A Table for Two: Bre Graham on the joy of cooking for (and with) those you love

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Households have evolved—not that you’d know it by looking at conventional cookbooks. Single-member households are the most common type in Canada, followed by couples without children. Yet recipes usually serve four, six or more; accommodating one or two people is far from the norm.

Making recipes with a smaller yield can be practical. They require fewer ingredients, less space to store leftovers, and provide fewer opportunities for food waste. Some high-yield recipes are not conducive to scale-down. And eating for days in one cooking session can be effective, but it’s not always the goal. Not to mention the fact that although many dishes improve with time, others taste best when freshly prepared.

Far from just a practical choice, however, cooking something special specifically for (or with) another person can be a joyous experience. Whether you’re a friend, family member, or romantic partner, an intimate meal is an opportunity to bond. As Australian-born, London-based food writer and editor Bre Graham illustrates in her cookbook debut, A table for twothese shared meals set the stage for some of life’s most beautiful moments.

“There’s nothing I love more than a really good friend who I haven’t seen in ages and just a night of talking and good wine and food at a distance,” says Graham. “They are those moments in life that enrich me.”

Now lifestyle editor at Courier Media, Graham temporarily retired from her magazine career before COVID hit. As someone who has always been passionate about food, she set out to learn about the industry from a different angle – working full-time for a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. During the day, she dealt with food shortages and logistical problems. At night she took pleasure in cooking for herself and her friend Joe.

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“(My reality was) the not-so-pretty side of food, shall we say. High visibility jackets, crates and boots and rotting fruit and vegetables a lot of the time. So then to be able to go home and actually be like, “Wow, I need a big escape” and find the beauty in all of those things and have that balance. And also, just the chaos of the world to create this real bubble at home and in the kitchen.

A Table for Two is the first cookbook from food author Bre Graham. Photo by DK

With Australia’s borders closed, Graham was unable to travel to see his family. Her best friend was an ocean away in New York. During the second lockdown in London, in the 35 square meter flat he shares with Joe, Graham channels his emotions into a weekly newsletter, Dishes To Delight, featuring an essay, recipe and menu suggestions.

When Graham launched her newsletter, she didn’t expect it would lead to a book. But it allowed her time and space to explore what was most important to her in cooking. “It really made me look at all the things I was missing, which was casual Tuesday dinners with my mom or being able to wake up in the same house as my best friend and make pancakes and share them.”

Graham started by asking his mother and friend to subscribe. In the first six months, her newsletter grew faster than she imagined possible. Now she hears from readers all over the world.

“I get weirdly emotional when I talk about my newsletter,” she says with a laugh. “I find it so rewarding to be able to write like this every week. And I write for work and in so many different other capacities, and it’s just not the same. I really wanted the book to feel like a continuation of that.”

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She divides the book into two parts – Easy to Impress and Simple to Delight – with essays and menus interspersed throughout. Some tap into Graham’s holiday memories, such as the accompanying recipes for seafood spaghetti and perfumed panna cotta, which evoke summers by the sea. Others, including Spiced Ginger Rhubarb Rice Pudding and an “Old School” Steak Dinner, are riffs on her favorite comfort foods and family traditions.

For the most part, the recipes serve two people. When she asks chefs to put in extra time or effort—in making a slow-cooked lamb and cinnamon stew that simmers for more than three hours, for example, or a shrink-wrapped chocolate cake (baked in a smaller than standard 6-inch pan)—the portions are big enough to enjoy more than once.

“I’m never going to tell you to make a cake that makes two slices,” says Graham. “But I’m also not going to tell you to make a cake that’s so big that a number 10 slice won’t taste great on Day 3.”

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Where leftovers are likely, Graham suggests ways to turn them into something new. If you have extra chocolate sauce after making her “best” banana split, you can turn it into truffles. Or, after you’ve had your fill of crudités, toss last night’s anchovy and walnut dip into hot pasta for lunch (as Graham did the day we spoke).

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A few recipes feature “blow-out ingredients,” like truffle tagliatelle—“I wanted people to feel like they could recreate that kind of restaurant specialty, a feel at home.” But overall, Graham considered attainability and affordability, repeating key ingredients throughout a book.

A sense of nostalgia, nostalgia and longing influenced Graham’s approach to cooking. She was born in Sydney and grew up in Singapore, where “food is a national obsession”. When she returned to Australia aged 13, she missed what she thought was home. Then, at 18, she moved to London, where she lived in “a whole new world” of fruits and vegetables and experienced the seasons in a different way. The greatest joy, however, remains England’s proximity to continental Europe. “I’ll never get over the thrill of Paris being two hours away by train. That’s never exciting.”

Graham writes about creating a table that invites people to linger long after the meal is over. The Spanish have a word that captures this idea, without a direct English translation: sobremesa – when the company and the conversation are so compelling, you don’t want the magic to be broken. Night turns to day and you’re still at the table.

“I think these are the happiest moments of my entire life. That after-dinner thing (where) you might be fighting over the last piece of cake left on the plate. I’m often the last person to leave a restaurant when the staff puts the chairs on top of the table. And you can create this at home the same way.

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