Jessie Ware Dishes on Her Ultra-Charming Food Podcast 'Table Manners' & Her Next Dance-Inspired LP

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Courtesy of Table Manners
Jessie Ware and her mother Lennie in a promo pic for Table Manners.

The Table Manners host says her next album is "a record people can dance to or have sex to."

A plate of the fanciest pigs in a blanket you have ever seen -- pigs that come snuggled in a thin layer of salami underneath their buttery crusts, pigs that make Martha Stewart’s poppy seed-dusted variety look like underachievers -- has just arrived at a corner table in Sadelle’s, a Jewish deli-inspired restaurant in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.

And Jessie Ware, the British soul singer, is not sure what to make of it.

“That is a very different pig and blanket from how we do it in England!” Ware excitedly tells the waitress, who starts to explain the restaurant’s twist on the snack: Instead of using the traditional pork -- the pig in pig in a blanket -- they use a beef frankfurter. But it’s not the choice of meat that Ware can’t get over. In the U.K., a pig in a blanket is just a bacon-wrapped sausage. Eyeing the puff pastry, Ware jokes, “You’ve basically got an extra duvet.” The waitress seems genuinely thrilled by this transatlantic cultural exchange: Really? Oh wow! Excellent! After she leaves the table, Ware leans in close and whispers, “She loves her job, doesn’t she?”

So does Ware. Not her best-known occupation as a singer-songwriter -- though she loves that too, and is already far along with her fourth album, the follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed Glasshouse. About a year ago, Ware, 34, added culinary personality to her resume when she and her mother, Lennie, started Table Manners, a podcast devoted to food, family, and the art of conversation. On each episode, they invite a guest -- from musician pals like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith to chefs and food writers like Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigella Lawson -- over for a home-cooked meal and a chat. Food traditions, and the ways they vary across families, cultures and geography, is a frequent topic.

“I’m completely obsessed with people and their eating habits and what makes them tick,” Ware says. “I don’t think it gets boring, asking people what they had for lunch.”

The series, now in its fourth season with new episodes arriving each Wednesday, has all the warmth and charm of The Great British Bake Off but is endearingly rougher around the edges. Ware and her mother’s occasional quibbles will ring familiar to anyone who’s shared a kitchen with a loved one or struggled to project an air of calm perfection while hosting a dinner party. They also keep their recording setup minimal (“Literally just a mic here and a mic there”) to maintain the eavesdropping-like intimacy of conversation.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the pair from earning accolades -- this month, Table Manners won the New Voice award at the U.K.’s Audio Production Awards -- or making headlines on the BBC and Daily Mail alike. Earlier this year, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced on the podcast that he would seek re-election in 2020. More recently, pop singer Cheryl -- best known in the U.S. as the former partner of Liam Payne, but a superstar and tabloid fixture in her native England -- sat down for a rare, candid interview over Lennie’s key lime pie. Ware jokes that while she had to go through her phone contacts to book the podcast’s early guests, producing a new season now resembles a full-time job. On the day we meet up, Ware and her mother and a few other family members she’s recruited to help are in the middle of a week-long trip to New York to record a new batch of episodes. 

“There’s something really freeing about doing this podcast that you don’t get in music,” Ware says. “Music is my first love, but there’s something really exciting about this. The buzz that’s happening at the moment with it, it feels quite ludicrous. It’s a nice feeling -- it’s like we’re getting a reputation.”

Below, over a mid-afternoon meal of bagels and matzo ball soup, Ware tells Billboard about the podcast’s origins, working with her mother and the dance-inspired direction of her next album.

When did you become a foodie?

I don’t know about being a foodie, but I’ve always loved food. My mom used to talk about my toes curling [as a baby] when my food would come. I couldn’t speak, but they would wiggle because I was so happy that food was coming.

What kind of cook are you?

I can’t stand following recipes. I look at them for inspiration, and then I’ll modify them. If I don’t have two ingredients in the house, I’d rather make up [substitutes] than go to the shop and get them. My husband is the complete opposite -- I appreciate a good recipe when my husband cooks, because it really does taste lovely. Mine are works in progress. 

I think that’s common for a lot of people -- serving dishes with disclaimers.

I’ve had to learn to shut up when you’re serving it to someone who isn’t your family member. It’s really off-putting for them if you’re like, “I don’t think it’s working!” It’s so much better to just be quiet and fake it till you make it. I’m so quick to be critical of [what I cook]. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a perfectionist or if it’s hard to taste your own food. It always tastes better when someone else cooked it. 

I was just listening to your episode with Cheryl, and I was surprised at how much non-food ground you covered with her: How she co-parents her kid with Liam Payne, the way she answers her critics in the media. 

Yeah, that caused quite a -- well, not a stir, but it’s really been a game-changer for us. Cheryl didn’t do any interviews [to promote her new single]. The podcast -- every bit of the conversation -- made headlines, and all our tabloids, because people don’t hear her speak.

I mean, it was a legit Cheryl interview!

It was lovely to hear from fans like, “I haven’t heard a candid interview from her like this in years, she seemed so comfortable.” For her to be able to address the things that are talked about all the time in the paper, it was an absolute pleasure. I met up with her beforehand because she needed to suss me out, and I completely respect that. I was honest and said, “Listen, is there anything off limits?” And she said, “No, ask away.” So she trusted us. The reaction’s been quite hysterical. [Ware pulls out her phone.] My manager in London sent me a screengrab of the Daily Mail. I was like, "Jesus, slow news day? You’re making a headline of that?"

