184 days ago I made a little deal with myself: that by my 30th birthday I would either have conducted a considered, thorough and serious investigation into the possibility of forging a career in food, or I would stop complaining to anyone who will listen about my job, deal with it and move on. I don’t feel particularly satisfied with my job and whilst it’s not a bad job, it doesn’t get me excited, doesn’t put a smile on my face in the morning, or leave me feeling satisfied at the end of the day. It’s just a job. I know lots of people have jobs like this, and take pleasure in the things they do outside work, all the while nurturing little daydreams about the day they’ll retire and live on a smallhold in the countryside, or spend all day on their bike/snowboard/computer, or run a pub, or a cheese shop, or plan people’s weddings….but I don’t want to dream about those things now, and spend the next 35 years waiting to live that life. Why not see if I can mesh the dream with reality and do a job that does make me happy, let me do what I spend a lot of my idle moments thinking about and I seem to be quite good at? And that is cooking.
This blog is no place for modesty or exaggeration. I’m not a chef, nor aspire to be one. By “chef” I mean the head honcho in a kitchen, sweating over the stove, crafting an exquisite alchemy of flavours for discerning diners. But I am a competent cook, who loves cooking and baking for pleasure. I’ve planned a couple of parties where I have cooked for about 50 happy friends and loved the experience, even the stress of coordinating all those hot and cold dishes, sweet things and drinks, the shopping and the planning. I read cookbooks alongside novels, and enjoy creating something out of nothing. I read a lovely line in Martin Wishart’s cook book that I flicked through in my friend Jim’s kitchen, which said something about holding the final dish in your minds eye, and working towards that image. That struck a chord with me, and could describe like the difference between cooks and non-cooks: that ability to craft something mentally, pair flavours and textures, and know the final dish will turn out well. For me it’s about knowing that I’ll make mistakes (some tasty, some not so tasty), but mostly I produce something good, and occasionally create something amazing through trial and error, trusting my instincts and taking a chance.
I’ve loved food and cooking since I was a wee girl. My Granny cooked, my Mum cooked, and they both showed me how to cook. Ready meals and takeaways were not part of my culinary childhood, they were expensive for a family of 5 on a reasonably tight budget, and just not that common so we ate home-cooked food, and some processed, but most from scratch. Most of my friends ate the same way at home as we did. Cooking from scratch was generally cheaper, and I’m glad those skills of soup making, stews, casseroles, baking and puddings were passed down to me, but it was done so quite matter of factly; that’s what you did. You cooked or you probably didn’t eat.
My Mum loved to read cookbooks though, even if she rarely cooked from them. I remember my first cookbook. It was called We Can Cook, and a quick search tells me it came out in 1979, and was written by Lynne Peebles. Next time I’m home I’m going to try and find it so I can re-discover those childhood recipes for flummery, gingerbread men and sausage rolls. I also loved my Mum’s battered and stained Dairy Book of Home Cookery, which contained every recipe you’d ever want. And if a recipe was missing, it was probably written in the back and front covers by Mum, or Gran, or in later years, me. I went off to Edinburgh Uni in 1997 armed with the first of Delia Smith’s How to Cook books, and Cas Clarke’s Vegetarian Grub on a Grant. I love cookbooks, and have a growing collection that I turn to for instruction, inspiration, and everyday breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Every now and again I follow a recipe precisely, more often that not I go off piste, feeling that’s what the author generally wants me to do: explore food, make it my own and enjoy cooking as they clearly do. But I’d like to do more than cook this way, and I want to push myself to go a bit further.
So since my last birthday, I’ve taken some tentative steps. I’ve read a great book called “Food Jobs” which opened my eyes to the variety of food jobs there are. I’ve spent more time thinking about the realities of working in a job that could be weekends and evenings, and how that would fit with my lifestyle, and my partner’s. I’ve also thought about what skills I have now, and what skills I’d need to have to make the step from hobby to job, and what kind of job that could be. I’ve looked into the ways I can gain the skills I feel I lack if I were to cook for a living, or perhaps run my own small business in food. Which brings me to Sunday, and a week-long cooking course at Ashburton Cookery School.
I looked at a lot of cookery schools websites, trying to weigh on course against another and figure out which one was right for me. I’d hoped for some magical accreditation or review system that would tell me that Course X would meet all my needs, but no. It was a case of reading lots of course descriptions, and picking one that I fancied. I plumped for Ashburton based on their awards from BBC Good Food magazine and Waitrose Food magazine, and the course description and the location. They’re not as far from where I live as some schools, and their Intermediate Cookery course has what looks like a broad range of what I think are the building blocks of cooking. I think I know how to do some of these things already like soups, poached eggs, risotto and stock, but I’ve never learned how to make bread, pastry or pasta, or tackle any kind of butchery. What would have helped me make my decision was more of a feel for how other students have found that course, what their expectations were, and what they did afterwards. So if I would have liked that kind of information before I booked, I figure others might too. I catch my train to Ashburton on Sunday and I plan to write up each day’s experience here.
I’m a little bit nervous about a week away with a bunch of people I’ve never met, but mostly excited about spending all day for five days cooking. I’m also a little afraid that I might find I don’t enjoy spending that long in the kitchen, and that I’d hate it even more if I were under pressure to cook. But mainly I’m hopeful that the course will take me one more step along the road to confirming my suspicions that I want to cook for a living.
And with a kitchen assistant on hand for us lucky culinary scholars, it’ll be a week where I’m a girl who doesn’t do dishes.