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Jessie and Lennie Ware
Photograph: Jess Hand

How Jessie and Lennie Ware became the first family of food

London popstar Jessie Ware has pivoted to podcaster and taken her mum Lennie along for the ride. As ‘Table Manners’ goes on tour, the duo tell Time Out their recipe for success

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

I’ve interviewed London-born popstar and podcaster Jessie Ware twice. On both occasions, butter has played a significant part.

This time around, we’re in a casino in Mayfair. Jessie’s mum Lennie is here too. The pair are posing with a suitcase full of shiny foil-wrapped blocks, pretending to be on the run with their buttery loot for our high-concept cover shoot.

‘Where does this rank on the list of weird things you’ve been asked to do?’ I ask them. ‘Pretty high,’ says Jessie.

Jessie and Lennie Ware
Photograph: Jess Hand

The Wares’ side hustle

The first time I talked to Jessie Ware was back in June 2020, in the seemingly neverending first lockdown. Butter was involved then because she showed me how to make brownies over Zoom using a recipe from a cookbook that she’d written with her mum. Jessie leaned into her laptop screen and bellowed instructions at me to whisk ‘the bloody eggs’ and ‘fucking give it some welly’. We even staged a virtual photoshoot in her back garden, with Jessie propping her laptop on her garden-waste container. Today, we agree, is way more fun (what isn’t, compared to 2020?).

As well as actually being in the same room together and not having to use a bin as a tripod, the major difference this time is that Jessie has brought her cookbook co-author mum with her. Lennie Ware has become a bit of a celebrity herself, thanks to the podcast the pair host together. Launched in 2017 and now in its thirteenth season, ‘Table Manners’ sees the mother-and-daughter duo invite celeb guests over for a home-cooked meal and a chat about family and food. It used to be called ‘Table Manners with Jessie Ware’; now, though, Lennie gets equal billing. Despite its huge popularity (it has 40 million listeners), the podcast is a side hustle for them both. Jessie is a proper popstar: in 2012, she released her debut album ‘Devotion’, which was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Her mum is a social worker, which she describes as her ‘normal job’.

Jessie’s last album, the disco-inspired ‘What’s Your Pleasure?’ released in 2020, got rave reviews and made loads of ‘albums of the year’ lists, but it’s ‘Table Manners’ that has given Jessie (and her mum) a whole new fanbase. Londoners have recognised Lennie’s voice on the tube. Talking to them as we sit around a craps table, it’s clear that the way they come across on the podcast is exactly how they are in real life. They contradict each other. They talk over each other. They bicker. And they’re a proper laugh. We’re talking about how much Jessie loved Lennie’s lasagne as a kid (‘I feel like every child’s parents’ lasagne is nostalgic to them’) when their lunch, hastily ordered on Deliveroo, arrives. I sit between them, passing around a pot of coleslaw. There’s been a mix-up with their food. 

‘Don’t eat mine!’ says Lennie.

‘I’m not! This is mine, Mum,’ says Jessie.

‘It isn’t!’

Eventually, they each get what they ordered, but then, more problems. Lennie declares hers ‘tasteless’. They swap again. There’s only one fork, which Jessie graciously gives to her mum. In return, Lennie asks: ‘Are you going to eat rice with your hands?’

Jessie and Lennie Ware
Photograph: Jess Hand

The ‘ferocious’ béchamel

It’s obvious from chatting to them that if you went round to the Wares for dinner, you would not get tasteless food or a shortage of cutlery. Jessie grew up in Clapham with her brother and sister. Lennie still lives there, while Jessie has ventured east to New Cross. Food was – and still is – a big deal in their family. Lennie always cooked for her kids (she and Jessie’s dad, John, a reporter for the BBC’s ‘Panorama’, got divorced when Jessie was ten). They’d have family dinners together every night. And they’d always set the table properly. ‘Mum cooked all the time,’ says Jessie. ‘It was just part of our day that we absolutely always ate dinner together.’ It wasn’t that Lennie particularly loved cooking, it was just that she was a single mum with three kids to feed, while holding down a full-time job. ‘I remember her whipping up a béchamel sauce with such ferocity,’ says Jessie. ‘She’s not a patient cook.’ Lennie chimes in: ‘I’m not, I’m very impatient.’ Jessie continues: ‘That’s how I learned to cook, from watching her do things like that. But not pleasurably, just kind of quite… irritated in the kitchen.’

