How Jamie Oliver's army is winning in Leeds

Yorkshire is playing a key role in training Jamie Oliver's growing brigade of cooks. He tells Mary Hampshire what's on the menu next

Surrounded by shoppers scouring Leeds Kirkgate Market for a bargain, cookery tutor Simon Chappelow demonstrates how to make chicken fajitas. His students stand poised at their work stations, eyes flitting to their neatly arranged ingredients: tortillas, chicken, red onion, herbs and spices, peppers, tomatoes, lime juice, sour cream and cheese.

They’re obviously keen to get the recipe right, and not just because they’re working under Simon’s experienced gaze. They’re doing this for Jamie.

All are part of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, the omnipresent chef’s attempt teach people how to cook. His mission has been strongly backed in Yorkshire, with three of his four national cooking schools based in the county.

It began in Rotherham in 2008, after the chef witnessed with horror mothers supplying children with fast food through the gates of a local school. Bradford opened in November 2009 and Leeds followed in June 2010. They have proved extremely popular, with around 8,000 people signing on for Ministry of Food cookery lessons in Yorkshire.

Jamie’s strong foothold in the county is part of a wider plan, as the chef himself told us:

‘I’m working on establishing a national network. Funding is always a challenge so I’m looking towards inspirational national and local businesses to help. If you’re a local business, what better way to reach potential customers than by linking up with a brilliant community enterprise?’

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His 10-week signature courses are aimed at people who want to pick up some basic recipes and those who want to improve and broaden their culinary skills. They learn how to make quick, tasty and nutritious meals that get more challenging during the course. Typical fare includes pea and mint soup, pizza margherita, Thai green curry, quick salmon tikka, chicken chowmein, sizzling beef stir fry, bolognese sauce, meatballs and pasta, and perfect roast chicken.

Leeds Ministry of Food is supported by Leeds City Council, NHS Leeds and Zest Health For Life and is funded until the summer.

Project coordinator Simon Chappelow said: ‘Some people are accomplished and want to learn new recipes, broaden their skills and enhance their family meals and repertoire. Others have no cooking experience but have been prompted to attend through necessity. They might have lost their partner or need to learn healthy meals because of a health problem such as diabetes.’

One of his eager students, Karen Cockerham, said: ‘I’m just doing it for a bit of fun. I’ve got two teenage boys. I used to do a lot of cooking from scratch. I wanted to learn some new ideas and techniques.’

Lilly Evans makes meals at St George’s Crypt, a charity providing shelter and advice to the homeless in Leeds city centre. She added: ‘I cook for up to 30 people a day. This course has  inspired me and given me some new ideas.’

The ministries have become more than cookery schools. They have grown into a community resource. In Bradford, the centre provides  cookery classes for children during the holidays, vulnerable groups including young people on the margins of society and parents whose interest in healthy food is stirred once they have children.

‘It’s been a huge success. More than 1,000 people have attended 600 classes at Bradford’s Ministry of Food since it opened,’ said Councillor David Green, executive member for regeneration on Bradford Council, which has helped to fund the ministry.

Jamie applauds local councils and the NHS in Yorkshire for being so forward-thinking: ‘As soon as people from Bradford visited the Rotherham centre they could see that this is a community resource that works. The challenge at the moment is to keep these centres going in the face of the deepest council funding cuts in generations.

‘All councils are looking to save money. I think the Ministry of Food is not only very good value but also an initiative that can save money in the medium term. Put simply, the more people can feed themselves properly the lower the chance of them becoming a burden to the NHS.’

One potential route forward is for the ministries to become social enterprises. This is viewed as the most viable way forward in Rotherham, which has taught more than 7,000 people and is now regarded as an asset to the town. Initially assisted by Rotherham Council, which helped the centre to secure external regional and national funding, the South Yorkshire-based Ministry of Food is now trying to generate its own income.

‘Securing accreditation as a social enterprise will enable the centre to stand on its own two feet and access new funding streams so that we can continue to create a passion for cooking healthy food in Rotherham,’ said manager Lisa Taylor.

The centre – not Jamie – makes money from classes, outreach sessions in the community and food sales. A lunchtime healthy takeaway meal and drinks are new on the menu. Supporters say things are progressing well, and demand for lessons at the centre and outreach work is higher than ever.

It continues to contribute to the local economy through its work with local catering students, encouraging people into employment through supported work experience, skills development and qualifications. However, the tough public sector funding environment means that the centre needs to move to self-sufficiency.

Financially, the project is secure for the next few months. In the long term, its future is less certain. Finding other sustainable income sources is a huge challenge, but enthusiasts are hoping that the social enterprise route offers much more than a slim chance of success.

How did you learn to cook? Was it at home with your mother, at school or university? Or are you still learning? Tell us your cookery stories.

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