A little bit about Martha and #TheMuffKitchen
#TheMuffKitchen is a story of three Ps: pandemics, pivots, and, now, finally, at long blessed last, panettone.
But before we get to #TheMuffKitchen, we probably need to talk about #Muffdining, and before we talk about #Muffdining, we probably need to talk about why, after 37 years, I still haven’t managed to shift the daft nickname my sister gave me when she was one and I was five, because she could only pronounce ‘Martha’ as ‘Marfy’. And so Muffy was born. AND STILL IT REMAINS NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRY.
Ahem. Anyway. Where were we? Oh, yes.
After 10 years as a journalist, writing about news and music and film and travel and my favourite thing ever, food, I (that’s me, Martha, hello there!) decided it was high time for me to have a think about how I could actually WORK in food, given that I had lost absolutely all interest in sitting in an office for one more day, and particularly not the office I found myself sitting in circa late-2017, writing indisputably tedious tosh about Prince George’s favourite toy, which Kardashian had the biggest boobs, and how a woman in Manchester was making cupcakes for dogs. It was time to Get Out-Out.
I applied for Masterchef, but when they discovered I was a journalist for the afore(un)mentioned notorious website and its shameful sidebar, they whipped me and my fennel pannacotta out of the casting suite faster than you can say ‘buttery biscuit base (base)’, so I decided to do it by myself. I invited nine friends over for supper, made them donate £30 to the Cook For Syria charity initiative, and made them eight courses of Syrian food. I ended up having a fairly crippling panic attack halfway through dessert and being put to bed by my friends while breathing through a brown paper bag, but this was much more about my day job than about the supper. I went into work on Monday and quit. My next supper event a month later was for 16 people, including a few strangers: absolutely no panic attack, just pure joy, and the brown paper bags all went straight in the recycling.
Over the next few months, while doing freelance writing to get by - because man cannot live on the revenue from 16 guests coming to supper once a month alone, let me tell you THAT - I continued with these suppers, which we all felt now warranted being called supperclubs and really deserved a name. ‘Martha’s Kitchen’, ‘Suppers with Martha’, ‘The Olive Garden’, in reference to my dog Olive, and ‘Bread in The Basement’ all got flung around the table, until Laura, my best friend, who had called me Muffy since we were 11 because I failed monumentally to shift the nickname upon entering secondary school, said ‘How about #Muffdining?’ with a happy little smirk. Everyone laughed. The first person hashtagged it on Instagram. And that was that. My childhood nickname had returned, once more, to haunt me. But I did rather enjoy how wildly memorable it was, and how many people genuinely turned up assuming it was a sex party with canapes. (It’s not, I promise.)
#Muffdining ran once monthly at first, on a Saturday, with 16 guests spread across two tables in the basement of my East London home, but soon I added a third table. And then I added the Friday. And then I added a Sunday lunch. And then I stuffed 10 people on each table and sometimes a pair of couples on the sofas. So I was serving 34 people on Friday, 34 people on Saturday and 34 people on Sunday. It had become quite the monthly party. Always themed: Mexican, Japanese, Italian, Smoked, Valentine’s, Christmas…. My two housemates moved out (it was QUITE hectic). I turned one of their bedrooms into a second kitchen.
I began accepting catering jobs for private dinners, birthdays, hen-dos, Christmas parties and even weddings, and when I wasn’t doing these or hosting Muffdining or writing for newspapers and magazines, I started doing ‘stages’ in London restaurants, internships where you offer your services for a week or so in return for invaluable lessons in running a kitchen, chopping onions, seasoning food (hint: 876 times more salt than you imagine). I worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants, including St John, Lyles, Portland, Pidgin, Clipstone and Brunswick House, and then the boys who own Portland and Clipstone offered me a job in the deli of their other restaurant, The Quality Chop House, where I spent three days a week making some SERIOUSLY sexy sandwiches, and getting told off for creating too much mess, for talking too much, and for and using far too much of the expensive olive oil in lunchtime stews.
And then Ed Smith, who runs the blog Rocket & Squash, emailed me and asked if he could grill me on making sourdough. I’d taught myself using the Tartine bread book, and when I served it hot and crusty from the oven at Muffdining with whipped smoked homemade butter, people lost their minds. It became one of the main reasons people came to my supperclub, and word had got out.
‘Why don’t you just come over and I’ll show you?’ I told Ed. ‘Bring Barney.’ And so it was that Ed and his adorably pudgy baby turned up in my house one blustery March day in 2018, along with another friend, food stylist Rosie Ramsden - whom I’d bumped into in the park the day before and who had professed a desire to learn to make sourdough - and her squidgy little baby girl Nora.
We sat the babies down in a cushioned den on the floor (Olive was Chief Cushion) and got to work. Six hours and 12 loaves of bread later, they told me I should definitely be doing classes. And so I put the idea to Instagram and people leapt at it. Hard.
Suddenly I was teaching six people per day how to make sourdough bread, crumpets and pizza in my house, for stretches of five days, twice a month. Soon this went up to nine people per class. East London’s appetite for sourdough was, apparently, insatiable.
Exactly two years later, a pandemic crept up on us like the, well, like an actual plague. I hosted my final #Muffdining (Berlin-themed, after my trip there in February) and was immediately forced to shutdown sourdough school, despite having close to 200 people booked in over the next few months.
I acted fast. Well, actually, I cried a lot and drank breakfast wine while watching Friends in my pants for four full days, and then I acted fast. I launched #TheMuffKitchen, an online cooking school, run entirely through Instagram because it was all my technophobe brain could understand. I began with sourdough, worked through various types of bread, flavoured breads, pizzas, crumpets, waffles, crackers, doughnuts, bagels, baguettes and focaccia, then moved onto lactofermented vegetables, stuff to do with your sourdough trash, and and charged a subscription fee for access. I gave away a free membership to an NHS worker for every 10 memberships sold, and I began delivering free loaves of bread to NHS staff, people forced to self-isolate, and teachers.
Nine months later, here we are!
Instagram was proving untenable for holding my endless posts and recipes and tips and tricks, so we hired a brilliant company - Intercity - to build us this sexy new website, and an illustrator to bring me and Olive to life.
I am so in love with the little #TMK community we’ve all created this past year, it’s kept me sane and judging by your incredible testimonials, it’s kept some of you sane too. We can’t wait to start filling this new online home with content, and seeing how you all interact with the recipes and each other in the forum
Alice and I couldn’t have done it without all of you. So thank you. It means the world to us both that you chose to come and hang out with us in here. We can’t wait to see what happens next.
Martha, Alice, Olive and the ever-elusive Maurice x