In the ferociously competitive world of hospitality, cookery schools have become one of the latest must-have accessories, with every hotel worth its stars seeking to introduce an interactive gastronomic experience to its guest offering. Of course, when you open a cookery school, you can’t do things by halves – you’ve got to go above and beyond. You need a spacious, state-of the-art facility, a wide-ranging curriculum with something for all levels of ability and – most importantly – an experienced, top-flight chef at the helm.
Someone like, say, Andrew Dixon, the well-seasoned culinary wizard in charge of the newly opened Cookery School at the Grand, York. Over the course of his 30-year career, Andrew worked his way up through the kitchens of some of the highest-rated restaurants in the country and went on to open his own triple-AA-Rosette, multiple award-winner, The Café at Porlock Weir, before being tempted into teaching. So, when the five-star Northern powerhouse, The Grand, York, decided to spend a sizeable chunk of its £15-million upgrade kitty on a cookery school and realised it needed the safest pair of hands in the business to run it, it was Andrew who got the call…
We chatted to him about how he set up a cookery school from scratch…
Why did the Grand decide to open a cookery school?
The Grand has recently undergone a £15-million upgrade. This included 100 new bedrooms and created a 3,000sqm space at street level on George Hudson Street in York. After many hours of deliberation, the senior team from Splendid Hospitality agreed that a world-class cookery school would be a great addition to the city of York and the Grand hotel.
The school’s been open for a few months now – has anything surprised you so far?
Not at all – we have a truly amazing cook school and a wonderful environment for our guests to learn new skills. Every day is a new experience and it’s fantastic to see our guests embracing our vision of teaching some very serious cooking skills in a fun, relaxed and informative environment.
How big is the cookery school team, and who does what?
We are a very small team: myself as head tutor and Scott Papprill. We both are involved in the daily routine of running the cookery school: getting all the produce weighed out and ready for each class; baking the fresh scones and biscuits that we serve throughout the day; meeting and greeting our guests and delivering a fun-filled skills-packed session that enables people to relax, have fun, try something new and make friends while cooking like a professional chef. We are trying recruit a cookery school assistant to help us deal with what already looks like an exciting year ahead.
What sort of people attend classes?
We have a broad range of guests attending our classes. We have the foodie who already has a wide range of skills and is looking to enhance their knowledge. We have the cookery-school veteran who cooks for leisure and enjoys touring the cookery school scene to have new experiences. Then you have the complete novice who thinks they cannot cook at all – these are our favourite customers as we love to see the expressions on their faces when they create and eat restaurant-quality dishes, and realise that they can cook after all.
How did you end up teaching cooking?
I’ve worked in some of Britain’s finest restaurants and country-house hotels, as well as owning my own award-winning restaurant with rooms. I’ve always enjoyed sharing my knowledge with my colleagues and junior members of staff. I have a lot of experience running my own events – cookery demonstrations and masterclasses. I didn’t want to become a stale and washed out chef after my time in kitchens was done so I’ve always had a wish to share my enthusiasm and love for the craft that I have dedicated my whole life to. Six years ago, I started working with local colleges in the West Country to try to help the next generation of chefs coming through the system. Three years ago I found myself studying for my postgraduate degree in teaching, which I finished last summer and became a qualified lecturer, specialising in professional cookery. And the rest is history. I now find myself head tutor of a new million-pound cookery school in the heart of the beautiful city of York.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Teaching is not an easy job – chefs think that you get into teaching to have an easy life and quickly realise that you are working as hard as you do in a professional kitchen.
…and the best?
Every day is a new experience. Personally, I love to see the smiles on our customers’ faces when they are sitting in our dining room tasting the wonderful food they have produced from raw ingredients.
Do you have a favourite course or topic?
I love to teach people about fish. As a nation, we do not eat enough fish because people are scared and don’t really understand how easy it is to prepare and cook fish to produce tasty meals.
What do you think is the trickiest dish/technique that your teach in your classes?
Chocolate! It’s a real art to get the skill of tempering chocolate right. It needs patience and the willpower to not keep sticking your fingers into the melted chocolate to eat it before it’s ready.
What do you think makes the school stand out?
We have a world-class facility with some of most modern equipment in any cook school in the UK. It is also very rare to find two highly trained and motivated chefs like Scott and me, who have the drive and passion to make the Cookery School at the Grand a success.
Do you think some people are just bad cooks? Or can everyone be saved?
We believe that everyone can cook. It’s all about confidence, preparation, organisation and having fun. Have a cooking lesson at the Grand and you will depart with the confidence and determination to try new techniques.
Be honest now: are there any ingredients that you use in your classes that you don’t actually like?
No. How could I teach people to cook with ingredients I don’t like? It just doesn’t work!
How often do you introduce new classes, and how do you decide what to teach?
We have written more than 40 classes for the cookery school, which are available for guests to book. We are trying to gauge what is popular and what is not. Once we have a clear understanding about what our customers want, we will introduce new classes. We are currently testing vegan, vegetarian and Indian recipes that will be fantastic to introduce. We have also introduced classes with guest chefs which are proving popular too. We are also introducing a monthly chef’s table/supper club with guests so watch this space….
What are your three desert-island dishes?
Torched mackerel with apple slaw, beets, sea herbs, horseradish cream and herb oil
Diver-caught scallops, artichokes, cep mushrooms and lemon verbena sauce
A nice selection of British farmhouse cheeses with a bottle of ruby port