John Campbell has had a career that most chefs would devil their own kidneys for. Over the years, his cooking has repeatedly wowed the Michelin men and the kitchens he has overseen (the Vineyard at Stockcross, Coworth Park) have bagged stars without seeming to strive for them. While other chefs might have used their gastro royalty status to court TV shows and sell branded pan sets, Campbell has quietly carried on cooking – and sharing his skills with others. In 2014 he opened The Woodspeen in Berkshire, a refreshingly laid-back restaurant and cookery school where the mood may be casual and convivial, but the flavours are serious stuff indeed. We dragged John away from the stove for five minutes to tell us about what tempts him into teaching…
How did you end up teaching cooking?
I think any good chef will want to share their culinary knowledge with their team, so for me it was a natural progression from there. It gives me immense pleasure watching someone learn to cook, replicating a dish and enjoying the flavours and newfound skill. Cooking is a life skill and means a great deal to me.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Every aspect of my role has its challenges; as with most jobs, getting the balance right between the non-cooking aspect and getting to the stove… I know when I need to be cooking; my creativity starts running on overdrive.
…and the best?
There of lots of aspects that are great but two really stand out: working with great, motivated people that strive to better themselves and become world-class; and, of course, beautiful ingredients. I really do have the best job in the world; when you’re working with produce that’s bang in season and at its peak taste, the excitement never diminishes.
Do you have a favourite course or topic?
Bread is one of my favourites; bread cookery is alchemy and a challenge to teach. You have to teach bread viscerally; it’s about technique and feel. Imparting this type of knowledge gets me focused and walking into the session with a little excited anxiousness to inspire all 10 guests to bake great bread.
What do you think is the trickiest technique that you teach in your classes?
Timing; it’s all in the timing when cooking. Cooking should be effortless, like a ballet – this is hard to teach in a class. Rolling pastry thin comes a close second. To achieve a perfectly lined pastry ring requires the cook to apply speed, be mindful of the temperature of the surface and room at all times, and demonstrate lightness of touch – all in less than two minutes.
How would you describe the atmosphere in the school kitchen?
Super relaxed, the team and I create a confident vibe in the school. This rubs off on the guests and they feel inspired to learn and create.
What do you think makes the Woodspeen Cookery School stand out?
The school overlooks the kitchen garden and provides a great framed picture of wonderful ingredients to inspire the teaching. Picking your own vegetables five minutes before you cook is the essence of cooking. The teaching team sets us apart from most schools, too. The three most senior chefs from the Woodspeen restaurant team help me teach and have all led kitchens at two-Michelin star level – and they are cool guys too!
Do you think some people are just bad cooks, or can everyone be saved?We can teach anyone to cook; it’s all in the mindset. First comes the inspiration – show them what they can achieve then coach them through to the goal. The ones that say they can’t cook usually turn out to be very good.
Be honest: are there any ingredients that you don’t actually like?
No, I like everything; there’s not much I don’t like to eat.
How often do you introduce new classes, and how do you decide what to teach?
Every six months we refresh the courses; the influences range from current trends or parts of other courses that have particularly inspired the guests.
Three desert-island dishes?
Cured fish (I could live on the Woodspeen’s organic salmon or sushi); really nice steak and the classic crème brulée – the simplicity of vanilla cream and a caramelised sugar top is timeless.