By Derek Swan (@hungry_swan http://thehungryswan.blogspot.co.uk/)
I’ve been the fortunate recipient of vouchers to various cook schools across Scotland in recent years, all of which have been enjoyable but involving a bit of a trek from my home in Pittenweem. I hadn’t been aware of one right in the heart of Fife until being introduced to Jenny Thomson via the Crail Food Festival.
Jenny owns and runs Courses for Cooks from her family home at the edge of the Lomond hills. The classes are held in the kitchen of a former Victorian Manse, where small groups can take full-day or half-day classes across a range of cooking styles and cuisines, benefiting from Jenny’s 20 years’ experience as a profession Chef and Cook.
In advance of her appearance in the Chef’s Demo Theatre at this year’s Crail Food Festival, I had the chance to speak to Jenny about her background, motivations and, of course, about the classes.
D. How long has the cook school been running and how did you start out?
J. After training at Leith’s School of Food & Wine in London, I went on to work as a Private Cook, travelling around Scotland, France, Canada and the USA. After that, I ran the Butterchurn for 15 years, a farm shop, restaurant and craft centre promoting Scottish produce and located in West Fife. Courses for Cooks has been running for 2 years now.
D. From all your travels in your early days, what was your favourite location?
J. Probably France. I worked there at Chalets during Ski Season, so you got to get out for some skiing and prepare food for people who’d really built up an appetite! I’d really recommend it to anyone starting out in their food career.
D. How does the food you prepare now differ from that at the Butterchurn or during your time as a Private Cook?
J. No matter where you are, I think that most people are looking for good, home-cooked food made from fresh, local ingredients treated well. Over the years, some of the trends in cooking and access to ingredients may have changed, but the desire is the same. More recently, people have definitely become more interested in local produce and the economy of home cooking.
D. Who typically attends Courses for Cooks?
J. A wide range, really – students to older people. I think that there are more men than before showing an interest in cooking, maybe looking to take up a hobby in retirement. That could be the Paul Hollywood effect! There’s also an increase in much younger people, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, taking an interest in cooking.
D. And how do you think the wives of the retired gentlemen will take to their sudden interest in cooking?
J. I’m sure that they’ll welcome the help!
D. You’re very kind! And great to hear much younger people taking an interest too.
J. Yes – I think that the younger kids are now benefiting from the increased interest in recent years in cooking and availability of local produce
D. With that increase in interest, there’s also been an increase in the number of cook schools in Scotland – What differentiates Courses for Cooks?
J. We really focus on cooking from scratch and very seasonal cooking. For example, we’ll not just teach how to cook, but how to de-feather and joint a game bird in season. Also, with a maximum of four people in a class, everyone gets a lot of individual attention, working to their pace of learning to make sure everyone gets the most of their time.
D. You offer a wide range of cuisines and cooking styles at your classes. Do you have a cuisine or style of cooking that you’re most passionate about?
J. I like all cuisines, but am most interested in how the change of seasons influences what you cook and eat – from slow cooked curries in winter time to fish and seafood in spring and summer. And I try not to cook the same thing twice, always changing what I eat. Unless it’s practising a dish, which I may do several times over. Then I’ll get ‘not this again’ from the family!
D. They are lucky guinea pigs, I’m sure! What do you think is the most common skill gap that you come across?
J. It’s mainly pastry and cooking with eggs that people struggle with. For example, when it comes to poaching eggs, making soufflés or whisking egg whites to the correct stage, people get scared and make mistakes.
D. Can you give me a recipe to try that works with both? I’ll promise to share my results, whatever the outcome!
J. Yes, of course!
D. And one last thing – what one bit of advice would you give to any aspirational cook, young or old?
J. Never give up. Don’t get put off. Always keep trying.
Jenny Thomson will be appearing at the Chef’s Demos on the 15th June at the Crail Kirk Hall as part of the 2014 Crail Food Festival (http://www.crailfoodfest.co.uk/2014-events/) . Chef’s Demos run on both 14th and 15th June at 11:45 – 13:00 – 14:15 -15:30 in our 80-seat Chef’s Theatre.
Classes for Cooks run courses throughout the year – bookings can be made at http://www.coursesforcooks.com/article/5/courses
And here’s that recipe:
Leek Souffle Tart
Serves 4 – 5
6oz/175g plain flour
grind of black pepper
1 medium leeks – finely sliced
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp flour
2 eggs separated
1 tbsp lemon
1 tbsp parsley
1oz/30g grated parmesan cheese
50ml Greek yogurt, crème fraiche or double cream
- Make the pastry either in a food processor or by hand: combine the flour and butter until the mixture is like crumbs, add the black pepper and egg and bring together to form a ball of dough. Wrap in cling film and allow to rest for 20 min in the fridge.
- Set the oven to 200C/400F/gas6
- Roll the pastry out thinly and bake blind in the oven for 15 min or until the edges of the pastry begin to turn golden.
- Sweat the leeks in the olive oil until soft.
- Add the turmeric and flour and cook for a minute.
- Remove from the heat, add the milk and stir well to combine.
- Return the pan to the heat and bring gently to the boil to make a sauce.
- Remove the pan from the heat, allow to cool slightly and add the parmesan cheese, yogurt, parsley, lemon juice and salt and pepper.
- Add the egg yolks and stir to combine.
- Whip the egg whites to stiff peak and fold into the leek mixture.
- Turn the oven down to 180C/350F/gas5 and bake tart for 20 – 30 minutes until set, puffed up and golden brown.