Learning chef skills from the masters - guide to Herts cookery schools
PUBLISHED: 12:42 22 August 2013 | UPDATED: 12:49 22 August 2013
Inspired by TV shows, the increased availability of fine produce and a growing antipathy toward mass-produced food, cookery schools are on the rise. Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne talks to five top Hertfordshire chefs about changing attitudes and the knowledge they are handing on
Dubbed the nation’s favourite French chef after appearances on Hells Kitchen and Britain’s Best Chef, Jean-Christophe Novelli runs the Novelli Academy at Crouchmoor Farm in Tea Green, where he lives with his wife and his two youngest children.
He believes the increased interest in cooking stems from more than just the proliferation of celebrity cooks.
‘I think it is more to do with the availability of a wider range of produce from around the world in supermarkets,’ he says. ‘People travel, eat interesting foods and want to try them at home.’
He believes cookery schools can broaden people’s understanding not only of how to cook but also of the value of proper ingredients.
‘I like a wide range of food from across the world but the health aspect is most important for me,’ the 52-year-old says. ‘It is a matter of cutting down on salt and saturated fats and this is something I try to show in my academy.
‘I hope people leave having learnt that healthy eating is not just about boiled vegetables but that fantastic results can be achieved using herbs, spices and quality cookware without sacrificing flavours, textures and aromas. Most of all, I hope they think they had fun.’
Like most of the schools’ principals, Jean-Christophe backs local suppliers - including the P E Meade farm shop at Wilstone near Tring, a source of fuel for the academy’s new wood-burning bread oven.
Courses at the academy range from A Taste of Tuscany from £195 to a Novelli Masterclass from £695.
For Kumud Gandhi, director of the Cooking Academy in Rickmansworth, TV’s fascination with the kitchen is boosting interest in good food, but she adds, ‘the British public is still not cooking as much as we would like, as sales of ready meals are increasing’. However, she believes people are starting to understand ready meals are neither satisfying nor cheap and are returning to the kitchen in a bid to save money and eat better.
‘Our experience is people today lack confidence in their ability but once they get over that they are encouraged to cook more,’ Kumud says. ‘Therefore we specialise in a broad range of courses for our customers to choose, particularly areas such as fish, nutritional cookery and classes for teenagers – young people about to head for uni who suddenly realise they don’t know how to feed themselves.’
Kumud’s sessions run from mainstream British and European dishes to Thai, Vietnamese and Mid-Eastern skills, exploring in each case not only the mechanics of a recipe but the nutritional and health value of the ingredients. Each class also explores the use of spices in conjunction with the recipe.
Kumud sources her ingredients through local suppliers, including Catch of the Day in Chorleywood for fish, butcher Chris Blake in Rickmansworth for meat, and Marks, also in Rickmansworth, for fruit and veg.
Classes at the academy are from £99 for a half day and from £199 for a full day, with a maximum of six people per class.
Roselyne Masselin of La Cuisine Imaginaire in St Albans brings an expert French approach to vegetarian eating to her classes. Raised on a dairy farm in Normandy, she came to England at the age of 20, established herself as an expert in the area of vegetarian cookery and became principal tutor and then consultant for the Vegetarian Society UK.
Her classes are small, usually five or six strong, with subjects later this year ranging from food for friends (October 13), warming autumn suppers (October 17), Italian breads and pizzas (October 26) and Christmas cookery (November 23).
‘The TV cookery shows and celebrity chef cult have awakened more interest in food generally but produced a dilemma,’ she says. ‘People are increasingly looking for the perfect diet but they want something exciting too – and healthy.’
Her answer unsurprisingly is the vegetarian approach. ‘There is a growing awareness of the link between food and health and with the emphasis in my classes on organic produce, people are finding it suits them.
‘La Cuisine Imaginaire offers hands-on courses for both cookery enthusiasts and those who want to try a greener way of cooking. We don’t use meat or fish but we do have lots of new ingredients which we teach people to use to create balanced and innovative meals.’
Favourite suppliers include Buongiorno Italia deli in St Albans, while shops such as the Madina General Stores in Fleetville are useful for cous-cous and the like.
Roselyne runs day and evening courses costing from £35 to £75.