You studied journalism in school before pursuing music, right?

I wanted to make documentaries and talk to people, but I wasn’t a good enough writer. And I was impatient. I started working at a TV production company, and it just wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be. And I then I accidentally ended up being a singer, so it was short-lived. That’s why I think it was so satisfying doing this podcast -- it’s something that’s always interested me. 

Do you want the podcast to be this newsy going forward? To make headlines?

We did the podcast out of the pure pleasure of eating and being nosy. It was nice to ask the questions to somebody else. And bringing my mum in, I don’t think I realized how big a factor that would be -- how much that would add to it. I was using her at the beginning: “Mum, can you cook some nice meals? You can chip in if you want.” But it’s her show as well. She is the star! And I’m really happy about that. I’m proud of her. I thought that everyone that meets her would love her.

How is working with your mom?

We are incredible close, and we do laugh a lot. We’ve been living together for this week, and we don’t want to kill each other yet. Actually, I was away from her for like three hours and called her like, “Hi! What are you doing?” My manager’s just been recording the things we’ve said to each other. He finds it hysterical. She’s definitely quite a diva. 

Really? I don’t see that side on the podcast.

We edit it out. [Laughs]

Food is such a sensory experience. Why do you think Table Manners works just as a dinner party podcast?

It’s not about the food. That’s what we hear a lot, and that’s so lovely: “I feel like I’ve just snuck in on a dinner party, I’m the added fly on the wall guest.” I think if we made it visual, it would take away that intimacy and that freedom, where people would say more than they would on a TV show.

Do you have records you like to cook with?

I probably put on a podcast, but in my romantic head I listen to old jazz. I put on Billie Holiday, or Nat King Cole if it’s Christmas. Thank God for Spotify playlists and algorithms -- you start with Billie Holiday and then go to Gregory Porter and so on. [Cooking is] the only time that I feel like I fully relax, even though it really annoys my friends when I’m up in the kitchen. They’re like, “Jessie, are you okay, can we help?” And I’m like, “Fuck off, I enjoy chopping!” It’s so therapeutic. I don’t have to think about myself and my job and whether things are going okay or not.

What do you do when you’re not inspired? How do you get out of a cooking rut?

Sometimes I just go for my old favorites. Always experiment with eggs -- that’s the easiest when you’re in a cooking rut. Eggs are so versatile. You can always do a good egg. 

What about your go-to cookbooks?

[Yotam] Ottolenghi is a favorite. His recipes are quite time-consuming, but I think he’s excited a whole movement of people who will use [Middle Eastern ingredients]. I don’t follow his recipes exactly, I take massive liberties.

Isn’t his new book, Ottolenghi Simple, all about easier, quicker recipes?

It’s not that fucking simple! I love him, but it should be called Simpler. It’s simple for Ottolenghi. But it’s really good. I’m also trying to be vegetarian, so I think Anna Jones is amazing. [Her recipes are] very seasonal. It’s so easy -- you go shopping and all the ingredients are in season. I buy cookbooks all the time but sometimes I use the Internet. I’ll input my four main ingredients to see what else people have done. What’s your go-to?

Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings. It made recipes I thought were intimidating -- gnocchi, Thai recipes, scallops -- seem accessible.

That’s the most important thing. I hope that’s what we bring in the podcast with the meals. They’re not supposed to be elitist, they’re not supposed to be hard. They’re supposed to ignite your enthusiasm and be accessible enough that you feel like you can do this at home.

Speaking of cravings -- you announced on Instagram last month that you and your husband are expecting your second child. Have you had any pregnancy cravings?

I had a craving for black pudding for a bit. Do you know what that is? It’s pig's blood. My iron is low, so I think that’s what that was. I’ve just been eating shitloads. And it doesn’t help that I’m doing a food podcast. I’m supposed to be gluten- and sugar-free for this pregnancy. I’m really trying to be strict. But it’s boring

Last month, you put out a song, “Overtime,” that marked a change in direction for you. It’s a vogue-worthy ‘90s-style house jam.

Florence [Welch] texted me, “Oh my God, ‘Overtime’ is amazing, it makes me want to go to a gay club and dance.” I’ve had so many lovely compliments about it. I moved labels [in the U.K.], and I knew the baby’s coming, so it felt like a way to give people a taste of what’s to come. But also, if people don’t like it, it really doesn’t matter -- I like it! I have that attitude at the moment. I feel really confident about the new music I’m doing. I don’t feel like I’m trying to impress or please anybody, I’m just making the music I feel like making. There’s something empowering about that.

“Overtime” must be the rare gay-club anthem built around a sports metaphor.

My God, I didn't even think about that! I’m just trying to write as much as filth as possible. Suggestive, innuendo, sex -- it’s just really fun. Because apart from this [Ware points at her baby bump] I have none of it. This whole new record is about fantasy and escapism. It’s for the fans who have been there for a start. It was funny seeing the comments from fans like, “At last! You’ve given us a groove, Jessie!” It’s a record people can dance to or have sex to, I hope.

What inspired the change?

I’m proud of everything I’ve done, but I needed some energy. I can sing ballads till the cows come home, but I also can do dance music, and it’s where I came from, so I just wanted to dip my toe back in that. I’ve been writing my record with Shun -- she’s fucking amazing, she’s one to watch -- and Danny Parker. They’ve been the most important figures in this record. I’ve got a kid that I need to pop out, and then I need to be a mum, so I’m trying to get the record as finished as possible before I have the baby. But this time next year you’ll be listening to new music.