Either way, there was always something bubbling away on the hob or roasting in the oven. ‘The smell of my mum’s cooking would hit you when you came through the door from school,’ says Jessie. Chicken casserole, Delia Smith’s slow-roasted peppers, shop-bought boil-in-the-bag cod with parsley sauce – these are the smells she remembers wafting out of the kitchen. Is there a dish that sums up her childhood? Jessie looks apologetically at her mum. ‘I’m really sorry, Mum, because you are such a great chef… but your slightly sloppy spaghetti bolognese sums it up for me.’ Lennie doesn’t miss a beat: ‘Jessie! It’s not sloppy any more! But that’s how my mum used to do it – she’d put balsamic vinegar in it. I thought she was so sophisticated. Half my friends didn’t even have spaghetti bolognese.’

Luckily, an overwet spag bol isn’t the only recipe that’s been passed down through the generations in their family. As anyone who’s ever listened to ‘Table Manners’ will know, Lennie’s chicken soup with matzo balls is legendary. The recipe came from her mum, who lived in Manchester and, after she met Lennie’s dad, converted to Judaism at 19 and lived to be 93. ‘She was more Jewish than Jewish!’ Lennie says.

Lennie has since cooked her chicken soup for the likes of Emilia Clarke, Mark Ronson and Dermot O’Leary, but when Jessie was growing up, it was just something her mum made when her kids needed something comforting. ‘It’s very nostalgic,’ says Jessie. ‘It was the kind of dish that Mum would make when we were poorly.’ She hasn’t exactly embraced making the family recipe herself, though. ‘I’m lazy, I don’t want to wait five hours for something to cook, so I’ve kind of bastardised it.’

Jessie and Lennie Ware
Photograph: Jess Hand

The ‘party house’

As well as being the antidote for a common cold and the ideal pandemic comfort food, Lennie’s chicken soup is one of the dishes that have connected Jessie to her Jewish roots. Lennie and her kids sometimes went to synagogue, but it wasn’t a strict Jewish upbringing (‘You try finding a kosher butcher in south London!’ says Lennie).

‘I was very proud to be Jewish,’ says Jessie. ‘I didn’t know everything about it. But the thing that I did know was the food. Whether that was the chopped and fried fish that my grandma would make us when we went to see her in Manchester, or bagels with smoked salmon, or the chopped liver that no other child would be eating but we would be lapping up with matzo. It was an extension of love; it was an offering; it was my childhood.’ Now she wants to pass on these traditions. ‘I’m starting to light the candles on a Friday night with the kids,’ she says. ‘We sing the song together – they love it.’ 

Get-togethers with friends and family were a huge thing when Jessie was growing up, and putting on a good spread was non-negotiable. They’d go all out, making elaborate canapés like tiny yorkshire puddings filled with beef and horseradish. ‘That’s a proper noughties dish, isn’t it?’ says Jessie. ‘Ours was the party house,’ says Lennie. ‘There were people here all the time.’ They’d have roasts every Sunday (‘My mum’s gravy is something to behold’) and Jessie and her siblings would invite friends over. For Jessie’s sixteenth birthday, instead of getting wasted on Bacardi Breezers with her mates, she held an afternoon tea. 

Jessie and Lennie Ware
Photograph: Jess Hand

London on toast

Their lives are totally rooted in London. Lennie brought up her kids here and now Jessie is doing the same. If they weren’t hosting at home, they’d often have family birthdays at a favourite south London Italian place, Buona Sera, on Northcote Road in Battersea. ‘We took my mum once,’ says Lennie. ‘The chef used to sing and she said: “He’s got a terrible voice!” and put her ear muffs on. She really showed us up.’ They also spent a lot of time at a local friend’s wine bar where the kids would sit at the bar, eating crinkly chips. If they ventured out of south London, they’d head to Mr Wongs in Chinatown where they’d load up the lazy susan (‘We’d order everything’). Could they ever imagine living somewhere besides London? ‘When Jessie says things like: “I think we’ll move down to Hastings”, I think: God, don’t ever do that!’ says Lennie. 

