Over the years, I've been lucky enough to be invited by people for home-cooked meals. I've always been grateful for this because I know how much thought, time and effort go into cooking for a dinner party.
My most recent dinner party was cooked by Ray Tang, who has a food blog, Tang Can Cook (tangcancook.blogspot.com). I'd written about his blog a few months ago in Post Magazine, and received a thank-you e-mail, where I found out that he's the father of a friend of mine. Ray was always an avid home cook, but several years ago, at the age of 60, he attended Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia, and more recently, a culinary programme in Bangkok, Thailand.
The occasion for this dinner party was the engagement of a couple - friends of mine and his daughter's. Ray dispensed words of wisdom on the keys to a happy marriage, and made a delicious meal, which included fresh abalone with mirin; his signature 'mini-breakfast' that had all the elements of a traditional English breakfast but made into sandwich form; lobster with beans; larb moo (a spicy-sweet-sour Thai pork dish); and pavlova for dessert.
Ray is a confident cook - something that not everyone is, at least when they're cooking for me. Some people, knowing that I write about food for this newspaper, worry that I'll be as critical of their food as I would be about a restaurant I'm reviewing, and it's enough to have them quaking in their kitchen clogs.
I would never be rude enough to scrutinise their food like that; I take it as a compliment that they're willing to put in so much effort to cook for me and other guests. I see dinner parties as occasions when the company - meeting new people and enjoying time with old friends - is more important than the food. If the meal is delicious, it's a bonus.
Only once have I been disappointed by a home-cooked meal, but oddly enough, the food was excellent. I was invited to dinner through a friend of the host. The kitchen was filled with hi-tech equipment. The table was laid with expensive silver show plates and cutlery - the type you normally see at high-end restaurants. At each place setting was a menu listing the eight dishes for that evening: rich foods such as caviar and pigeon. As the meal progressed, the host scrutinised all the plates as they went back into the kitchen, to make sure that I - and the other guests - ate everything; if we didn't finish every bite, he'd interrogate us on what we didn't like about that dish. I felt compelled to eat everything, if only to stop the relentless questioning. The dinner conversation was strained because far too much focus was put on the food.
I was physically ill that night because I ate too much - something that had never happened before and hasn't happened since. And I realised something important: there's more pleasure in eating a simple bowl of pasta with friends than an elaborate, beautifully cooked meal with strangers.