Opening a cookery schools: the pros and cons

06 December 2007 by
Opening a cookery schools: the pros and cons

When the Only Running Footman opened in London earlier this year, it became one of an increasing number of pub and restaurant businesses with a purpose-built cookery school. Tom Vaughan examines the benefits and drawbacks

"It's not about making shedloads of money, it's about drawing people into the restaurant, into the company and helping them learn about what they're eating," says Barnaby Meredith, owner of the Meredith Group, as we stand in his newly built cookery school, at his Mayfair pub the Only Running Footman.

Meredith bought the run-down, four-floor boozer earlier this year - adding to his other two London pubs, the House in Islington and the Bull in Highgate - and says the idea of what to do with the top floor came to him just before the keys changed hands. "My own passion is food and drink and I wanted to show off my company to the general public, show off my staff and show off British produce," he says.

So the ground floor has remained a traditional drinking venue, the first floor is the restaurant, the second floor a private dining room and the top floor is an informal kitchen with dining area. The idea was that the room would serve as a cookery school, a chef's table and, on demand, a film location.

The cookery school, he says, will draw on the chef talent within the Meredith Group. For example, heading up the kitchen at the Only Running Footman is Jeremy Hollingsworth, a former Michelin-starred chef, skilled in French and British cuisine, and at the Bull there's Andreas Almany's extensive Spanish and British know-how, and Dominic Goldinger with his sound knowledge of Japanese food. In all, the group has nine chefs who could be called in to teach. Forward planning and a wealth of experienced understudies mean the pub kitchens won't necessarily miss their bosses for an evening or two a week. In addition, the cookery school operates independently, so there's no encroachment on the rest of the business.

Public relations

Although a class of six will bring in more than £700, the school may not, agrees Meredith, be as lucrative a use of the space as 40 extra covers, for example, but as an exercise in public relations it's invaluable. "We invite suppliers in to do tastings and staff days, we hope to attract local residents in for cookery classes and the chef's table and we aim to use it to bring in staff from around our sites for training days and cook-offs," he says. "It's good for staff, good for the company and good for the consumer."

The trend for restaurant operators to run cookery schools and demonstrations is increasing. As British diners veer away from white table-clothed formality to a more informal set-up, so they've become interested in the behind-the-scenes action of top restaurants.

This is especially true in London, where the foodie continues to respawn, its numbers growing as TV chefs bring more and more top-end cooking on to our screens. The fact that increasing numbers of people are keen to learn the tricks and skills of a Michelin-starred chef is noted by Lynda Cooke, marketing coordinator for Marc Restaurants, who oversees the Greenhouse and Umu, both of which run monthly cookery demonstrations. "The Michelin star phenomenon is so appealing that people are desperate for a one-on-one with a starred chef," she says. "They want to go home and say they spent the morning being taught how to cook a top-end dish."

Monthly demonstrations

The argument for capitalising on this is not necessarily financial, says Cooke, but rather publicity-orientated. Antonin Bonnet, head chef at the Greenhouse, runs monthly demonstrations in the restaurant kitchen on a Saturday morning when the site is closed. Charging £120 for the morning's tuition plus a three-course lunch with matched wines, Cooke admits the restaurant makes little profit on the initiative. "It's not the most lucrative exercise," she says. "It's more about having people engage with the restaurant. People go away, they talk about us, and they come back with friends. We're making an investment in a long-term relationship with customers."

Tom Kerridge's pub the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, is undergoing a £200,000 extension to include a new restaurant kitchen and a £40,000 demonstration kitchen. While the inclusion of the demonstration kitchen is part of an agreement with the pub's freehold-owner Greene King to facilitate staff training days, Kerridge believes there's potential in running monthly cookery schools. His aim, he says, is as much to run informal get-to-know-yous as anything else. "The reason we're full on a Monday night is that we're a neighbourhood restaurant and people come from the local area to dine," he says. "So it's good for them to feel they can come in and be a part of it. It helps make the place more informal and gives them a proper idea of what we're trying to do here."