Karen Bretts, of the How2boilwater.com school in Berkhamsted, says TV cooking programmes are a two-edged sword: ‘We all enjoy watching so-called ‘food porn’ but clients tell us many of the dishes are too complex or expensive for the average person. Because we teach people how to make a dish themselves and not just demonstrate it, they come away with the confidence that they can make great-tasting food.
‘We’ve just had two men who had both had health scares but whose wives bought only ready meals, so they decided they would cook and just wanted to know how to make a good roast and tasty shepherd’s pie.’
H2BW courses are generally for smaller groups so Karen and her team can give guests the personal attention she says is sometimes missing elsewhere, ‘One customer said she enjoyed a particular Marks and Spencer dish so we cut a few more slices from the salmon we were using for the class and showed her how to do her own version.’
Local produce is used where possible, but Karen points out H2BW likes to show people it’s easy to cook and therefore customers also want to be able to buy ingredients from supermarkets ‘so they can actually do the recipes’.
The school runs a dozen courses for at least four and a maximum 12 people, featuring the likes of Thai, Indian, sushi and Mexican food or themes like Food that Rocks, Simple Suppers, Creative Canapes and Dinner Party Ideas. One-day courses average about £95 per person.
Hoops Hooper and Flip Woods launched their Main Ingredient cookery school at Potten End as an offshoot of a successful catering business. It’s a bespoke operation with classes, costing £85-£150 a head, open to a minimum of 10 and maximum of 18 free to choose what they want to do.
Says Hoops, ‘Generally, customers say they want a specific cuisine-orientated class in, say, Asian or Italian food.
‘A popular alternative is for guests to make dinner. We split groups into three parties and they prepare a starter, main and dessert. We have a beautiful dining room so when they finish in our professional kitchen, they go through and eat what they have prepared.’
The concept is easily adapted to team-building exercises, another offering from the school. As Hoops points out, ‘A shared cooking experience in the kitchen is a fun way for colleagues to get to know each other outside work, enhance interpersonal skills, have fun and take home better cooking skills.’ Other popular themes include street food, brasserie cuisine and half-term courses for children.
Like many of their contemporaries, Hoops and Flip use local suppliers where possible, including Godden’s family butcher in Chesham and Hoo’s Herd in Little Gaddesden for meat, and Sparshotts in St Albans for fruit and veg. In an unusual tie-up, they have also recruited the UK office of drinks giant Gonzalez Byass, based in Coopers Green, to co-host sherry-and-tapas classes, capitalising on growing popularity especially of the fino and solera varieties.
Our top tips for Herts cookery schools
The Novelli Academy
Crouchmoor Farm, Tea Green LU2 8PS UK
The Cooking Academy
Silverwood, London Road, Rickmansworth WD3 1JR
La Cuisine Imaginaire
Priory Road, St Albans
07855 398 788
How2boilwater.com (Karen Bretts)
2 Old Meadow Close, Berkhamsted HP4 3UG
Main Ingredient Cookery School
Unit 23 Boxted Farm, Berkhamsted Road, Potten End HP1 2SQ
Absolute Indian Cookery (Sheba Promod)
72 Puddingstone Drive, St Albans AL4 0GY
Authentic Indian cookery for Indian food lovers. Classes suitable for all abilities and ages.
CookCamp (Danine Irwin)
Cookery classes for children aged 8-14 during school holidays.
Little Cookies (Francesca Barbour)
Charles Morris Hall, Tyttenhanger Green, St Albans
Classes for pre-school children aged 3+ and a parent/carer to have fun with food together. First session free, then average £8.50 per session
Pattacakes Cookery School (Jane Todd & Sarah Cripps)
St Georges School, Sun Lane, Harpenden AL5 4TD
Cookery classes and parties for children aged from two and a half years, plus cookery coaching for older students and adults.
No. 7 Cooking Academy (Dennis Van Golberdinge)
7 High Street, Welwyn AL6 9EE
Tuition in advanced chef skills, how to have a dinner party, fish and seafood, Italian and Mediterranean cooking, £95 for four hours.
7-9 Church Street, Rickmansworth WD3 1BX
Breadmaking, chocolate, pastry, cakes and puddings. £30-£140.