Not many couples wrestle with the dilemma ‘have a child or open a cookery school?’, but then, not many couples are Autumn and James Palmer Rosser, owners of the Kent Cookery School just outside Ashford. The existence of a converted barn in a pretty patch of countryside in Mersham Le Hatch stands testament to how they answered that question, and the school that they opened in 2016 is very much their baby.
For the last two years, the pair – together with an ever-expanding brigade of specialist chef tutors – have been instilling a passion for cookery in the denizens of Kent and beyond, drawing on James’ 20-year career as a chef and their shared joie de vivre to offer a diverse – and packed – calendar of courses, covering everything from Asian street food to Weber barbecue skills.
Kent’s emphasis is very much on fun and flavour rather than fussiness and formality, and their courses are open and inclusive, allowing even the most disaster-prone cook to come away with a fistful of workable recipes and a touch of kitchen confidence.
We’re delighted to welcome them to the National Cookery School Guide (and very happy to say that National Cookery School Guide Gift Cards can be used to book classes), and to mark their inclusion, we asked Autumn and James to tell their school’s story…
How did you come to open a cookery school?
James Palmer Rosser We were in Mexico in June 2016 and Autumn asked me ‘What’s the five-year plan?’ It was a chicken-or-egg situation what was going to come first – children or business. We chose business! We thought about restaurants and outside catering, but wanted to find something that could give us a work/life balance in the future. I have been a chef for 20 years; my first job was in a seafood restaurant, washing up to buy a pair of Kickers. I loved the energy of the kitchen and knew this is where I wanted to be. Prior to owning the school, I was the executive chef for a large award-winning gastropub in Kent and Sussex. Autumn got her degree the year we got married in 2014 and worked for her family business in sales and marketing, so together we think we make a pretty good team – Autumn getting people through the door and me getting them to come back, essentially!
In terms of running the school, who does what?
Autumn Palmer Rosser As a small team of just the two of us and a part-time kitchen porter, we are kept on our toes! James runs quite a large percentage of our courses as he is well rounded and has a varied skill set, which means he also does all the hard graft that goes with keeping the school looking fabulously clean and shiny. He sources the ingredients for all of the classes from our various local suppliers, gaining new ones and maintaining fantastic relations with our existing ones. I run all of our marketing campaigns and social media platforms, which means you rarely see me without a phone in hand. I get to deal with our lovely customers on a daily basis, booking them in on classes, suggesting courses and dealing with other queries they might have. I also take care of the bookkeeping. Together we plan the courses and the calendar, come up with new ideas on how to expand, and we are constantly developing the courses and improving our offer.
What do you think makes the school stand out?
APR For us, it was so important to create a relaxed environment where people can come and learn, ask questions, and make mistakes. James is the perfect tutor for this he is patient, funny and highly knowledgeable. We found people were slightly apprehensive if they had never done anything like this before so it was so important to make them feel at home as soon as they walk in the door. It is a place where, if you have an interest in cooking, we have something that you will enjoy. You could be a complete novice and have never even peeled a potato and still come away with a great dish at the end. We are proud to use such high-quality local suppliers for the school and like to show and teach people how they can buy and cook seasonal produce – which essentially does the hard work for us. Although James is great and has worked in lots of different restaurants, he does not pretend to know everything – we have experts in their field who have the same teaching style and relaxed approach and they lead our other courses such as Asian and Indian cooking.
How many tutors do you have and what are their backgrounds?
APR We have seven tutors at the moment who all specialise in different fields. Belle Case was born in Thailand and spent 10 years living in China – she teaches all of our Asian classes, including Thai Street Food, Vietnamese Street Food and Sushi. Hari Ghotra has the largest online platform for Indian cooking, and we are very lucky to have her teaching the full-day Taste of India classes. James Piloni worked with James previously in one of his kitchens and is our pastry tutor, specialising in Bread, Pattisserie, Soufflés, and so on. Stefano is our authentic Italian tutor. He was born and raised in Italy and teaches Pasta Making, Italian Flavours and Taste of Italy – he has worked at some great cookery schools. Jo is our Bake-Off queen; she teaches some of our baking classes and is a lover of Mexican cuisine, having spent some time out there, so she also teaches our Mexican Street Food classes. We also have Faye who owns and runs Marvellous Marshmallows (which you can find in Fortnum & Mason) – she shares her secrets with our customers on the Sweet Treats class. And finally we have our newest addition, Derren, who previously developed and ran the HIT Chef Academy, teaching apprentices a wide range of subjects. He has been a chef for many years and travelled all over the world (but only to places ‘where the surf is good’). He will be teaching our Vegetarian and Vegan courses and Tastes of The Middle East.
