Cooking up a storm at the Food of Course Cookery School

Lou at work with the students

Lou at work with the students - Credit: submitted

The students who have been living, breathing and dreaming food at professional chef Louise Hutton’s school in Sutton

The fish lunch

The fish lunch - Credit: submitted

Early on a Wednesday morning I met with six young students at the fish stall in Wells market. They were receiving instruction from professional cook, Louise Hutton. How to buy fresh fish; how different fish should be cooked; which fish can stand up to big flavours and which are best cooked simply. Within a few minutes, the crowd had swelled as passers-by stopped to listen to her lively discussion.

The cookery school

The cookery school - Credit: submitted

This was the penultimate Wednesday of the students’ residential four-week course at the Food of Course Cookery School, run by Lou in Sutton, just outside Castle Cary. The school offers the internationally- recognised four-week Foundation Course and a new one-week Elements of Cooking Course, which is designed specifically for those with little experience in the kitchen.

This was fish day. Each student selected a different fish to take back to the school to cook for lunch and I was delighted to be invited to join them. When I arrived at the school a short time later, preparations were well under way. Everyone had chosen their recipe and organised a tray of ingredients. Lunch was set for 1.15pm, which meant the students needed to communicate to ensure everything was ready at the same time.

There was a monkfish molee, calamari with aioli sauce, seared tuna with quinoa and kalamata olives – and so it went on!

There were sounds of chopping and sizzling, music was playing in the background and everyone was deeply involved in their fish preparation. Occasionally Lou would call everyone over if there was something she felt they should all see. Like how to prepare squid: “Peel it like a banana,” said Lou to the tentative 21-year-old, Caroline.

“Three weeks ago I couldn’t boil an egg,” beamed Caroline. “If only my mum could see me now.” Before everyone returned to their work stations, the conversation had veered from gelatinous squid, to how to use gelatine in a recipe, to the vegetarian alternative, agar agar.

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Simple tips were ringing in my ears and that is what makes Food of Course so special. Lou has a unique ability to instil confidence and enthusiasm, getting her students to cook fabulous food of which they are justifiably proud, while imparting a wealth of experience and knowledge in amongst lots of laughter and fun. A friendly, generous woman of remarkable energy and charm, Lou has more than 20 years teaching experience. She set up the Food of Course Cookery School in 2000 with her husband, Roger, and runs it from their home, Middle Farm House, a beautiful 16th century thatched long house.

The large farmhouse kitchen has been thoughtfully designed and equipped: one of the key advantages of coming to Food of Course is that you learn to cook in a proper kitchen, rather than an industrial style affair. The student side of the house is spacious and comfortable – a bit like staying in an excellent country house hotel! The class sizes are kept deliberately small with no more than six at a time.

“We’ve experimented with different sizes but this is ideal. It’s big enough to learn from each other and to have fun, but small enough to ensure that everyone receives individual tuition,” Lou says. As a result, strong, lifelong friendships are formed, bonded by the experience. From Monday to Friday the students live, breathe and dream food. They plan and cook during the day, and eat lunch and dinner together.

This is no holiday camp; in fact, it has been lovingly nicknamed Lou’s Boot Camp. It is an intensive course: huge fun but also hard, exhausting work. “Much like a career in cookery,” says Lou. “This is the perfect training ground for anyone who wants to work with food.”

Unlike many schools, the students have to do everything for themselves and this includes washing up and cleaning the kitchen.

Every student who attends Food of Course Cookery School is at a turning point in his or her life. Many are about to embark on a gap year or are off to university. Lou is also able to facilitate introductions to ski, yachting and cooking agencies to help her students find jobs and careers. For some, it is about learning an invaluable life skill.

One ex-student, Alex Kerr, is convinced that his ability to cook actually saved him money at university. “I would shop for the week and cook in bulk which made my money go further,” he says.

Others are looking for alternatives to university. Lou firmly believes people need to be more entrepreneurial. “In today’s world, you can’t – and shouldn’t – rely on a degree to get a job.”

Another ex-student I spoke to, Georgie Wadsworth, turned down a university place to pursue a career in cooking. Four years after leaving Food of Course, she has a successful catering company whilst many of her friends are now leaving university with no job and saddled with debt.

Food of Course is also popular with career breakers. A mature ex-student had taken a year’s sabbatical from her job with UNICEF. “Sadly I grew up believing that cooking could never be a career. But time away from my job, and attending Food of Course, has changed my whole outlook. Perhaps now it’s my time to do something I love as a career,” she says.

But back to my lunch – a delicious fishy extravaganza. So much so that I was inspired to make the monkfish molee that evening when I got home and impressed my family with my new-found skill of filleting the monkfish and removing the membrane. We finished the lunch with an amazing cheeseboard, selected from the deli in Wells that morning. To accompany the cheese, 20-year-old American Michael brought out the schiacciata con l’uva (Italian grape bread) he had made the day before. “I can’t spell it,” he announced, “but I can make it!”

And perhaps Michael’s subsequent email to Lou sums it up: “Food of Course was definitely the best four weeks of my gap year! This month has been so much more than I ever expected… I couldn’t have asked for a more educational, inspirational or enjoyable four weeks filled with infectious laughter, lovely people and delicious food.”