Twenty years after graduating from the Tante Marie, caterer Lyndy Redding has teamed up with Gordon Ramsay to buy the famous cookery school. Tom Vaughan asks her how she plans to transform it
Lyndy Redding left the Tante Marie with her diploma 20 years ago, "green and nervous". Now she's teamed up with Gordon Ramsay Holdings to buy her old cookery school
Over the past few weeks, Lyndy Redding has been to Barcelona, Italy, Yorkshire, Istanbul and China, before heading back to London. She's clocked up more Airmiles than a pilot's wash bag.
The little sortie isn't uncommon. Redding spends much of her time zipping to and from Monaco, serving up Gordon Ramsay food to parties the Continent over, plying private jets with top-end nosh and making sure Lewis Hamilton isn't starving for a burger as he resets his faulty gearbox. Not bad for a woman who, 11 years ago, with just a diploma from the Tante Marie cookery school and a few years' experience of outside catering under her belt, hired a computer to punch-type a business plan. It was, admittedly, at the behest of Ron Dennis, chairman and chief executive officer of McLaren Group, for partnership on a catering business. "I still have that business plan," she laughs. "I need to pull it out again to make myself chuckle."
The result of her three-page proposal was the formation of Absolute Taste, in which Dennis has a 55% share. It's a business with a £10m annual turnover and projects with Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH), McLaren and fleets of private jets. She also runs three cafés and caters for countless private parties.
Now, 20 years after the Tante Marie sent a fresh-faced Redding into the industry, she's teamed up with GRH to buy and, she hopes, transform her old school. "I'm just so passionate about the Tante Marie," she says. "It gave me the life I have today."
Her move to take control of Tante Marie, in Woking, Surrey, has been a gradual takeover. Absolute Taste has kitchens at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, around the corner from Tante Marie. This proximity allowed Redding to take a directorship at the school for seven years. Then a few months ago she heard that the former owners were keen to sell. "I approached Gordon to test the water and he loved the idea of buying it outright," says Redding. Ramsay then put the idea to his chief executive Chris Hutchinson, who liked it too.
The result has seen GRH purchase a majority share of the school, with a small percentage held by Andrew Maxwell, the deputy principal of Tante Marie and a larger share held by Redding, rather than by her company Absolute Taste. "The people at McLaren couldn't get their head around running the Tante Marie as well," she explains.
Cynics view the purchase as a prototype in a string of Gordon Ramsay academies, but little will change at the school in the short term, Redding insists. "We don't want it to be taken over by people wanting to become Ramsay chefs. This time next year there will be new courses for people who want to go into the industry," she says. "But there will still be the same courses for those who don't."
In fact, says executive chef Mark Askew, the only noticeable changes will be a modernising of the syllabus. "We felt it was a bit out of date. It hasn't been updated for 10 to 15 years. We want to bring it in line with what the rest of the industry is doing," he says. Things such as old-school sauces - the thickened, béchamel style of cooking - will be replaced with newer trends such as reductions and how to make a jus.
There was an emotional tie between Redding and the Tante Marie, but for Ramsay the purchase could well be a means to address what he has often criticised as inherent shortcomings in the NVQ system. Speaking to Caterer back in February, two months before the Tante Marie purchase was finalised, Ramsay was critical of catering education. "I'm fed up with NVQ standards and with what's coming out of our catering schools," he said at the time. "I want to set up my own apprentice scheme where students will experience everything from the most amazing pub to a one-, two- or three-Michelin-starred establishment." For those cynical about a possible "Gordon Ramsay academy", the purchase answers those who accused him of attacking the NVQ system without offering anything in the way of positive action.
Graham Eveleigh, training and development director at BaxterStorey, which runs its own Chef Academy programme, welcomes Ramsay's plans. "This is a positive move that sets a good impression, and shows that industry leaders care about investing in people and developing the industry," he says.
GRH has a strong involvement with education, with the Gordon Ramsay Scholar and College Scholar schemes offering young chefs a source of expert advice and training. It was from the scholarship that the need for a bespoke school first arose, says Askew. "One of the questions we got asked most during the scholarship was, ‘How do we get a job in the group'. A lot of young students don't know how to go about landing that first job."
The answer is that the training at the revamped Tante Maire could offer an avenue into both GRH and Absolute Taste to start off with. As Redding says: "We're all on the lookout for new talent."
One idea is that a prospective chef could be offered a place within the Gordon Ramsay group if a certain pass mark is achieved. Similarly, graduates keen to join Absolute Taste will be considered for a role, as has been the case over the years. "The training there gives you such a solid base," says Redding. "I know how they've been trained and I know what they can do. They may lack speed in applying their knowledge, but we can teach them that in a professional kitchen."
