By Elizabeth Greatrex
When I think of throwing a dinner party, I am immediately flooded with happy thoughts. Friends gathered around a big table, everyone roaring with laughter, sharing stories, and of course, enjoying some really good food. But in reality, throwing a dinner party can be extremely stressful if not organised correctly. What to cook? How much to cook? How long will it take to cook? What to do if someone doesn’t turn up? What wine to serve? Who is going to clean up at the end?! There’s almost a science to it, a science that frankly, I’d rather leave up to the professionals.
Dean and Michelle Harper are a power couple within the world of fine dining. Dean is an experienced Private Chef while Michelle has a background in Events. They share a love of delicious food, innovative recipes, and an exceptional standard of service. Together, they have created Harper Fine Dining, a service designed to deliver the exclusivity and sophistication of an elite restaurant to the comfort of one’s own home or a venue. Simply put, they take all stress out of the equation. They ensure that every dinner party they cater for is truly enjoyable, utterly delicious, and a real occasion to remember.
Elizabeth Greatrex: Tell me about Harper Fine Dining and how it started?
Michelle Harper: Dean was a chef within hotels and restaurants in Manchester. He then started to do dinner parties, mainly on the weekends. Slowly but surely he stopped being a chef in restaurants and took on these dinner parties full time.
Dean Harper: We started recruiting chefs for our business all over the place because I couldn’t cater for every party myself. I got a website built and we started bringing in loads of business. Although I don’t do the actual dinner parties myself anymore, I have such solid chefs on my team now that are at the same level as me. They all have Michelin star backgrounds, they all have different criteria. Some are Yacht chefs, some are event chefs; the list goes on.
MH: We have Spanish chefs now, Italian chefs, vegan chefs, etc. So no matter what the theme of the dinner party, we can easily source a chef for it.
EG: When interviewing potential chefs for Harper Fine Dining, what qualities do you look for?
DH: It’s not just about being a great cook, they have to have the people skills needed to work within a private household. They have to have a restaurant background as well as being a private chef. There are a lot of chefs out there would call themselves ‘private chefs’ but some of them can’t cook. For me, you have to have an amazing culinary background where you worked in a Michelin star restaurant. That really sells it to me. They have to be used to working under pressure.
EG: Although you are very experienced within your field, do you find it challenging when you have to take on new types of cuisine?
DH: Yes, you have to think on your feet. As a chef, the best thing you can do is just learn and come up with new dishes. For example, I did vegan cooking for Natalie Portman for three months, I wasn’t a vegan chef, but I pretty much learned it overnight.
MH: When you push yourself out of your comfort zone you get a real sense of achievement from it.
EG: How big is your team?
DH: We have a lot of chefs and waiting staff that we use all the time. We organise the chefs, the waiting staff, and the sommeliers if the client desires that as well. We can always call upon at least seven or eight waiters, two or three sommeliers, and about seven or eight chefs that we use regularly. Then we will often call on additional chefs for other jobs.
EG: What do the clients expect in terms of the level of service?
DH: The service is just as important as the food.
MH: We have more formal and less formal waiting staff. It all depends on the family that we’re sending our staff to and their requirements for the dinner party. If someone is having a super formal dinner party then we will send a more formal waiter or sommelier. However, if they want something more relaxed and then we would send a different style of waiter.
DH: With the sommeliers, some clients will want the full experience. Seven courses, with wine pairings. So imagine two chefs, two waiters and a sommelier in one household for a party of 20, for example. We give the sommelier the menu and then they source and match the wines. The work a sommelier does is so interesting and in-depth, it’s like with food. There’s always something new to learn.
EG: Why do you prefer working for private clients instead of restaurants?
DH: It’s more lucrative. I have worked in restaurants all my life and to send a chef into a restaurant is stressful and most of our chefs don’t want to work in restaurants anymore. When you’re working in a private household, no one is on your back, the hours are better, and it’s quiet. It’s your menu, your food. You work with amazing produce, and you can really showcase what you do. It ticks all the boxes for any chef.
EG: You spend a lot of time in Notting Hill Gate. What is one of your favourite restaurants in the area?
DH: Eat Tokyo is nice. It is almost as good as Roka or Nobu, but for a quarter of the price.
EG: How about your favourite restaurants in London altogether?
MH: That’s a tough one but I’d have to say: Bocca di Lupo, Barrafina, The Wolseley, Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road, Duck Soup, Ottolenghi, and Hakkasan.
EG: Where do you get your inspiration for the dishes from?
DH: Every dish we create works towards the seasons. I don’t really like to overcomplicate dishes, I will put about two or three things on a plate. A really good quality piece of fish or meat and then different foods that are in season for the side. I like to work with different textures. It’s very simple, clean cooking. I try to get as much flavour as possible in the vegetables and the meat.
MH: I would say we mainly get inspiration from dining out. If we try an amazing dish, it really inspires us within our own work. Also, we tend to make the menus fairly simple so that when we give them to the chefs they can integrate their creativity too. We don’t want to be too controlling in that aspect, because they will have their own style. We like them to have a bit of freedom.
EG: What is your signature dish?
DH: I have many. But one, in particular, would be a nice fillet of beef, with a glazed ox cheek. That’s cooked for about six hours. I add some vegetables and make the sauce out of the bones. It’s a great combination, really rich and intense.
EG: Who is your average client?
MH: We’ve had a real variety. We’ve had very successful entrepreneurs, doctors, footballers. A combination, really.
DH: People want to spend the money because it’s such a special occasion, perhaps it’s someone’s 30th or 40th birthday. You might get a real foodie client, who wants to show off his house and is willing to spend a considerable amount on a dinner party.
EG: How do you find working in a couple?
MH: Really good!
DH: Yeah, really good for us, but I don’t think it would be for everyone. We’re just so driven in the sense that we both love food.
MH: We don’t disagree on stuff either, we both bring something different to the business. We both have different roles. Dean specialises in the food side whereas I run the organisational side of the business.
DH: When you’re both extremely passionate about something, you’re just into it so you don’t mind talking about it. We base our lives around food, you see, it’s our passion. We travel a lot and it just works for us.
MH: We do it together, it’s a joint effort. We’re a good team!
EG: How has your business changed since the Covid-19 pandemic?
MH: We have had an increase in bookings! I think people feel safer with a chef or waitress in their home rather than being out amongst the masses. And now that people can ‘bubble up’, it’s a great way to socialise. In terms of safety measures,
our staff would wear face masks and gloves if the clients wanted them to. They sanitise and sterilise everything. Most clients haven’t requested this strangely. People have been quite relaxed, I’d say.
Click here to find out more about Harper Fine Dining.