welcomes us into the heart of Leiths School of Food and Wine.
What brought you to the area?
The job. I've only been here five months but I love it. Being surrounded by all the heavenly smells of cooking is fantastic.
Where do you eat locally?
I eat here a lot as you can imagine but I love Detour's; we’ve had marketing meetings there. I get bread from Laveli and my boss sometimes treats us to Thai at Som Tam.
What were you doing before you worked here?
I trained as a journalist and first worked for York Press covering Ryedale in North Yorkshire. Then I moved to Booker, the cash'n'carry people. Despite them being a Footsie 250 company with 175 stores, I was their first ever social media manager. Next I had a stint at Defra, learning about the link between food production and the natural environment.
My dad gave us McDonald's every day.
Is social media your thing?
I am a bit obsessed. I'm really into sustainable eating and write a blog on jennifercoles.com.
What type of cooking do you teach here?
Our course program is really wide ranging. The starting point is the well-loved book, Leiths How To cook, but the course material is influenced by everything from Mrs Beeton and Escoffier to demonstrations by Blanch and Shock, food artists who do Heston stuff. Everyone who works here is encouraged to try different food. We're given an allowance to eat out each year, and expected to share ideas. People come in on a Monday and say things like, "I had the most amazing street food from Sri Lanka, a 'hopper' served in an edible bowl."
How many people work here?
About 30: 10 core chefs, 10 freelancers and 10 office staff, including me. Plus the students.
Who are your typical students?
98 students did our professional diploma last year. It's a nine-month course that takes people from home cook to professional. It's extremely intensive and covers all aspects of working in the food industry.
That sounds expensive.
It costs £21,905.
That is expensive.
Yes, but it's highly regarded. Tim Hayward, the food writer and broadcaster, describes us as the Oxbridge of the food world. Our students enter every area of the food industry. Many of them are entrepreneurial, or work in food writing, styling, private cheffing; and those that become chefs are usually able to progress through the restaurant ranks more quickly.
Are your students all well-off?
They're all sorts of people: people who've been saving for years; people who've borrowed the money; or promising cooks who've been gifted an early inheritance from an aunt. People come here from Oxford and Brighton every day. Students come from all over the world, from Canada, from China.
Any well-known alumni?
Lots, Lorraine Pascale, Florence Knight, Gizzi Erskine, Olia Hercules... We’re really proud of them.
Are all the TV cookery shows making us fat?
Not necessarily. Gizzi Erskine did that Channel 4 series Cook Yourself Slim. And the TV chefs are good at sharing new findings. For example, current thinking suggests that grass-fed animal fat is not the enemy we once thought. Look at The French Paradox (The French having relatively low levels of heart disease despite relatively high-fat diets). And then there’s the huge trend for sharing pictures of healthy food on Instagram.
What are the most popular courses?
Apart from the professional diploma, we do dozens of amateur courses: week-long, day classes, evening classes, Saturday-only classes... Baking courses are popular, as are our knife skills classes, which appeal to men and women. And our guest chefs are always popular, like Atul Kochar, Ben Tish and Jennifer Joyce.
Have you done a course?
I did a curry course with Anjula Devi and loved it. You learn where to get the spices with no preservatives or dyes. I made a curry that was seriously delicious. I took it home and left it on the tube. When I realised I jumped back on and the doors closed. I had to travel another stop because I couldn't bear the thought of not finishing that delicious curry.
If I wanted to gift someone a course, say a curry course, what would it cost?
Our Ultimate Indian evening class is £95. We do everything to the highest standards. We have a strict policy of one teacher to eight students which is quite unusual and we use the best ingredients. Our chefs are discerning. They don't ask for a lemon, they ask for a Sicilian lemon. We use specialist delis like Natoora and Nife Is Life or go direct to farmers. Diggory Orr-Ewing, who stocks our larder, is a sourcing genius.
Do you teach more women or men?
Our diploma students are two-thirds women. The amateur cooks are pretty balanced between women and men. And we sell a lot of vouchers for knife skills before Christmas, often presents for husbands and boyfriends.
I have a plan for my last meal on Death Row.
Do men and women want to learn different skills?
It's hard to generalize. Everyone's different. We had one man, a successful businessman, who came here to learn to cook a soufflé. He just wanted to switch off and cook the perfect soufflé. We do notice a higher percentage of men on certain courses though, such as How to cook the perfect steak, and knife skills of course. Evening courses are appealing to young professionals of both sexes.
Are you a good cook?
I'm extremely experimental, but I don't cook to the Leith's standard. You wouldn't have enjoyed the potato and spinach soup I made last night. I used waxy potatoes and it was like wallpaper paste. Clearly I need to go on another course!
Who would you be most nervous to cook for?
My mum is really picky. She's a really good cook. I know everyone says their mother's a good cook but mine really is, but she has been known to say things like, "Is truffle oil right for this?" when I’ve been more experimental. My dad's a good cook too. He wasn't. When mum went skiing with her friends for the first time and left us alone with dad, he took us to McDonald's once a day for five days. Now he's a brilliant cook. He listens to Woman's Hour to learn how to mince beef for the perfect Bolognese.
If you were on Death Row what would be your last meal?
I have a plan for this. I want a never-ending supply of x so I can keep delaying the day of execution while my lawyer fights for my on-going rights to x.
What would x be?
Something savoury: cheese or guacamole. Or a Vietnamese spring roll, an exact replica of the prawn one I had on China Beach in Vietnam.
Thank you, Jen. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds Feb 2016to top | home