Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Leiths School of Food and Wine - short course

To celebrate the start of my new venture and to perhaps pick up a few professional cooking and lesson-giving tips along the way, in early December I had a little cooking holiday and attended the enthusiast's course run by Leiths School of Food and Wine - Intermediate Course (I did the 'white' course - there is also a 'blue' course which covers different dishes and runs in April-May).

Along with their main diploma courses and a host of one-day, evening and half-day lessons, Leiths run two 'key skills' courses, two intermediate courses and one advanced course. Aside from being an internationally well-regarded school with alumni including current TV chefs and restauranteurs, a friend had whole-heartedly recommended the school, having completed a course there herself.

Though I'd been looking forward to it immensely I found myself a little nervous as the day arrived, not knowing what types of other students would be attending - how competitive it might feel, and what atmosphere the teachers would create.

After coffee and a short orientation delivered by Managing Director Camilla Schneideman (Prue Leith sold the business in 1995, and there are currently two separate Leiths businesses - the main school in West London, with some informal pop-up courses held in a new Portobello road location, and a catering business) we were straight into the kitchens and let loose fairly quickly on choux pastry for our first dish - aubergine and prosciutto gougeres.

Not being a particular staple of British home cooking, I hadn't made choux pastry since school but the teacher pointed out the key steps (when to pour in the flour, how long to beat initially, the appropriate cooled temperature at which to begin incorporating eggs and what a "reluctant dropping consistency" should look like) in his quick demo and everyone ended up with an eminently successful lunch along with the choux pastry knowledge with which to create eclairs, cheese-puffs, profiteroles etc. in future at home.

During our first practical session we also had a professional kitchen health and safety run-down. This included never leaving knives in the sink, using appropriately coloured chopping boards to prevent cross-contaminating food (Leiths has two, red for raw ingredients to be cooked, and brown for ready to eat things. Some other businesses use a variety of colours for fish, meat, vegetables etc.), and my favourite rule, which was calling out "hot pan" as you walked across the kitchen carrying dangerous things.

With about 20 people including staff in each side of the teaching kitchen (a large room divided in two by rows of ovens and gas burners, with 4 aisles of 3-4 students in each classroom half) movement within the kitchen became more gracefully dance-like as the week progressed and as we all got used to each other, where things were, and to not just waiting around for the staff to bring us things. I'd say there were between 30-40 people on the course in total.

Included in the course fees were the new (huge! heavy! excellent!) Leiths How to Cook recipe book which we used extensively throughout the week but could thankfully leave at the school each evening, and an enthusiasts course apron to use for the week and take home at the end. Leiths also sell their smart and simple white aprons with the Leiths logo at reception, along with knife sets and additional copies of the book.

When you sign up for the course they recommend that you bring tupperware to take food away with you each day, but this wasn't actually necessary as they had rather snazzy take-out foil trays and paper bags for the purpose.

At the top of the school is a recipe book library - a lovely little room I got kicked out of at closing time on the first day with books lining the walls, some of which were very well-loved and well bookmarked.

Speaking of cool things at the school, outside the classrooms I was intrigued to find this motley array of tools on display outside the classrooms (above), once belonging to Elizabeth David.

Video screens in the seminar kitchen

Tasting different stocks

The one-week courses are made up of half a day of quick-fire demonstrations of multiple dishes and methods in the seminar room (all passed around to taste too) and half a day in the kitchens preparing related dishes. Ingredients were generally weighed-out for us ahead of the lesson and awaiting us at our stations.

Our course covered meat, fish, pastry, meringues, bread, emulsion sauces and dinner party cooking. Foundational skills such as how to prepare different types of stock, or how to hold the knives and cut appropriately are assumed to be understood to some degree, but the teachers were quite happy to answer questions and demonstrate if anyone was unsure. Below are small dice sized tomato concasse (square and diamond) and julienne strips for fresh spring rolls.

It was interesting to see some of the brand choices in ingredients for the course, including some Shipton Mill flour (hurrah!), also how some things were stored and measured including this enormous bin of caster sugar:

Most butter at Leiths is salted, but this was for hollandaise

When applying I had wondered whether to do the key skills course instead of the intermediate, as I wanted to make sure all of my foundational techniques were best-practice, but I was slightly put off by the recipes being quite basic - crumbles etc. However, seeing how much additional insight you get, I think I needn't have feared being disappointed had I applied for a key skills course instead. The intermediate course seemed to be designed around 'wow' dishes to impress people with at home, this was great fun and certainly will be attempted at my home in that very spirit :)

My favourite part of the course was probably the fish day (heh, not very cake related!). The teacher giving the demonstration was so knowledgeable and excited about fish that her enthusiasm was quite contagious. She advised on sustainability, further reading, apps!, buying guides, and demonstrated a number of cooking methods including (I could not bear my own excitement at this) smoking mackerel.

This British breakfast flavour has been one of the foods I've dearly missed while in Japan - while we have probably the most wonderful fish in the world available to us in Tokyo, including various dried and smoked varieties of mackerel, I am yet to find the precise taste of the smoked mackerel from home. Until now! Hopefully… I asked lots of questions and took many notes :)

On top of the morning's wonderful demonstration, when we got to the hands-on part of the day, oh yes, there awaiting us were perfectly whole and beautiful sea bass, ready for us to descale, gut, fillet and de-bone. What an experience.

Despite my initial nervousness, the other students on the course were another very positive part of the experience. Students tended to stay at the same stations during kitchen sessions for the week and so you got to know your fellow aisle-mates a little and swap tips and opinions.

I found that most of the people I spoke with were really quite accomplished home cooks, and many had attended Leiths courses previously. Many were also living abroad like me, and had fit the course in as part of their winter vacation plans. I certainly had the impression that most of the people on the course were going to go straight back home and repeat and build on many of the recipes from the course, and the book.

Tarte tatin

Since returning to the North of England for Christmas my family has already suffered through choux pastry cheese puffs, courgette fritters with dukkah, pavlova, seared rib-eye steaks with chimchurri, pecan sticky buns, roasted red pepper and red onion polenta pastry tatin, braised red cabbage with apples… and I have many more pages of the book marked for experimentation when I get back to Japan!

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