He reckons the Saturday morning cookery classes for locals could be lucrative, too. "If I've got 10 people in once a month at £100 a head I'll be making an extra £12,000 a year," he says. "The ingredients aren't costing me too much, I've got an excellent team running the kitchen in my absence so my time isn't overly valuable, and if you want to give them lunch you can keep it informal and, say, do a risotto with a glass of wine. In four years, the kitchen has paid for itself and you've still got it to use."

There doesn't have to be a huge investment in equipment. Kerridge's new demonstration kitchen was previously used to cook for the restaurant, so the outlay was for retiling, reflooring and converting the mishmash of hobs to a flat solid range where people can sit down.

Meredith's kitchen in the Only Running Footman was a mere £7,000 from kitchen supplier Magnet. All that's really needed, he says, is plenty of worktop space, generously spaced ranges and a place to sit down and eat.

The dishes being demonstrated, says Bonnet, are best kept as close to the restaurant's signature style as possible, but he will alter it to allow for home-cooking techniques. "I adapt it to how I cook at home so that people can take it away and actually do it," he says.

Team-building days

At London's Tamarind, however, the Indian cuisine is complex, so the pitch of the demonstration alters. Instead of practical lessons, the restaurant runs team-building days for business customers where up to four will watch a cookery demonstration for the morning then have lunch in the restaurant. The corporate nature of the day, the complex nature of Tamarind's cuisine and the chance that many customers won't be experienced home cooks means that, for health and safety reasons, they're not provided with any sharp implements, and participate instead in the safer elements of the demonstration. At sister restaurant Imli, however, morning courses are run for more experienced cooks, and its simpler food lends itself more to the amateur chef. Groups of four all have to sign a disclaimer saying they have competent knife skills before starting the informal morning's activities.

By contrast, La Cucina Caldesi, Giancarlo and Kate Caldesi's cookery school set up off the back of their Caldesi Tuscan restaurant in London's Marylebone Lane in 2003, runs a much more demanding day. "You have day after day after day to train a young chef and to get him up to scratch but you have just one day to show a member of the public," says Giancarlo. "I care passionately about teaching, so if someone is walking around with a glass of wine taking the piss I'll give him his money back and ask him to leave."

Part of the reason for this is down to the fact that La Cucina Caldesi is a labour of love rather than a profit-making venture. Employing two full-time secretaries, bringing in outside teachers and renting the site in central London means the running costs are sizeable. "The cookery school is not that lucrative but it runs as a business," says Giancarlo. "What profit we make off it is debatable. It needs a lot of attention and money put in, but it helps maintain the brand and lets people know what we're all about."

The cookery demonstrations initially took place in Caldesi Tuscan restaurant for eight years, but filling the small restaurant kitchen with a group of people every Saturday put pressure on the back-of-house staff and the decision was made to expand.

Despite the benefits, overcommitting to cookery demonstrations can be dangerous, and it's worth noting that, like others, Bonnet's demonstrations at the Greenhouse and Tom Aikens's at his eponymous restaurant both take place on Saturday mornings when they're closed for lunch. Najesh Suri, chief executive officer of the Tamarind Group, admits that at Tamarind demonstrations have had to be cancelled when large restaurant bookings come in. "The demonstrations are a nice aside but the most important thing is the business," he says.

Boosting revenue

However, if co-ordinated properly, cookery classes needn't encroach on the day-to-day running of the restaurant. In a large kitchen the chefs can go about their usual mise en place while the demonstration takes place in another part of the room. And while it may involve one or two front-of-house staff, such as the sommelier, their involvement needn't be too time-consuming.

So although cookery classes are not a reliable means of boosting revenue, nor always hassle-free - demonstrations require a lot of forethought and preparation - they're nearly always enjoyable for the chef in question.

"I do it as much for the satisfaction as anything else," says Caldesi. "It's about being known, people knowing I can cook. It's the satisfaction of seeing someone realise that this is how you do things in a professional kitchen."

