A class of its own
Tucked down a leafy road in west London lies Leiths School of Food and Wine – the crème de la crème of British cookery schools. BEVERLEY D’SILVA visited to find out how it inspires and educates to create the culinary lights of the future.
Set up in 1975 by Prue Leith, restaurateur, writer and Bake Off judge, and Caroline Waldegrave, Leiths School of Food and Wine quickly gained worldwide recognition and a reputation for ‘rigorous, outstanding culinary education’. A long line of culinary stars have trained there – such as TV chefs Lorraine Pascale and Gizzi Erskine, Matt Tebbutt of Saturday Kitchen, and food writers Diana Henry and Xanthe Clay. It’s even coached royalty: the Duchess of Cambridge took a two-week cooking course here in 2014.
Prue sold her interest in 1994, and ownership went to Caroline and Christopher Bland, and today Leiths is as prestigious as ever, with graduates going on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants or become leaders in the culinary field.
A typical day at the school could see staff planning courses, interviewing future students, setting up placements, and dealing with queries for corporate events and meetings with external partners. And that’s not including the teaching, which involves practical demonstrations and hands-on cooking sessions, learning everything from basic up to advanced cooking skills, menu writing or pairing food and wine. And judging by the delicious smells wafting around the whole establishment, this is food to tempt even the most jaded palate.
What’s in store?
First thing every morning, Leiths receives deliveries from its suppliers – a huge amount of dairy, vegetables and meat. It is the job of Nick Moloney, the storeroom chef, to store them and divide them up according to the classes for diploma students that day. Nick, who himself graduated from the school four years ago, also organises the ingredients needed for the Evening Essential and Cooking with Confidence courses. Once that’s done, he prepares as much as he can for the next day’s classes. “You need to be super organised to run the storeroom so you never run out of stock and always know where everything is at a moment’s notice,” he says.
Casting for Chefs
As managing director, one of Camilla Schneideman’s responsibilities is to interview potential students for the diploma course. “We are very thorough when we talk it through because it’s a hard-core professional course and a seriously big commitment,” she explains. She also works with schools. “We teach young people to cook, and understand what healthy, decent food is.” Camilla is conscious of the day that students will leave and go into the real world of food, so the school helps to arrange internships at places such as Rick Stein’s in Padstow, the Soho House Group andSaturday Kitchen, where students have prepared food for the show.
Ahead of the game
Every class and course is meticulously planned and Jo Hynes, the operations and events manager, is tasked with keeping ahead of food trends so Leiths can meet the demand for what a chef needs to know. A whizz with creative ideas and balancing costings, Jo also arranges regular trips to local markets and work-experience placements at restaurants. “On a location visit like Billingsgate Market we get there at 6am, so they can see the fish coming in, and meet the traders,” Jo explains.
This morning, diploma students are perfecting their pastry skills and creating seafood feuilleté with beurre blanc, cooked to perfection under the calm tutelage of Mark Williams. Classes start at 9am and 16 students are all hard at work in the kitchen, yet the room feels quiet, cool and calm – no Hell’s Kitchen atmosphere here! “That’s because we make sure we create an environment that helps students to learn to the best of their ability,” Mark explains.
Takes all sorts
As well as the diploma, Mark teaches enthusiast courses – the school’s amateur courses for people who love cooking but don’t necessarily want to cook at a professional level – and the Evening Essential, a course aimed at those with day jobs, spread across ten weeks of evenings and Saturdays. Many participants dream of opening a restaurant, writing a food blog, or doing recipe testing. “Some want to run a pop-up restaurant in their home so they can start small,” he says. “We’ve also had a housekeeper sent to improve their culinary skills and a keen volunteer from a large food recycling charity.”
Planning and preparation
After starting in the storeroom 13 years ago, Emma Hayford has moved to the demonstration rooms. “I assist the teachers and make sure everything they need for a demo – ingredients, equipment – is in the room and ready to go,” she explains. “You learn something new every day, even with the same teachers, doing the same skills or dishes,” she adds. “What I love is if something doesn’t go to plan at the start of the day, we can help sort it out so that by the end everything has turned out fine and there’s a smile on each of the teachers’ and students’ faces.”
A love of learning
Leiths professional courses are ideal for those wishing to pursue a culinary career. Current Diploma student, India Gilbey, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of some of the school’s famous alumni. “It’s hard work but the teachers and the other students are all so supportive,” she enthuses.
A welcome break
Around 12.30pm, Nick becomes one of the most popular members of staff as, while classes have been taught, he’s been cooking the staff lunch. “I look at the left- over ingredients and create a dish with them such as a vegetable ragout or curry, depending on what I have. It’s inventing on the spot and hugely satisfying!”
Spick and span
After each class, the students must wash up and clear their workspaces. Hygiene is an important part of being a professional and pans and work surfaces need to be spotless, with food properly stored. Students often eat what they’ve cooked, or leftovers are taken to the staffroom or distributed to local charities – nothing is wasted.
Tricks of the trade
The afternoon session for advanced students involves perfecting knife skills while creating a ballotine of chicken and is taught by David Gee, one of ten full-time teaching staff. “We take 96 students a year, and teach them everything they need to know, from boiling eggs and chopping onions to making laminated layered pastries. Besides traditional techniques such as curing, we cover modern restaurant techniques such as sous-vide cookery which uses water baths and flat-pack machines,” he explains, adding that his own training started at age 13, “washing up in a cafe for a bit of cash”, and went on to include a hospitality management degree. Off duty, however, he says he prefers to cook simple, healthy foods packed with loads of flavour.
Mastering knife skills is absolutely essential for budding chefs and it takes practice. Learning to chop, slice, mince and dice food quickly and safely is key, as is knowing which knife to use and when. “Mastering knife skills takes a lot of practice, and one of the most important things to remember is to hold the knife correctly, as if you are shaking a good friend’s hand: firmly, but comfortably,” David says.
Fun with food
“We are often approached by companies who want to hire our kitchens for a summer treat or recipe testing for a day,” says corporate events coordinator Rosie I’Anson, who started her career cooking for hunting lodges in her native Scotland. “Now I find I might be organising a Bake Off- style competition for a company with judges to choose the best team. Some get so competitive, and at one event, an executive came in wearing chef whites. He meant business!” A big perk of the job for her is the end-of-week share- out of leftover food, as is learning. “Working here is great – there is so much knowledge about food in every part of the building to absorb.”