A week, so sweet, so brief, so soon over; such was my experience on the Leiths School of Food and Wine Intermediate Cooking Skills course.
I had little idea exactly what to expect when I arrived at Leiths at 9:30 on the Monday morning the course started. It’s a long time since I’ve been in any kind of full time education so even this short stint of it was going to be quite different from the norm. I didn’t really know what would be expected of me; what does ‘intermediate’ mean anyway? I didn’t know if I’d be rusty, given that it was over 6 months since I’d done anything other than “cook” in the microwave. What if none of my bread rose, and all of my meringues floppy?
I needn’t have worried, as the five days I spent learning and cooking at the school was some of the most quietly pleasurable holiday time that I’ve ever had. As a short, early experiment in “would I be interested/would I enjoy more professional/deeper cooking experiences” it was a resounding success. Further experimentation required, but early signs are good. This may be a real thing!
Each day was organised into two halves, with the morning running 9:30 to 13:00 and the afternoon running 14:00 to 17:00. Half of each day was hands-on cooking in the kitchen with the other half watching some chefs demo and walkthrough various techniques and recipes.
The cooking part of each day was, obviously, in one of their large teaching kitchens. The class was split up into two groups of about 14 people each, with each group having two chefs and two dishwashers on hand. The ~3 hours usually had us following 3-4 recipes – regular dinners, sweet things, breads – and techniques – preparing meat or gutting fish. It was definitely like cooking in luxury, with no dishes to be washed and all of the ingredients measured and laid out for us before we tackled each recipe. We typically ended up with enough food for two dinners and various sundry other things like bread, desserts etc.
The demo time was done in a large teaching room where the front was a kitchen area and counter with us seated in something like a regular classroom. We had decent direct views of what the chefs were doing but if we ever struggled there were also two overhead video feeds that were focused on what was going on. They would typically run through 4-5 different things in their time. Everything they cooked they had us sampling (gorging on), which was easily enough to sustain me through the whole day; the bread day in particular was a very good time!
Leiths itself is about a 15-minute walk from Shepherd’s Bush tube stop so in total it was a much longer commute than I’m used to – about 75 minutes in total. The much later start of day meant that I still got quite a nice relative sleep-in compared to usual though! My routing was typically:
– leave with Erin around 7:30, arrive nearby before 9
– have a coffee and about 45 minutes reading
– go to class
– go for another coffee and a read from 13:00-14:00
– leave at 17:00 and back just after 18:00.
So as well as a really relaxing week of learning and cooking I also got quite a lot of sit-and-decompress time while reading in a really comfy coffee shop!
(A side-note about coffee shops; while in an ideal world I would love to frequent/patronise an independent shop with good coffee and a bit of personality, but unfortunately very few of them are set up very well for a relaxing read. Their chairs tend to be uncomfortable and rubbish. The chains, on the other hand, usually have at least some comfy couches and armchairs. If I’m wanting to read for an hour then there isn’t really a choice!)
At a high-level I feel like I learned quite a lot. Not so much from the specific recipes we cooked from – some of which I’ll post result pictures of at the end – but more from the interactive experience of discussing the progress of a preparation or a bake etc. with an experienced chef and having feedback on what to expect, what I could do differently, where technique needed to be different etc. I think I also (hopefully!) picked up quite a lot of tips and techniques from watching them do things as well, and just from some of the offhand comments they might make about why or how they’re doing something. Some of the demos in particular were excellent, where they deliberately allowed something to go wrong so that we’d be able to recognise the signs and in some cases be able to prevent or fix it in future. All good stuff, basically!
The course itself was reasonably expensive (details on the Leiths site if you’re interested!) but I actually think it was quite good value. I didn’t feel like they stinted on anything – how we were taught, the equipment and ingredients we were provided, the amount (and quality) of food we were cooking. Four dishwashers and four chefs were on hand for the kitchen time, two chefs and a dishwasher for the demo time. We were given their £30 ‘How To Cook’ bible at the start, and some other miscellaneous bits and bobs. All-in-all I felt like I got excellent value for money for what I took out of it at the end!
This was part one of their “Intermediate Cooking Skills” course; part two is in April, and part of the reason I’m carrying over a full five days holiday into next year was to give me the option of doing that. I think after this experience I will almost certainly be doing that.
PS: we still don’t have a house.