How would you describe the atmosphere in the school kitchen?
APR The atmosphere is always relaxed and fun. People laughing, trying their food as they cook and having a nice cold beer or glass of wine while they cook is a typical scene in the kitchen. We want people to not only learn skills and take some knowledge away with them but also to be inspired by what they can achieve with a little bit of confidence, and we strive to give that feeling to everyone that walks through the door.
Where do you source your ingredients? Are there a lot of Kentish products in the kitchen?
APR We have long-standing relationships with all of our suppliers. It’s important to us to support small local businesses who pride themselves on quality. We use IA Harris for all of our seasonal fruit and vegetables; Haywards of Tonbridge for our high-quality meat (once a year, we are lucky enough to have Spencer the owner come and teach a butchery masterclass); Penshurst Fine Foods for our dry goods; and Sankey’s Fishmongers in Tunbridge Wells for our Fresh Fish.
We showcase the best of the Kentish larder on our seasonal Chef’s Table evenings, where 12 guests get to join us for canapés and prosecco, followed by a five-course tasting menu using seasonal produce from Kent. They get to join in with the theatre of the kitchen, as well as sit down and enjoy great food and wine.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
APR Since having the school we haven’t worked a day! It is a labour of love so nothing feels like it is too much hard work.
…and the best?
APR Although we do work incredibly long days/weeks sometimes, the school is ours and the best bit is to see people having fun and learning new skills while cooking, and then seeing them back again on a different course – it really does drive us.
Do you have a favourite course or topic that you teach?
APR James’ favourite is our signature class ‘The Kent Cookery Course’ because he gets to teach a variety of skills and it changes through the seasons. You get to cook a starter, main and dessert and some bread, using fresh produce straight from Kent’s larder. As a chef, James believes in letting the ingredients do the hard work – if you buy seasonal produce, you just have to treat it with some respect.
What do you think is the trickiest dish/technique that your teach in your classes?
APR The trickiest thing James has to do is to move people away from following recipes to the gram! (Pastry is exempt from this.) James teaches you to cook with your tastebuds and to use the seasons, so if the recipe says add 15 chillis but you don’t like too much heat, don’t add 15 chillis! He also uses the example of a sea-bass dish: if you are following the recipe and go to the fishmongers, and there is a ropey-looking bit of bass sat next to a beautiful-looking piece of bream, a vast majority will go for the bass because the recipe says so. Getting people out of this habit is tricky, but entirely doable once he explains why it is important and how much more fun and simple cooking becomes once you learn to cook like that.
How often do you introduce new classes, and how do you decide what to teach?
APR We try to add new classes as often as we can if we think there is a customer base for it we will give it a go. If it doesn’t work, at least we’ll have tried it. We look at food trends and tend to follow the seasons as much as we can. The time off we take over Christmas is spent developing classes/recipes and planning the year ahead.
Do you think some people are just bad cooks? Or can everyone be saved?
APR Absolutely everyone can be saved! If it is something you are passionate about then everyone can learn to cook. We try to inspire people to have the confidence to go home and try something new, and if it doesn’t work, who cares? You tried and, you never know, the next attempt might be a roaring success. If you keep trying and taking inspiration from the ingredients you are using, you are well on your way! We are both strong believers that you can never stop learning.
Are there any ingredients that you use in your classes that you don’t actually like yourself?
APR Personally I HATE beansprouts and coriander! So if James is demonstrating cooking with either of these he tends to leave them out, because he knows I’ll be eating it later! James has a love/hate relationship with oysters. He wants to love them so on our seafood courses he always tries one and it always ends up in the same place – the bin!
What are your three desert-island dishes?
APR Mine would be:
Crêpes – a never-ending supply!
Crab and avocado
Fresh fish, cooked any way
Sage and gouda breadcrumb lamb cutlets
A cheese board, with port and a cigar!
Image above shows (L-R): Autumn, James, school mascot Pudding, and kitchen porter Lizzy)
Find out more about Kent Cookery School here