The Gospel according to Pru

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Inside a huge, shiny kitchen with banks of ovens, hobs and worktops, 32 novices don aprons and start to study passages from their Bibles. Sally Staples joins a cookery class.

The text in question is from Leith's "Cookery Bible", written by Prue Leith and the school's principal, Caroline Waldegrave. It is given to each student on enrolment. Tonight is the sixth out of 10 lessons and on the menu is prawn pilau and chocolate profiteroles.

Most of the students have come straight from work, as the session starts at 6.30pm, and several have brought bottles of wine with them. Licensing laws and the need to keep a clear head mean that the rookie cooks may drink only two small glasses.

No one would feel out of place on this course. There are bankers, solicitors, students, housewives and secretaries, and the age range is 18 to retirement. What they all have in common are an interest in cooking and a general lack of expertise.

The course takes nothing for granted. The proper way to boil an egg and peel and dice an onion are given the same attention as the trickier business of preparing the choux pasty for the profiteroles. Naturally, there are no food mixers in this kitchen; beating eggs and whipping cream are done by hand.

Before the action begins, teacher Jacqui Thomas runs through the preparations for the menu and advises on timing. In front of each student the exact ingredients have been weighed out in advance. All they have to do is make the dishes and then take them home to eat for supper.

Victoria Shaw, a solicitor, has high praise for the course because it includes all the ingredients, and the teaching ratio is one to eight. "I also find coming here after work helps me to unwind," she says. "And the great thing is being able to eat what you have made. The recipes are for two people, so I usually ask a friend round afterwards."

Colin Stanley, a widower, works as an environmental health consultant. His son had already done the Leith course and he was so impressed by the results that he decided to give it a try. "I'm generally better at eating than at cooking, but I've been surprised at the things we've done. Last week we made lemon curd. I'm not a lemon curd man, but this tasted nothing like the sort you buy in the shops. It was an elixir. The time before that we cooked pork in a marsala sauce. It was delicious. Before this, my only brush with cooking was an Army cadet course."

As the students chop and dice and bake, Jacqui and her colleague Claire Macdonald move round to offer tips: a circle of grease-proof paper over onions frying in butter helps keep their colour, and allows them to soften without burning; a delicious fish stock can be made from prawn shells heated in water and wine.

Susan Oldfleld, who works as a PA, has come on the course because she thinks it is high time she learned to cook. "I have been married for three years and I've got a dinner service I never use because I can't cook properly," she says. "Coming here is a revelation."

Several young women are here because they knew only two recipes which they used for every dinner party, and wanted to show off some new discoveries to their friends.

Hannah Coleman, who works in banking, is getting married next year. "I felt I ought to know how to cook for my husband," she says. "I like experimenting, but I thought I should know the basics. Whenever I have tried to follow a recipe it has never told me how to get the sauce to look the way it did in the picture. This course has made me feel a lot more confident."

Charlie Bellhouse, 18, is the youngest of the cooks. In his gap year between school and university he signed up for the course to help him land a job working in a skiing chalet. "I was completely ignorant when I came," he said. "I couldn't fry an egg, and I didn't know what they meant by seasoning. But everyone has been so helpful."

As the evening progresses the cooks get busier, but there is a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. No one appears to have a disaster. The choux pastry cases come out of the oven looking highly professional. The pilau rice bubbles away comfortingly as it cooks in the fish stock. Some cooks have problems whipping the cream to exactly the right consistency, but most manage.

And at the end of the session everyone washes up the utensils, bowls and plates they have used - which the women all agreed was excellent training for the men.

The beginners' course at Leith's School of Food and Wine, 21 St Albans Grove, London W8 5BP, runs for 10 three-hour sessions and costs pounds 350, inclusive of ingredients. For details, call 0171-229 0177.