New high-fryers: It's boom time for cookery schools

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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is reassuring to learn that bailiffs and loan sharks aren't the only ones making a killing out of our knackered economy. While most of us make do with simply hanging in there, cookery schools across the country are noticing a rush to learn kitchen skills from modest dinner party cooks to those in search of a cordon bleu career.

The places on day- or week-long stints and professional training courses are being filled by two main groups of wannabe chefs. The first group are thirtysomethings seeking a new direction in life far from computer screens and office politics, with or without a fat redundancy payout in their pockets. The second group are looking to build on basic, rusty or non-existent cookery skills for use in the home, and include parents seeking to eke out their housekeeping pennies without resorting to budget sausages, and those entertaining at home rather than eating out.

Tante Marie in Woking, the UK's largest independent cordon bleu school, is recommended by Gordon Ramsay. The principal, Andrew Maxwell, has noticed an astonishing upturn in interest in the school's courses since this time last year – hits on the website alone have almost doubled, and there was a surge after September last year when banks and other industries began to shed staff.

Ashburton Cookery School in Devon was voted the best cookery school for skills by the BBC's Good Food magazine. The school is experiencing such a high demand that, from August, all students will be taught in a brand new building, three times the size of the present structure.

Staff at Leiths School of Food and Wine, one of the country's most renowned gourmet havens, are already rushed off their feet interviewing candidates for professional courses, which begin in September. The school noticed a rush of students signing up for the January courses late last year. In Co Cork in Ireland, the family-run Ballymaloe School, which is attached to the Ballymaloe Restaurant and Hotel, says a large number of its courses are fully booked, and attributes this both to the popularity of career changes and to people suddenly realising that they lack life skills outside the corporate environment.

Bettys Cookery School in Harrogate, a spin-off from the famous tea rooms, has noticed that men in particular, keen to fill a knowledge gap and cut down on takeaways, are signing up to their courses in baking and technical skills. The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath and The Avenue in Putney are also reporting healthy trade, with most courses fully booked for the next few months.

Leiths runs a large range of courses, but professional diplomas of either two or three terms are their stock in trade. "We're noticing a surprising flurry of interest in the professional courses, which start in September," says Camilla Schneideman, managing director of Leiths. The full year, which costs £16,500, is not a light undertaking. "There are lots of applicants seeking a career change or using redundancy packages to pay for courses," she says.

This flurry of interest, though, will not necessarily translate into a hike in course bookings by September. "Certainly, bookings are up on this time last year," says Schneideman, "but this twist of interest has yet to unfurl." The school is running more workshops than last year, most of which are full, but has noticed a slight "chink in the armour" for their 10-part evening courses. But who can risk running out of the office at 5pm when jobs are at risk?

One of those making the transition from office to kitchen is Julian Parker, 49, a chartered accountant who has worked at the Serious Fraud Office for 25 years. He decided on a change when restructuring and voluntary redundancies were announced.

"I thought, if I don't do it now, I never will," Parker explains. "I have always been passionate about food and am thrilled to be going to Leiths. It has a fantastic reputation and there's a real buzz about the place that comes from a group of people who just love what they do. I haven't got any preconceptions about exactly where I'll end up: food businesses are not an easy option, nor is the training."

Dominic O'Nions, marketing director at Ashburton Cookery School, is delighted that Britons are pursuing cookery lessons so heartily. "We've never been busier," he says, "and there has never been more interest in cooking, which is in part driven by celebrity chefs and in part by people following their dream of cooking for a living, but also because of the dire exchange rate and a renaissance in entertaining.

"People are looking for a little bit more than usual from a holiday. With a cookery course you learn a skill for life which you can then share with family and friends, which is much better than roasting on a beach."

Ashburton teaches a large number of students who are retraining post-redundancy or hope to set up their own restaurants. It accepts resettlement grants from the Army and has two students from its £2,699 20-day diploma course currently working at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons. "You can start as an absolute beginner, not knowing one end of a knife from another, and work your way up to Michelin star level," promised O'Nions.

Tante Marie has noticed an increase in enquiries from "motherly figures" who want to learn the secrets of cooking on a budget, and people wanting to learn how to cook using traditional methods, such as using outmoded ingredients like suet.

Bettys Cookery School reports a similar leaning towards home comforts, but from younger men rather than homemakers. "We feel sure in part this rise is due to the recession reawakening a longing for home comforts and for learning new skills to save money at the supermarket," says Richard Jones, the cookery school manager. "It may be that men want to cook more sophisticated meals so that they can entertain at home rather than foot the bill at an expensive restaurant."

Bettys also runs a £1,200 10-day course that is popular with people wishing to open their own B&B or café, which shows you can run your own establishment without spending many thousands attaining Michelin-standard cookery skills.

Learning the sort of basic home cooking skills espoused for decades by Delia Smith makes perfect sense for the generations who have missed out on learning about home economics at home or at school. What isn't clear, as droves of bankers and other high-earning professionals retrain as chefs for top restaurants, is who's going to be able to afford the gourmet meals they will prepare.