Tom Allen: ‘As a teenager, I threw formal dinner parties – awkward for everybody’

The comedian and Bake Off: An Extra Slice presenter on napkin folding, drunk gardening and life as a waiter

My attachment to food and cooking is an emotional one. I remember being bored during the summer holidays and my nan said: “Why don’t you make a cake?” I was about 14 and that really lit the touchpaper. What I’ve always liked about cakes is that you rarely make a cake for yourself. You make it to share with someone.

We went on holiday to Spain when I was a child and had a rotisserie chicken that we ate in the garden of where we were staying. It was salty and oily and it had a herby thing going on with it. I’ve never quite been able to recreate it.

As a teenager, I liked to throw dinner parties for friends. Very ambitious food, very formal and very awkward for everybody. I was quite a peculiar teenager, obsessed with Victorian and Edwardian people and thought of myself as more suited to that era. I was basically the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey trapped in the body of a 13-year-old boy in Bromley, which was quite a lot for my comprehensive school to cope with. And quite a lot for my dad to take on; he was a coach driver.

Bake Off: An Extra Slice combines my two favourite things: cooking and talking to people. I feel very blessed to be involved in that universe of shows.

I’m still drawn to etiquette and ceremony and formality and formality. My partner’s very good at napkin folding. So we did roses on Valentine’s Day when we invited our mums round; we’re that sort of people. And Easter bunnies at Easter, obviously.

I enjoyed being a waiter, because it allowed me to perform to small groups of people. I think we’ve all experienced waiters who are too over the top, get a bit too carried away. At the same time, you want there to be a slight sense of theatre: you want someone to put on a bit of a performance.

When I’m on tour, I’ll usually go out for a good lunch. I find I do a much better show if I’ve had a lovely day.

I always feel like I’m Escoffier in the kitchen, but in truth, it doesn’t always turn out like that.

Gardening seems so good for the soul. It sounds a little mawkish but my dad always liked growing vegetables, and when he died I thought that it would be a nice thing to have my own veg patch. I wasn’t given a chance to sit with the grief, if that makes sense. A lot of people go through similar things: you’re sad, but you’re not immediately sad. But there’s long-term grief, and I thought, I’ll handle that by planting a vegetable patch because that’s what Dad used to do. He liked to plant runner beans and potatoes and sometimes he’d do radishes.

I do some drunk gardening. I planted one bed and it’ll be a surprise whatever comes up there. I think it’s cucumbers.

My favourite things

A Manhattan. I tried it first when I was in my early 20s and thought it was absolutely disgusting. But my tastes have changed.

Place to eat
Prima Donnas in West Wickham, which is the restaurant where I used to work. We’ve always gone there for celebrations. It’s always really fabulous.

Dish to make
Macaroni cheese. Mine has lots of cream and any cheese you’ve got knocking around and a little bit of bacon. I like to bash up a Ritz cracker and put that on top with some quince jam.

Too Much by Tom Allen is out now in paperback (Coronet, £10.99). He is currently touring his stand-up show Completely;


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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