Learning to cook is absolutely in vogue. From Cornwall to Scotland, New York to Marrakech, you can learn how to butcher and cook a deer, prepare a Chinese banquet or scour a souk to make a tagine. Produce Business UK examines what’s in it for fresh produce ahead of the anticipated development of a fresh produce academy at New Covent Garden Market in London
If the number of available TV programmes and the amount of foodie festivals springing up are anything to go by, it’s clear that the UK is a cookery-mad nation. From everyday easy cooks to masterchefs, and the odd amateur thrown in for comic value, we love watching people cook. But do our skill levels in the kitchen match up? In a word: no. We are fast becoming a nation of 'armchair chefs', with a ready meal on our laps, a fork in one hand and a remote in the other.
So, enter the phase of the cookery school for everyone and anyone. Whether it be from the comfort of your own kitchen with online guides, like Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube channel and food entrepreneurs Hari Ghotra, or back in the home economics classroom through high-end cookery schools like Leiths or L’Atelier de Chefs, people are signing up. They are also signing up their reluctant spouses, food-shy friends and whole offices too.
Many cookery schools or academies have set up shop to cater for this market. They are providing a service for individuals or groups that don’t want a professional certificate, but do want to learn and cook for themselves.
“People are busier now with their work and daily lives, and are less inclined to do a ‘big shop’ of a week,” explains Emily Benbow, who along with her husband, Jon, started up a laidback, yet instructive series of cookery classes from their home in London seven years ago. They now run the school Food at 52 in Old Street. “People have started shopping for their evening menu that day and are sick to death of ready meals.”
Jon and Emily believe that you don’t really learn anything from watching, but if you manage to develop the confidence to do it yourself, then you have that meal or set of skills for life. “We have a huge island table, where pupils have a work surface each and then we cook together and enjoy it with a bottle of wine or two afterwards,” says Jon.
“I’m self taught and I’m sharing that experience with others; it helps that things are said in layman terms. With a group class of 10, comprising those who have booked individually, as a couple or received it as a present, you’ll probably get six real foodies, who are confident and interested in cooking new things, then the remainder will be more intimidated or worried they will be judged. You need to give them your support without making them feel bottom of the class.”
Cookery School at Little Portland Street runs a little differently; offering more intensive courses that amount to six evenings over as many weeks, as well as day and evening courses.
“Cooking skills previously passed down through the generations are being lost,” says owner Rosalind Rathouse, who also owned a cookery school in South Africa in the late 1960s. “My main aims are to make cooking as accessible as possible to anyone with a desire to learn to cook, to demystify jargon and remove the daunting ‘cheffy’ aspects from it.”
The cookery school, which opened in 2004 and received a 3 Star Rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in 2014, has made a quite a name for itself, also taking on a large number of corporate events.
“We use the best possible ingredients – most of them organic – and cook them simply," says Rathouse. "Our ethos is reflected in the wonderful, simple food that we cook and our clients appreciate this. Many of the attendees eat out in the best restaurants yet they keep returning to Cookery School because they know that they are assured of a fun time resulting in an excellent meal served back to them by Cookery School staff along with good organic wines."
The role of fruit and veg
As with many cookery classes and academies throughout the UK, seasonal is now essential and fresh produce is a massive part of that movement.
Food at 52 has launched a series of Seasonal Suppers, starting in spring 2015, which consists of around four hours of tutoring at the big table, with mealtimes intertwined. "We are concentrating on the joy of cooking with seasonal produce," says Jon, who swapped a career as a kitchen interior designer to teach from the other side of the counter.
"There are lots of fruits and vegetables that people aren't familiar with. Green papaya, mango, sweet basil and globe artichoke, spring to mind. And then you get the more everyday things like aubergine that people love but aren't quite sure how to cook. We are lucky in having quite a few specialist greengrocers in the area, and our fish comes directly from Billingsgate Market."
Following in the footsteps of the long-established cookery school at Billingsgate, New Covent Garden Market (NCGM), which is currently undergoing a major redevelopment, is set to jump on the bandwagon by giving fresh produce the same prestige that a butchery or bakery cookery course would receive.
To be contained in the main building of the new development, the market authority plans to create a bespoke academy with a demonstration kitchen and work stations for professional training, consumer use and community use – with the main focus being fruit and veg.
"This would be a place where we could share the knowledge and expertise of the market with a wider audience," shares Helen Evans, director of business development and support for the Covent Garden Market Authority.
“We already run master classes and tutored tastings for chefs and students, but a purpose-built facility would enable us to open up to a wider audience and create a centre of excellence for fresh produce."
With the massive transportation and general commercialisation of NCGM's Nine Elms location, the vision of creating a new food quarter in London has never been so real. The addition of the new academy would turn the market into a place where you can buy, make, learn share and sell, all in one, for trade and consumers.
The next move for the authority will be to establish a number of strategic partnerships with academic institutions and catering colleges. “It could be that we work with a range of chefs who could have a residency for a period,” says Evans. “There is a massive potential in focusing on quality fresh ingredients. Technique is important, but understanding what to look for in products, when to buy and how to store is just as important."
What’s on trend
Culinary fashions come and go, but there are styles that are here to stay and trends on the way that can be incorporated into a fruit and veg cookery education.
“With the surge in cookery schools – good and bad – there is an enormous variety of classes from which consumers can choose," reflects Rathouse. “We find that those coming to Cookery School are keen on acquiring new skills, with baking being very popular at present.
“Television learning will create appeal for a large part of the population, but there will still be a place for good cookery teaching for those that want to learn specific skills and be taught by having teachers beside them.
“Hopefully cookery will be taught in schools again, thereby engendering interest in a new generation of cooks who will dictate what they would like to be taught. It will be very interesting to see where this leads."
How a Springtime class at Food at 52 unfolds
What: Mid Week Seasonal Suppers all day class
When: Sunday, March 22, 11am-4pm
Where: Food at 52, 96 Central Street, London, EV1V 8AJ
Overall impression: More like cookery therapy – the day-course was soft and gentle; starting off with a little seasonal talk at our individual stations on the big table in front of a farmhouse-style kitchen.
With all the ingredients laid out for the first dish – a spinach feta filo – we set about preparing our own filo parcels, whilst the demonstrator, Rachel, took us through various helpful cookery tips. No one, apart from a Greek woman on the course, had cooked with filo pastry before and many were happy with its quickness and flexibility for mid-week suppers, although maybe a little high on the calories for some.
Travelling across the culinary world, we learnt how to make a laksa, some spring vegetable pasta and Moroccan lamb koftas, which we ate for lunch. This was all a build up to making a perhaps more daunting and adventurous sea bream with salsa verde and potato and garlic galettes.
The group of around 12 tucked in to the dishes, swapped Twitter handles and drank quite a bit of wine, before making their way home with Tupperware boxes of food for their midweek lunches.
Do: Bring tupperware. You are told to before and you really do need it (I, of course, forgot).
Don't: Worry about anything else. It's relaxed and informal, and a great way to spend a Sunday.