She's an angel in the kitchen

Sophie Lam was hoping for a miracle when she signed up for a cookery course at John Burton Race's Dartmouth restaurant...

Devon is the ideal destination for mastering a few kitchen skills, and tucking into some seriously good food. The South-west holds 18 Michelin stars, more than any other region in the country. The New Angel lays claim to one of these.Fish takes centre stage, but carnivores are well looked after, with venison from Exmoor, duck from Tiverton and chicken from just outside Exeter.

Reopened by the ebullient chef John Burton Race, The New Angel will soon celebrate its second birthday. The restaurant and school occupy a listed Victorian building on the embankment of the River Dart, flanked by pretty houses tumbling down the valley.

I arrived on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon, and there wasn't a soul to be seen. When I got to The New Angel Rooms, a recent addition, five minutes' walk from the restaurant, I found a warm welcome in the shape of half a bottle of champagne in my room. Later that afternoon I met Andreas Karatzas, the head chef of the school, and another glass of fizz was thrust into my hand. This was more like it.

We were joined by David, a retired teacher from Bristol, and sat and discussed the next two days. We'd be trying dishes from Burton Race's book Coming Home: simple recipes inspired by Devon after a year in France. "What sort of things do you like to cook?" Andreas asked. I diverted the conversation to what I liked eating.

The following day our group was completed by Abi, a police officer from Plymouth, as we watched Andreas demonstrate the first recipe, herring stuffed with tapenade. The fish had been caught that morning and we were shown how to identify them as fresh - clear, bright eyes, bloody gills, scales still intact and no smell.

After filleting my herring and stuffing it with the tapenade that I'd knocked up, I stood back and admired my efforts. The tapenade didn't look quite right. "Capers?" Andreas hinted. I hastily chopped a handful and prodded them into the paste.

Recipe two and a few glasses of sauvignon blanc later I was chatting to Abi, my sauce busily boiling into frothy oblivion. Again the saintly Andreas came to the rescue. This was my kind of cooking - someone to step into the breach when I messed things up.

After lunch, John Burton Race charged into the room like a Tasmanian devil. Several Michelin stars, a self-confessed mid-life crisis, three cookery books and a Channel 4 series later, JBR - as he is known on home soil - was back from his year in France and making quite a success of his Devonshire venture. We mulled the difficulties facing local producers, from whom he buys as much as possible. "The people I buy from are bonkers and so am I, so there's a nice synergy," he laughed. "I might be doing it for the money, but they certainly aren't."

Apparently not hung up on organic or free-range food, he did consider it healthier to eat a rat than farmed salmon. He then took to the stoves, and in a flurry of chopping and shouting, he prepared moules à la crème ("only a bloody idiot would call it moules marinières" - that would be me then), quail and bacon salad, red mullet with basil butter and Grand Marnier and orange soufflé.

On our last day we tackled another three recipes: smoked salmon blinis, lemon sole ceviche and chicken with tarragon cream sauce. Abi, a vegetarian who had dutifully filleted fish, boned a chicken and even watched a lobster meet a rather gruesome end, was taken off to the restaurant kitchen to watch the staff prepping for service and knock up her lunch - a beautifully presented white beetroot and goat's cheese millefeuille.

It's still looking unlikely that I'll be inheriting my parents' restaurant. But I might surprise them with my newly acquired kitchen skills - providing one of them is on hand to step in when I mess up, and the other does the washing up.

The New Angel Cookery School, 2 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon (01803 839425; thenew angel.co.uk). Two-day courses from £550, including two nights' b&b, tuition, materials, lunches and one dinner at The New Angel restaurant. One-day, non-residential and children's courses also available

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