What are the joys of bringing up a family in a huge city? ‘I think we’re spoilt in London,’ says Jessie. Even though, at the moment, she feels she spends more time in her local park with her kids than in central London, she feels an affinity with the city. ‘I’m always so impressed and amazed by London,’ she says. ‘You know, walking along the South Bank from the aquarium to Tate Modern, it’s brilliant.’ She also recently took her kids to see ‘Frozen’, for afternoon tea (‘I think I enjoyed that more than them’) and to the ‘Van Gogh Experience’. ‘Even the baby liked it!’ says Lennie. 

Like all Londoners, they found it tough not being able to have these moments of togetherness during lockdown. ‘It was horrendous,’ says Lennie. ‘I thought I was going to die, I missed them so much.’ Jessie points out, though, that when she was temporarily staying at Lennie’s before that, it wasn’t… easy. ‘We were getting to the end of our tether of living together, Mum, let’s be honest,’ she says. Lennie concedes: ‘We’d had one falling out because Jessie’s not the tidiest person in the world. I think when you’re living with a parent, you kind of regress.’

They do argue a lot. Do they ever have proper rows? ‘Sometimes Mum pushes the playful bickering, if I’m honest,’ says Jessie. ‘But I allow her.’ What do they do to push each other’s buttons? ‘I’m messy,’ says Jessie. Lennie responds: ‘I’m bossy.’ Jessie starts to say that sometimes she’s not always considerate of her mum’s feelings and then laughs at how our chat has taken a bit of an intense turn. ‘Wow, this is like a couples’ therapy session.’

Anyone who listens to the podcast will have heard the dynamics of their relationship play out. During one memorable episode, their ‘playful bickering’ tipped over into a blazing row. The guest they lost their cool in front of? Sir Paul McCartney. ‘Screaming at each other in front of Paul McCartney was absolutely mortifying,’ says Jessie. Lennie nods in agreement. ‘I was really embarrassed about that.’ Luckily, Macca thought it was hilarious, leaning into the microphone and doing his own commentary: ‘Listeners, this is a little family dispute that’s going on here. I’m sorry, but these women are completely out of control.’

Even when they aren’t screaming at each other in front of musical royalty, ‘Table Manners’ is a lot of fun. They’ve cooked for celebs like Stanley Tucci, Kylie Minogue and Nigella Lawson. When they had Sadiq Khan on, Lennie asked if he was planning to run for re-election. He said yes, before realising he hadn’t officially announced it yet. Ed Sheeran came back for seconds, as did Ed Miliband. In fact, Lennie eventually had to turf out the former Labour leader from her home. She’s a diehard Man United fan and they were playing in the Europa League final that night. ‘I didn’t know he was going to be so fabulous,’ says Lennie. ‘I made him come at 6pm and I said “You’ve got to leave by 8pm.”’ Half an hour into the game, he was still there. ‘He said: “Can’t I stay and watch it?” I said: “No!”’

Now they’re taking their podcast on tour, doing live shows around the UK. They’ll be taking to the stage at the London Palladium, where the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones once performed. Presumably, with Jessie’s experience of playing to massive crowds, she can give her mum some tips to calm her nerves. On the flipside, what has Jessie learned from Lennie over the years? ‘Always wash a chicken,’ she says. Lennie points out that you’re not actually supposed to do that any more. Jessie thinks for a minute, looking up at the casino’s elaborate chandelier dangling above our heads. Drawing a blank, she turns to Lennie and asks: ‘What else have you taught me, Mum?’

‘I don’t know, darling,’ says Lennie. ‘Have I taught you anything?’ 

‘Yes, everything and nothing,’ says Jessie.

Lennie pauses, searching for her one golden rule. ‘Never under-cater,’ she says.

‘Table Manners with Jessie and Lennie Ware’ is at the London Palladium on May 8 and 9.

Styling: Laurel Hunter, assisted by Marialuisa Cosentino. Hair: Sophie Sugarman. Make-up: Rachel Singer Clark. Shot at Les Ambassadeurs Casino, Mayfair.

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