Tante Marie should not be seen as a self-serving project by GRH and Absolute Taste. One addition certain in the long term is a bolt-on course to the Cordon Bleu Diploma for those keen to move into the industry. And this is not just for the fine-dining, Ramsay-dominated sector. The school plans to help students decide what area they hope to move into and will find them work placements, rather than leaving them unsupported as they take their first career steps. Among the last few crops of graduates, about 20% have ended up in professional kitchens. Redding plans to increase this number, while still keeping courses geared to the home cook.
Both Redding and Askew admit these are early days for the new Tante Marie, but the plan in the long run is for the school to be considered as a serious option by those keen on a career in hospitality and catering. In fact, neither rules out future openings of sister schools if all goes well at Tante Marie, including, says Askew, schools with going concerns attached. "We're already thinking that if the Tante Marie in Woking works out then we can have others with restaurants attached, like in other colleges, where students can practise," he says.
Success story of the girl who always wanted to cook
The purchase of the Tante Marie means Lyndy Redding has gone full circle in a career that began by eschewing university in favour of undertaking the school's one-year diploma. "I always knew I wanted to cook," she says. "What I didn't realise was that the more infrastructure that got built up the less I'd be doing it."
After graduating with her diploma - "green and nervous", she says - she started catering for the London dinner-party scene, loading up dishes in the back of her VW Golf and heading off to the kitchens of well-heeled hosts. Stints working in chalets and boats took her around the world before she joined a company cooking for Marlboro, sponsor of the McLaren Formula One team. When Marlboro departed for pastures new, McLaren boss Ron Dennis suggested he and Redding go into partnership and continue feeding the McLaren team. So Absolute Taste was born.
After two years of running the company from her home, using a warped kitchen table as a desk and storing uniforms in her own cupboards, she hired premises in Wandsworth, south-west London, and, with the company sized at about nine, started doing other outside catering jobs. One a month became two a month, then three a month, and now, 11 years after the company's birth, there are 160 staff and the company is housed in three buildings scattered in close proximity around Wandsworth.
The team caters for all McLaren employees through the year, wherever the Grand Prix is held. There's also Absolute Taste Inflight, formed in 2003, a 24-hour, 365-day operation catering for private jets. It began at the suggestion of some McLaren employees and was vetted for a year on a shareholder's own plane. Six vans now deliver pre-prepared gourmet meals to airports all over the South of England.
Redding's association with Gordon Ramsay Holdings comes from the two companies' collusion on Gordon Ramsay by Absolute Taste, an outside catering firm offering Ramsay food for events and parties. The pair first met when Ramsay, a Formula One fan, was a guest in the McLaren tent.
Over the years the pair became friends. Absolute Taste catered for Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's executive chef Mark Sargeant's wedding and, when David and Victoria Beckham asked Ramsay to provide Maze food, a favourite of the former England captain, at their pre-World Cup party in 2006, he asked Redding if she could help deliver it.
After numerous meetings between Absolute Taste and Maze chefs to perfect the offering, the result was a huge success, with mentions of the food on national media coverage the party received. And so the idea to deliver Ramsay food to private parties was born. Since then Absolute Taste has catered for Ramsay's 40th birthday, and has delivered to dozens of successful parties around the UK and beyond.
Throw into the mix three cafés - two in Chelsea Harbour and one in Farnborough airport, Hampshire - and the Absolute Taste portfolio is a remarkable achievement by the Tante Marie alumna.
With the cookery school's revamp on the horizon, there's more work in the offing, so how does Redding intend to divide her time between Tante Marie and Absolute Taste? "Andrew [Maxwell] lives round the corner from me, so we have meetings and discuss things in the evenings," she says.
"It's going to be hectic but in truth I'm loving it."
Horses for courses
Seventeen full-time staff attend the 100 or so students scattered around the various courses in the Tante Marie cookery school. The courses on offer are:
Cordon Bleu and Intensive Cordon Bleu Diploma
This forms the main bulk of Tante Marie's income. The courses are designed to provide graduates with a qualification and a foundation of skills and knowledge with which to launch a career in the industry. The normal Cordon Bleu course runs over three terms from September to June, the intensive course over two terms, with a new course starting every term. Fees are £16,500 for the three-term diploma and £12,500 for the intensive diploma.
Cordon Bleu Certificate
This is popular with those looking to cater for ski chalets, yachts and villas. It lasts 11 weeks and provides a solid foundation of basic skills and techniques for those who want to learn how to cook well for family and friends. Fees are £6,750.
Four-week Essential Skills
Designed to teach students some of the skills offered on the longer Cordon Bleu certificate course but without the examinations and tests. Fees are £2,625.
Schools Essential Skills
Same content as the four-week Essential Skills course but is conducted in local schools as an extracurricular activity. Fees are £2,350, in three instalments.
One- and two-week Beginners' Course
Suitable for anyone aged over 16 who has had limited opportunity to learn how to cook, this is an introduction to cookery and healthy eating. Priced at £525 for one week and £899 for two weeks.
One- and two-day speciality courses focusing on specific subject areas, such as fish, meat, easy entertaining and one-off demonstration days. Courses prices vary from £150-£300.