I’m currently down in Dartmoor, and, among many other foodie activities down here, I’ve taken the opportunity to follow a specialist course on sauces at the Ashburton Cookery School run by Rob Spencer – many posts to come on that! I also took the opportunity to talk to Darrin Hosegrove, Chef Director of the Ashburton Cookery School, about the Ashburton Chefs’ Academy – a private school for those wanting to pursue a career as a chef. Ashburton has won many awards – I wanted to find out the reason for its reputation for excellence, and its popularity with aspiring chefs.
DH: Ashburton is one of just three cookery schools in the UK offering courses for profession chefs (the other two are Leiths and White Pepper). So we’re not state funded. The local colleges get their government funding post graduation. That means that often they struggle to find the finance to buy necessary ingredients.
All our students pay (although there are Deko loans and a few bursaries to help). I think we’ve been helped by the introduction of student fees. Students will learn more on our 16 weeks Culinary Arts course, than someone who goes on a two to three year catering college course. That’s because we’re a seven day a week business – we only close on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year and teaching is from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm daily – we have a commercial slant, we think it’s important to replicate the working practices of the industry.
SD: Who tends to come on the courses?
DH: On the Diploma in Patisserie the majority of students are female. These students are aiming to get jobs working in a team of ten in top hotels… the Ritz, the Savoy… they don’t want anything to do with a hot kitchen, they don’t need to know how to fillet a fish or cook a steak. Instead they will be constructing an elaborate croquembouche. These complicated and beautiful creations have to be exact, perfection is essential, and they require a bit more patience. On the other hand there is more time to serve – cakes and pastries can be made beforehand, they’re in the fridge ready to slice. There’s a different kinds of pressure here – disasters are usually disasters.
On the Diploma in Culinary Arts (a 16 week course, longer by two weeks than the pastry chefs’) students will learn to make a lemon tart or a crème brulée but the focus is on the hot kitchen. There’s more of an even gender split on this course – it’s about 60% men and 40% women. They all want a career in cooking, but they have a variety of aims. They can be anything from 18 to 60.
Laurence Henry (who won last year’s MasterChef competition) is a good example of the younger student. He comes from a medical family and originally planed to be a doctor, but decided to become a chef in his teens. He was 20 when he did the course here. He subsequently made some very astute career moves – time at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, then with Mark Jarvis and with Jason Atherton, and finally with Sat Bains.
But the mix on this course can be very diverse. You’d be surprised how many older people we have. We’ve had lawyers, mathematicians…. people running emergency call centres. These people want to start their own businesses – they aren’t going to start working at the Gavroche as a commis. Nor do they want to go to a college, and be one of a large group (we only have small groups at Ashburton) of school leavers.
We also get quite a number of overseas students – I think we benefit from Britain’s reputation for educational excellence…. I just hope that doesn’t change.
And as I see it, I am just as proud if we can enable a student to make a yearned-for career change and run a farm shop café as I am of the future celebrity chef.
SD: What is it like being a chef today?
DH: Being a chef is, and has always been, a lifestyle rather than simply a job. People need to expect it to be difficult. I always warn students that the qualification might get them the job, but it won’t keep you in the job. This is a profession which you need to really want to do passionately.
It’s all about being inventive and showing flair – that’s the problem with working for most of the chains – there is no freedom to express.
“It’s all about being inventive and showing flair – that’s the problem with working for most of the chains – there is no freedom to express.”
We interview all our students prior to acceptance to check this is the right course for them.
Some good news is that it’s now easier for the younger chefs to achieve higher positions. You used to have to be at least 40 before you made it to executive chef, you had to work your way up the chain. It’s all happened because the food’s got better. Now young chefs are driving themselves to learn about food in different cultures, and that knowledge is in demand.
Jamie Oliver has been a big influence in encouraging young men to come into the industry. They saw him, in his mid 20s, going down the stairs of his house on a motor bike, it was cool, in contrast for example, to Delia! In fact, I think Jamie has been instrumental in changing the attitude to cooking of men in general. I remember when I was a kid, I was one of just two boys who took the home economics class – all the others did metalwork, or woodwork. That’s changing now.
And conversely, whereas almost every head chef was a man, now there are many female head chefs.
