As convention has it, January is the month of self-improvement, when we give up our vices, finesse our bodies, and furnish our minds with new knowledge and skills. And the perfect way to achieve the latter (if not the first two) is by taking a cookery class.
So, you’ve decided to brush up your kitchen skills, but how do you decide what to learn and where to learn it? No two cookery schools are the same, and each one has a different approach, curriculum and atmosphere. The National Cookery School Guide team unsurprisingly spend a fair amount of time in teaching kitchens up and down the UK, so we understand quite how different the cookery-class experience can be. Within that in mind, here are a few things to consider before you part with your cash (or cookery school voucher, if you were lucky enough to bag one for Christmas).
1. Geography Let’s start with the obvious – you probably don’t want to schlep 80 miles to learn how to make a soufflé. The good news is that there’s almost certainly a cookery school close enough for a day trip (and if you live in London, you’ll probably find one in walking distance). Use the regional filter on our cookery school collection to find the schools nearest to where you live.
Of course, you might want to make the most of the experience and upgrade to a full-on overnight stay, in which case you might be prepared to roam a little further from home. Many schools, especially in more rural locations, have bedrooms or guest cottages on site – like Angela Gray’s Cookery School in the Brecon Beacons, Eckington Manor in Worcestershire, or any of the places featured in our round-up of boutique hotels with cookery schools.
2. Approach Would you prefer a more academic, technique-orientated class or a have-a-go and make-a-mess philosophy? If you’re after serious culinary credentials (maybe you’re thinking about a career change to the food industry; maybe you’d like to add another qualification to your CV), then you should consider a school with a strong professional focus, such as Leiths, Le Cordon Bleu or Tante Marie, all of which pride themselves on churning out qualified super-chefs to fill the UK restaurant industry. If you’d prefer just to pick up a few skills, have some fun, and keep it casual, then a school such as Lesley Waters, Malton Cookery School or Seasoned might be more your cup of stock.
3. Topic Of course, the most important decision is what you’re going to learn. Do you want to give your kitchen skills a general polish, maybe add a recipe or two to your repertoire? Great, most schools have a regular programme of broad-focused cookery classes aimed at giving the domestic cook an all-round level-up. Look out for classes called things like ‘Dinner Party Entertaining’, or beginner or intermediate courses with a generalist approach. On the other hand, you may be looking for something more specialist. Perhaps you’ve decided that 2019 is the year you’ll finally master dim sum? You might be keen to make your own sourdough, cure your own bacon or pull your own pork? Or maybe you’re in the middle of Veganuary and have picked up a taste for meat-free feasts? If there’s something specific you want to learn, it’s safe to assume there’s as school that specialises in it. Take a look at the course calendars to get a feel for the school’s forte. (At NCSG, our approach is always to pick something we’ve never done before or thought of trying – there’s no point in signing up to learn to cook the perfect steak if you’re already frying fillet every Friday).
4. Star power For many people, the name on the door can be a big draw – and there’s no denying there’s a certain frisson of excitement at learning to cook at the elbow at someone you’re used to seeing on the TV, or whose recipe books you’ve turned to time and time again. For foodies, cooking alongside Raymond Blanc or Rick Stein can be like getting up on stage and singing with Beyoncé. There are dozens of cookery schools with big-name chefs behind them across the UK. You’ll find James Martin in The Kitchen at Chewton Glen, Nick Nairn up in Edinburgh, Jean-Christophe Novelli in Hertfordshire, Rosemary Shrager in Tunbridge Wells and the foodie force of nature that is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage crew in Devon. Obviously, these big-name chefs don’t teach every class on the calendar, so if you’re set on studying with the stars, double check before you book – and be prepared to pay a bit more for the privilege. Also, just because a school doesn’t have a celebrity chef’s name on it doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer classes with famous faces. Many schools maintain a roster of top flight visiting tutors – Leiths and Lime Wood are particularly good for this.
5. Cost Finally, there’s the financials. Cookery classes typically range from one- or two-hour evening sessions costing around £50, to full-on all-day priced at £350 or more. If you go for a multi-day residential course, you can expect to fork out four figures and, if you decide to pack in your day job and secure a serious professional qualification, you don’t get much change from £20K. The cost of a class is generally determined by a various things – the length, cost of the ingredients, the celebrity status of the tutor, whether or not lunch and wine is included, whether you get an apron and a recipe book to take home, and so on. So if Raymond Blanc is teaching you to make venison wellington over a boozy weekend at Le Manor aux Quat’Saisons, it’s save to say you’ll be paying a prettier penny than if you’re whipping up a lunch-break arrabbiata at L’Atelier des Chefs.
On our directory pages, you’ll find profiles of the top 50 schools in the UK, with maps, course highlights, indicative prices a first-hand review of each one, and links to further info – everything you need to find the best cookery school for you.