Fi event in March. It was for “a lovely, jolly group of eight from Penistone” who loved everything she put in front of them.
Word is spreading. She has staged 14 events to date – all without a single culinary mishap. Nothing has been burned or spilled and she’s had not a single complaint.
Last weekend was hectic. She had four for dinner on Friday night, 18 on Saturday night and six for Sunday lunch.
“I’ve put my social life on hold for a while to get things up and running,” she admits. “But eventually I do want the business to work around me.”
It is hard work: there must be nights when, after the last guest has departed and there’s a mountain of pots to clear, she longs for her bed. But she insists she has found a new forte. “I trained for seven years for my previous career and climbed through the ranks. But I really don’t miss architecture,” she says. “My grandfather and my uncles were master-bakers – I think it’s in my blood.”
She finds her years in architecture have prepared her well, though. She is uber-organised and calm in a crisis and a people person.
“If you’re designing a building for someone, getting the brief right is so important. You need to listen to the client’s ideas and interpret them in a way that works. I take the same approach when I sit down with a Come Dine client.”
Her favourite chefs are Yorkshireman James Martin and Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi, who writes in the Guardian’s Saturday magazine.
“I keep trying to persuade diners to try some of his dishes, but no luck so far,” she says. “The idea was that clients would come with their own ideas. I was looking forward to the challenge, but the first question people ask me is: “What do you suggest? That makes it a lot easier for me – I get to make things I’ve done many times. But I’d love to be pushed out of my comfort zone.”
Thai, or tapas, Vietnamese or Viennese, she’ll happily give it a go. The only thing that might phase her is offal.
Diners always get a choice of dishes, just like in a proper restaurant, and Fiona strives to do even the simpler requests with flair. Guests who wanted steak got their locally-sourced, matured fillet sautéed in red wine and their chips thrice-cooked to crisp, golden perfection.
“People ask how come my cooking always works out and the answer is simple, “ she says modestly. “I’m not a trained chef – everything I make is from a recipe. If you follow the instructions to the letter, you can’t go wrong.”
Bring your own
Come Dine With Fi guests pay £20-£35 each, depending on the meal
Guests must take their own alcohol.
Tel 01226 761229.