I always learn things the hard way.
When I started doing cooking classes at Sussex Down’s College I had never spoken to a group of people let alone cooked in front of them. Add to that it was in an unfamiliar kitchen and my first group of ten were all strangers.
I was there by default anyway. I had no teaching skills and I had only been taken on because the previous person had dropped out suddenly. At least I wasn’t cavalier about it; I had planned everything meticulously even down to doing a dummy run at home with my wife as the sole spectator. I had inherited the course called Food with Flair from the previous tutor and I was going to demonstrate selected dishes from the course as an introduction.
On the day I was massively prepared and very nervous. Giving my self plenty of time I packed all the food I was going to need into my car along with notes, recipes, knives and specialist equipment. I got in the car, turned the ignition key and – nothing. Not a sound, not a light , not a flicker. I jumped out of the car and opened the bonnet which was a bit pointless as my knowledge of car mechanics is on a par with my knowledge of quantum physics, i.e. nil. Dawn started ringing round for taxis while I scratched my head and cursed myself for never finishing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The car had been fine several hours earlier, I had used it to go to the supermarket for Christ sake. A vague idea entered my head and I fetched a hammer from the boot. It was a hopeless long shot but I gave each battery terminal a sharp tap, got back into the car, turned the key and the engine sprang to life. I offered a silent prayer and tore off up the road in a cloud of exhaust fumes and dust.
I arrived at the college on time but what I didn’t realise was that all the students like to be early so I entered the kitchen to see ten faces looking at me expectantly. I had wanted to be early to get set up in my own time but that was now out of the question. The college kitchen which was used during the day to teach people with special needs was quite basic – it was no state of the art, stainless steel, technologically advanced super space. It was like a large domestic kitchen circa 1950.
The refrigerator which I located first to put away some of my items was missing a bar across the inside of the door and as I opened it a two litre plastic container of milk fell to the floor and split. Someone said something about spilt milk and crying and they didn’t know how near to the truth they were.
I had been shown the kitchen when I was taken on but apart from that I knew nothing about how the kitchen and equipment worked. I had been given a bunch of keys for the twelve cupboards but there was no indication about which fitted where. I had lost my chance to work it all out beforehand by being delayed and there was no friendly member of staff to tell me where things were and how they worked. I was trying to fathom how to get one of the ovens to light when the same wag who had commented on the spilt milk piped up and said: ‘I thought this was Food with Flair and we haven’t even got a flame yet.’
That was seventeen years ago. Things got better after that initial session but I still had a lot to learn. Firstly my repertoire increased hugely owing to requests for different dishes and courses. I became more relaxed the longer I did it and realised that it didn’t matter if you made a mistake – nobody wants you to be infallible. Also people are helpful and generous to a fault. It only takes one person to say, ‘I forgot my basil’ for there to be a chorus of offers to share theirs.
In my previous career I didn’t meet the public very often, now I was interacting with up to thirty new people every term. It was clear early on that people came to do the courses for a lot of different reasons. Some were already good cooks and came to learn new dishes and techniques; men recently widowed or divorced came because they couldn’t cook anything. One man held up an egg at the start once and said: ‘I may need some help, I have never cracked one of these before’.
Young women newly married came to learn basic dishes. A young man who failed to attend again after the initial session was contacted by the college and asked if there was a problem. He sheepishly admitted he had joined a cooking class to meet young women. On the first evening he realised his mistake when he saw nine other men on the course most of them over fifty.
But in the end it didn’t matter why people had enrolled. Food brings people together, whether it’s eating or cooking. It is a common interest and whether you are a gourmet or a novice we all have hunger. There is a camaraderie about rattling pans together at the stove, seeing how other peoples’ dishes have turned out, tasting and talking and discussing next week’s menu.
Over the years I have met a wide range of interesting people, shy people and extroverts, people with strange jobs and diverse backgrounds, different nationalities, people with learning difficulties and students with very little English and my life has been richer for it. That mix also meant that every class had a different dynamic – a dynamic that was always interesting and very rarely negative.
It helped improve my recipe writing as I soon realised I had to make things very clear and avoid technical terms that people might not understand. I once referred to the liquid the fish was poached in as the ‘fish liquor’. One student arrived for the course telling me had just been into Sainsburys and asked where he could find a fish liqueur.
My computer’s predictive text ability was sometimes a problem although I usually spotted mistakes. I realised one had slipped through when someone asked me why she needed a hundred grams of butterflies.
One of the most memorable came from a Spanish student who was struggling a bit with her English and would ask me at the end of each session about the ingredients for the following week. I had specified in one recipe that the smoked haddock should be the un-dyed variety (rather than the bright yellow, day-glow stuff you often see). ‘Can you tell me please,’ Francesca said. ‘What is this un-dead haddock?’
To me, now and forever, it will always be ‘zombie haddock’.