Seeta Gharu, events manager at Tom Aikens, says Aikens's passion is what drives his cookery school. "Tom just loves cooking for people. He's got such a busy schedule but just says ‘I don't care what it is, I want to do the demo next week instead'."

Being behind a kitchen door is a chef's lot. Sommeliers can flaunt their skills in public, as can managers and even waiters, but the chef is unseen - and sees nothing but the empty plates return and maybe a thank-you if he ventures front of house. A demonstration kitchen provides the chance for chefs to show off their skills and interact with the public.

"From my perspective it's something I really enjoy doing," says Kerridge. "I really, really enjoy showing off to people what we do and how I cook and the ingredients and produce we use. It wins all round."

Eric Lanlard and Cake Boy

Master pâtissier to the Roux brothers over 12 years, Eric Lanlard opened Cake Boy, his cookery school and shop, in Battersea, London, in May. "People seem happy to cook starters and main courses but are often scared of desserts and pastries," he says. "I wanted to show people it wasn't as stressful as they think."

Attached to Lanlard's cake and pastry shop, the cookery school creates a buzz that lifts the atmosphere of the site as well as bringing in money in its own right. A day's course costs £295 including lunch and wine and starts promptly at 9am. Lanlard says the transition to teaching the general public is not too difficult.

"I was never a shouty chef and don't get angry with my staff, so teaching paying customers is no different," he says.

"I designed all the lessons for amateurs so anyone can learn, but the irony is that most people who come don't seem to cook for themselves - they just attend classes up and down the country."

Information and prices

Umu, Mayfair, London Classes run from 11am until about 2pm
Cost £110, includes demonstration, lunch (usually about six courses), sake demonstration by head sommelier, and matching sake with food.

The Greenhouse, Mayfair, London Classes run from 10.30am-3pm
Cost £120, includes demonstration, lunch (four courses), matching wines with lunch chosen by head sommelier

Tamarind, Mayfair, London Sessions available Monday and Wednesday from 9.30am-noon
Cost from £200 plus VAT per person, includes lunch (minimum two, maximum four people)

Imli, Soho, London Sessions available Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9.30am-noon
Cost from £85 plus VAT per person, includes lunch (minimum four, maximum six people)
Cost £700 plus VAT for class of 10 people on Saturday or Sunday, 9.30am-noon

Tom Aikens, Chelsea, London Demonstrations available one Saturday a month from 1pm-4pm
Cost £120 per person

The Only Running Footman, Mayfair, London Cookery school dates TBC
Cost £90 per person, £400 for a group of five

The Hand & Flowers, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Cookery school dates TBC
Cost about £100 per person depending on lesson

Stephen Bulmer and Brook Hall cookery school

Before he took over the cookery school at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Stephen Bulmer's CV was good enough to suggest Michelin recognition might be around the corner. Stints at the Box Tree in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, Georges Blanc at Vonnas in France, six years at Le Manoir and his own restaurants in Chiswick then Soho, London, enabled him to establish a living as a chef and restaurateur.

But after being forced out by some unfavourable rent reviews, it was as a cookery teacher that Bulmer found his niche. After stints with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum and Georgio Locatelli at Zafferano, Raymond Blanc came knocking and asked Bulmer to head up his cookery school.

After six years at Le Manoir he set up his own cookery school, Brook Hall, at his home in Buckinghamshire, earlier this year. Set-up costs were £220,000, of which a lot was garnered through sponsorship deals. Running costs are £18,000 a month, and with the help of a new outside catering arm Bulmer has been turning over about £22,000 a month lately. One of the key factors that has helped him push the cookery school further is the knowledge gleaned from other chefs and cookery schools. "The lifestyle is different from that of a chef behind the stove but there are similar elements," says Bulmer. "You're still running a business and thinking about what you've got to do and prepare. But my employees don't want all the stress of a full-time kitchen. They get to do their job and learn, but still maintain a social life."

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