Iain Longhorn reminds us of the cooking classrooms we’ve been missing

The whole hospitality sector is gearing up to reopening now – it starts with the gardens and terraces on April 12. And in May interiors will open. And it won’t just be diners who are welcomed with open arms.

It will also be students. The cookery schools, many of which feed off the same kitchens as their neighbours, the dining halls, will also be opening up.  

We attended one of the last classes to be held before the pandemic hit. Here’s a reminder of what we’ve all been missing, and some interesting insights from Iain Longhorn, who runs the school at Hartnett Holder & Co Backstage, at Lime Wood in the New Forest.

Iain was previously operations manager and a shareholder of the Chesil Rectory in Winchester. He very clearly enjoys teaching, and he’s passionate about food and techniques.

Iain asked us all a killer question during a break – ‘What would be our last meal?’. Quite a poser!

In return, I asked Iain some questions of my own about cookery schools, and this is what he told me.

SD:      Where did the idea for the cookery school come from?

IL:        Angela and Luke used to hold masterclasses in the hotel kitchen a couple of times a month.  They were very well received as guests loved being ‘behind the scenes’ and part of the working kitchen but practically ten additions to a working kitchen was quite challenging! There was an underused room in the Cellar, next to our wine store that had a billiards table in it so It was decided to turn it into a cooking and dining space where the classes could be held.

SD:      What were the challenges and how where they overcome?

IL:        Nothing was too much of a challenge really.  Like anything new, you need to run it for a little while, iron out the kinks, see what the feedback is like and make the adjustments as you go.  It was a learning process for us all.  Sometimes you only learn by doing.  We’re five years in now and I really like to think we’ve found our groove with HH&Co Backstage.  People keep coming back for more so, that can only be a sign that we’re doing something right!

SD:      What do you think makes the school unique?

IL:        For me, it’s intimacy. It’s not a huge space so everyone gets to know me (and one another) quite quickly which promotes a good vibe in the room. Also it’s fully hands on.  Lots of cookery schools will pre prepare, weigh and chop ingredients for you to piece together so ultimately it feels like cooking by numbers or one of those meal kits you can have delivered to your house!  In my classes I’ll say, ‘here are the ingredients – get cracking!’ What’s the point if it’s all done for you?

hh backstage cookery school
The room has a very intimate feel.

SD:      How do you ensure the classes are fun… what elements do you introduce?

IL:        Luke (Holder) said to me when he gave me the cookery chef job that the courses should reflect ‘fun dining, not fine dining’. I guess that’s become my mantra.  Keep it simple and manageable, then it just becomes fun naturally. When people see how simple cooking can be and how easy it can be to make something delicious without getting flustered – it gives people a bit of a buzz. It also helps that I like people.  A lot of chefs feel more comfortable out of the way in the kitchen where they don’t have to speak to the general public!

SD:      I notice that you stress the informality of the courses, and the room itself is not professional, but rather, cosy. Why was it thought that that was important?

IL:        I don’t want the guests to feel they’re at ‘Boot Camp’ or are in training to become chefs. Ultimately the courses are supposed to be a fun day out.   The whole design of the courses is to reflect how cookery should be a pleasurable and cathartic experience, especially in your own home!  We were adamant that the school feels homely in that respect, so no stainless steel surfaces or ‘cheffy’ gadgetry.  All of the equipment is domestic and nothing like the kit we use in the restaurant kitchen.  I think our guests are more likely to try and recreate the food at home if they feel comfortable, the ingredients are accessible and the recipes are manageable. 

SD:      What advice would you give to a restaurant or caterer thinking of giving lessons?

IL:        Play to your strengths and keep it simple!

SD:      What is the market? Men? Children? What is the level… easy? Advanced? What are people looking for?

IL:        I would say mostly women although I’m seeing a trend in men (of a certain age)  perhaps newly retired or about to retire who are actively looking to fill their time with something new!  We also get a lot of young couples (early 20’s to mid 30’s).  I think sharing the cooking at home is far more common nowadays and men enjoy to cook.  All of my male non-chef friends are pretty handy in the kitchen!  I think it can be a creative outlet to cook.  Especially if you work in front of a computer all day.

“I’m seeing a trend in men…”

SD:      How do you choose your guest chefs?

IL:        That’s all down to Chef Angela.  She’s got a lot of mates in the cooking game!

8.         What is the most unusual ‘signature’/last meal you’ve heard of from a customer?

The ‘Last Supper’ or ‘Death Row Meal’ question comes up a lot when we sit down to lunch!  I find it fascinating.  I would say the most common answer is roast beef and all the trimmings but there have been some pretty weird ones.  One lady said that she would simply have a plate full of Ferero Rocher!  I kind of admired her for that.  Some people feel they have to make an over the top statement about how much of a ‘foodie’ they are so they’ll go crazy and say ‘fillet steak and foie gras with a side of lobster and shaved white truffle’.   Ferrero Rocher?  Why not!  Whatever makes you happy!

For a post on Iain Longhorn’s rhubarb and panna cotta, follow this link.

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