SD: What is the most difficult skill to teach?
DH: It’s the plating. We use a variety of plates from the Churchill range. But the arrangement on the plate to one of the hardest things to teach to those who do not have a natural artistic flair. The food needs to look as if it has been thrown onto the plate… but with some sort of style.
The way food is arranged is also subject to the influence of fashion. The latest thing is to form the food into a small U-shape, with the rest of the plate having nothing on it at all.
It’s all about the WoW! factor; but ultimately the food has to taste fantastic.
SD: What are employers looking for now?
DH: They’re looking for highly motivated individuals with a willingness to learn. But they are also looking for those with a skill set which can be built on – they don’t want to have to teach everything. If you can fillet a sea bream, you’ll be at an advantage.
Most chefs will take on new staff on a probationary basis first, when they can show not just what they can do, but also their attitude. They need drive and determination. To be truly good at what you do there needs to be an element of sacrifice. They need to enjoy, to get a buzz, out of working hard against the clock. This will start to show within a day or so.
SD: How has the content of the courses developed?
DH: We’ve had to take a very serious look at vegan and vegetarian dishes, and incorporate more of those. I find there are spirals of change – now the emphasis is on lighter eating.
The days when everything was French are now gone, although British restaurants seem to have to do more to earn their Michelin stars – Raymond Blanc, for example, he must be one of the most inspirational chefs – why hasn’t he got this accolade? Mitsuhiro Araki has only just got his three stars. Sat Bains and Daniel Clifford still only have two. I think there are just as many unrecognised three star standard restaurants in the UK, as there are recognised ones.
“The days when everything was French are now gone, although British restaurants seem to have to do more to earn their Michelin stars – Raymond Blanc, for example, he must be one of the most inspirational chefs – why hasn’t he got this accolade?”
We may have benefited in this country from not having a clearly identified cuisine, when people come here they have no fixed ideas. The result is that ‘Modern British’ is a hotbed of all kinds of exciting fusion cooking. Supermarkets have exposed us to a wide variety of ingredients – birds eye chillis for example. We make sure our students are familiar with all these new ingredients – if they are sent off to the kitchen to find galangal, they should know what they are doing!
Obviously, we try to use seasonal produce in our classes. This can be challenging as our students need to be able to cook through the seasons – for example, a strawberry vacherin just won’t work with apples and pears.
SD: What are the challenges of running a chefs’ academy?
DH: We’ve got a team of a dozen experienced chefs, and strong admin backup. But we are accredited by the British Accreditation Council; by the Confederation of Tourism and Hospitality; and (for patisserie) by Innovative Awarding. This means inspections which can be demanding and time-consuming. So we have all the same pressures of the universities and colleges. All the other private cooking schools (aside from the two I mentioned at the beginning of this interview) are for home cooks only, and are not subject to the same rigorous inspections.
SD: Where did the idea for the luxury yacht course come from?
DH: Quite a few of those on our courses have gone on to cooking on a luxury yacht, they all know one another, and our reputation has spread by word of mouth. These luxury yacht courses have grown quite organically.
And in the meantime, there is a growing thirst among those already cooking on yachts to raise their game, to provide fine dining for their discerning guests. Stewards and stewardesses are training themselves in their downtime using YouTube and Google.
They are all looking for new ideas, inspirational ways of plating. Because they have a turnover of guests, they can just keep reproducing the same menu, but most want some fresh ideas. They also want techniques to help them work in a more crowded, less accessible space.
SD: What inspires you in your own cooking?
DH: I get inspiration from ingredients… a simple mackerel, a heritage carrot, the first asparagus stalk of the year… you can create great food with the simple.
I’m also inspired by international flavours, Thai and Malaysian for example.
And I’m inspired by industry leaders – you watch Raymond Blanc on the telly and you see his passion. And I’m also inspired by local chefs running their own independent restaurants: Michael Caines, Paul Ainsworth, Nathan Outlaw, Simon Hulstone. All these independent restaurants need celebrating, they are putting everything on the line. The chains have overrun the market, and now they’re the only ones that can afford the rents.
For a different, but complementary view, on Darrin’s opinions of the big restaurant chains, go to this post where we interview chef, Giorgio Alessio.