Behind the scenes at the Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 May 2017
Don't know the difference between a dessert spoon and a tablespoon? There is hope for us all, as Jeannie Swales discovers.
It seems confidence in the kitchen can be a little thin on the ground these days. We’re bombarded on a daily basis with aspirational TV cookery programmes which to be honest can leave the best of us feeling a tad inadequate. And there can be only further doubt in our culinary ability generally as fewer schools these days teach domestic science and grandparents would rather be on a cruise than at the stove sharing secret family recipes.
But there is hope. At the Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School, south west of Driffield in East Yorkshire, they’re aiming to boost your self belief in the kitchen with a series of courses ideal for all ages and abilities. But one of the most popular is, coincidently, Confidence in the Kitchen, a day-long event which teaches basic techniques such as safety-first knife skills, lump-free sauces and perfect pastry making.
‘People can easily feel that the kitchen isn’t their territory, and feel a bit left out,’ says course tutor Ali Bilton. ‘And people of a certain generation, particularly men, have always been looked after and have just never cooked – and now they feel they’d like to have a go.
‘Originally, we thought of it as a step up from our residential Duke of Edinburgh’s course – lots of kids have no cookery experience at all – but in the end it’s proved as popular with older people. A lot of them come along never having cooked at all, and they go away really inspired.
‘We want to show them that it’s not as difficult as it seems. I guide them through step by step, very slowly, and show them the processes – particularly things like learning how to chop: knife skills are really important. And they’ll learn terminology, so overall they feel more confident.’
On a typical day, a participant might make pea and rocket soup and pesto, a chicken, bacon and mushroom pie – including a sauce and quick flaky pastry from scratch – followed by a meringue roulade.
‘On our most recent confidence course, we had one chap who was really very worried and anxious, but left with his head held high. He sent us a lovely card saying it had given him “a wonderful confidence boost”.’ Ali says that often the only equipment used on the day is an electric whisk to beat the meringue into shape otherwise it’s just basic kitchen kit, nothing fancy at all.
Ali trained at new Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith’s cookery school, and has run her own catering businesses in Spain and Hong Kong but is still learning and passing on her new knowledge. She says people often come along on the Confidence in the Kitchen course thinking that experienced cooks don’t use recipes, just instinct.
But a few years ago, she did a ‘stage’ – a sort of unpaid internship – with the celebrated New Zealand chef Peter Gordon at his London restaurant The Providores. ‘I was amazed that all his chefs used recipe cards,’ she says. Using recipe cards is a way of ensuring consistent results. ‘Not for things like cooking a steak, obviously but for something like bread or mayonnaise,’ says Ali. ‘If you have a fantastic dish at a great restaurant, next time you go back, you would want it to taste just as good. It’s a lesson I pass on here.
‘I was once told by Mary Berry’s assistant that when Mary is writing a recipe, she imagines that she’s holding someone’s hand and guiding them through it – that’s what I try to do.’
Jane Witty from Howden regularly takes courses at the cookery school. Her favourite is Yorkshire Born and Bred which focuses on ingredients produced within the county. ‘The courses help you step up and do things that you might not have the confidence to try at home,’ she says. ‘It’s one thing reading about it in a book but another to have someone actually tell you you’re doing it right.’
Jane shares her new skills with her three-year-old son Connor – she shows me pictures on her phone of the youngster enthusiastically manhandling a pasta machine – and is looking forward to the day when he can tackle his first cookery course at the school.
Alison Johnson, business development manager at the cookery school, believes the key to its success is its responsiveness to what’s happening in the wider world. ‘We keep an eye on what’s going on when we develop our courses,’ she says. ‘Seasonality is always a big thing, for instance. Then there’s TV programmes like The Great British Bake Off – baking has never been so popular. And we believe that we’re the only cookery school in the region, if not in the country, to feature courses with the chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant.’