Clare Mackintosh: Daylesford Chef School
PUBLISHED: 10:52 01 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:16 01 February 2017
Our columnist Clare Mackintosh takes some expert guidance on how to turn home cooking from a chore to a pleasure
I have always been slightly suspicious of people who enjoy cooking. Eating, yes, but the actual cooking process? All that wondering what to make, cutting vegetables up into tiny pieces, piling pans in the sink, and then serving one’s efforts up to an army of suspicious infants, only to be told that it’s “alright, I suppose, but are there any fish fingers?” In my experience, fans of cooking tend to have a very part-time approach to catering; after all, it’s easy to love cooking when you can spend all Sunday faffing about with your honey-glazed pork and leave someone else to do the washing up.
The blurb for Daylesford’s Chef School struck a chord: “This course is ideal for the home cook wishing to raise their cookery skills to another level.” A home cook. That was me. Responsible – in the main – for feeding a family of five. Mindful of budget, anxious about nutrition, and lacking in confidence. Could a little knowledge improve my cooking? Could it turn cooking from a chore to a pleasure?
Turns out, it could.
Spread over six evenings, the weekly structure of Chef School is part of its brilliance. Every Tuesday night we students gathered in the beautiful Daylesford kitchen, donning our dark blue aprons as we caught up with each other’s weeks. Gossip over new jobs, house moves, and how did you get on with the tarte tatin? meant the course was as sociable as it was informative. A glass of wine as we pored over that evening’s recipes, and we were off. Daylesford’s Head Tutor, Steve Brown, is keen to emphasise that the course is “principle led, not recipe led”; and although we went away from each session with instructions for another three dishes, the teaching was always about how the ingredients went together, what other flavours might work, what you might substitute if you didn’t have those particular herbs.
We learned how to make different types of stock (a single sip will convince you it’s worth the effort) and how to turn that precious liquor into gravy or jus. We mastered a chocolate ganache, and learned what to do when it goes wrong. We made starters, mains, side dishes and desserts, all the while scribbling feverishly in our Chef School folders. We ate the resulting meals (with more wine) on high stools around the marble island in the centre of the kitchen, as we watched Steve – or tutor James Hearfield – demonstrate our next course.
The two chefs share a common passion for good quality, organic ingredients. James started in the industry at 16, and Steve has cooked all across Europe, including running a restaurant in the Dordogne, where his produce came daily from local suppliers. “The quality of the ingredients is paramount to creating wonderful food,” he tells me. “It’s difficult to make good ingredients taste bad, and it’s impossible to make bad ingredients taste good.” The produce given to us each week – carefully measured out by the ever-cheerful Phoebe – was green and lush and plump in all the right places, and the results… extraordinary. A simple raw vegetable slaw with a Thai dressing blew my mind; the accompanying chicken schnitzel was mouth-wateringly delicious. We roasted lamb so exquisite the room fell silent but for a collective murmuring of appreciation, and made rum ice-cream to go with Lady Bamford’s family recipe for coffee jelly.
Imagine going to a top restaurant every Tuesday evening for six weeks, and enjoying a three-course meal, fine wines, and the company of like-minded, interesting, funny people. Then imagine you cooked that meal yourself. You really are that good. Beats staying at home with a frozen lasagne, watching Eastenders, doesn’t it?
But none of this is the best thing about Chef School. The best thing is that since I ‘graduated’ I have made every single recipe at home, in my own kitchen, with just as delicious results as in the Daylesford kitchen. The children are grateful, my husband amazed, the butcher delighted. I have eschewed supermarket meat in favour of succulent organic chickens, marbled slabs of beef, and endless bags of bones to turn into stock. I feel like a magician as I produce three family meals from a single chicken; my household budget unaffected by this upgrade to organic meat. Turns out good food goes a long way.
I’m not the only Chef School student to have changed their ways. Catherine Martin was given a one-day voucher for a Daylesford course, and decided to upgrade to the six-week Chef School. “I wanted to improve my confidence,” she explains, “and learn skills I could adapt for lots of different meals. Since the course I’ve stopped using stock cubes in favour of making my own stock, and I’m not apologising quite so much every time I present food to people!” Fellow student Philip Nixon agrees. He booked the course in an attempt to get out of a culinary rut (“There’s only so much spag bol you can cook”) and has since felt his confidence soar. “I can see a common thread of logic between recipes,” he says, “which makes me more confident to chop and change things.”
There’s nothing like tasting good food to give you an appetite for more, and my passion for cooking has been well and truly ignited. I’ve already got my eye on some of Daylesford’s other courses, and in the meantime I’m finessing my knife skills and building my new-found confidence. Oh, and enjoying a glass of wine as I cook. Well, if it’s good enough for Daylesford…
For more information visit the Daylesford website or call 01608 731620.