YOU won’t hear shouting and screaming in John Webber’s kitchen.
Nor will you see panic, chaos, slamming pans and frantic activity at the Nick Nairn Cook School in rural Stirlingshire where Webber is the culinary director.
“Television makes cooking seem very dramatic but the best kitchens are not the ones where people are shouting their heads off”, says Webber – who has recently been named the UK’s best tutor in the National Cook School Awards.
The chef began with Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester before going on to become a chef and consultant at a succession of top hotels. He has been with Nick Nairn from the beginning and I’ve come for a one-to -one class at the school to try out what the judges praised as his “sublime” methods of teaching.
There’s an array of knives, chopping boards and measured ingredients – but first Webber is going to teach me to fillet a fish.
“Is it your first time?” he says, handing me a scary-looking sea bream, which is staring at me with its beady eyes.
He shows me how to cut off the fins, slice around the gills, then to slide the knife gently over the ribs alongside the backbone. Trim round the edge, pull out the pin bones with some fish tweezers and it’s done. A fillet of fish. I can’t believe I did it.
Webber explains that the idea is not to do this at home. “It’s very messy.” The idea is for cookschool students to understand exactly what to ask for from the fishmonger – which in this case is a fillet, de-scaled, skin on with the pin bones taken out.
It’s reassuring to start cooking with everything laid out in little glass bowls. We start by crisping panchetta in olive oil, then adding blanched shallots and garlic.
My tutor shows me how to peel garlic by bashing it with the side of a chefs knife and how to peel out the green shoot which can make it taste bitter.
We pour off the excess oil, add some unsalted butter then slice up some pak choi and saute for three minutes. Next we add the chicken stock and peas.
You learn a lot by cooking alongside someone. I learn how to control the pan by moving it on and off the heat.
“That’s an angry pan,” says the chef teacher – when mine starts smoking furiously.
When I’m wielding the knife he shows me how to rock it backwards and forwards. It’s the opposite of what I do. “That’s your homework”,” he says.
We pick up the chopped up veg with a Nick Nairn scraper – a tool originally used by bakers which Webber likes to use as a “third hand”. It’s one of the best selling in the cook shop school.
When the sauce is sufficiently reduced we add double cream and put to one side. The colours are glorious – bright green glistening strips of pak choi and orangey brown cubes of bacon.
I’m not a bad cook – but I’m messy – and nothing ever looks quite the way it should by the time it ends up on the plate. But this well-organised, Zen-like approach to cooking seems to be working. The tutor shows me how to test the heat of a pan by splashing on a few drops of water and watching them form bright, bouncing pearls. When the pan is sufficiently hot I put in the oil and slide in the fish.
Webber tells me to resist the urge to shove the bream about in the pan. Ah. This is where I’ve been going wrong. “If this was a cooking programme the producers would be telling you to do something. But a lot of cooking is watching and waiting.”
After adding seasoning and a squirt of lemon and returning to the heat to warm through I pour my lovely sauce into a big white bowl then balance the browned fillet of fish on the top. Amazing. It looks like a dish you might get in a restaurant. And it tastes fantastic.
Next up, Webber proposes to show me how to dismember a chicken – and there are a couple of enormous birds lined up and waiting in the fridge. The idea is to show how much more you can get from a bird if you resist the temptation to buy it in little sawn up packaged parcels.
“These are what I call Jordans”” he says – pointing at their enormous bulging breasts. After my triumph with the fish filleting I’m feeling confident. But dissecting these birds is a bit more physical. We slice and snap off the wings and peel back the legs.
But I struggle to dislocate the chicken thighs by twirling the bird in the air. Eventually, with a bit of help I end up with two wings, two breasts with bone, two leg fillets and a carcase. It’s a whole lot of chicken.
“People waste money because they have fixed ideas of what they want”, says Webber
People come to the Cook School for all sorts of reasons – to practice for dinner parties, learn to bake bread, learn specific recipes for different occasions or to cook food from different countries. Webber’s calm approach is perfect for helping cooks build confidence – but he also likes to push people out of their comfort zones and back to basics – which is why he’s chosen to show me how to deal with a whole fish and a whole chicken.
The rise and rise of celebrity chefs means the cult of cooking has never been greater – yet the UK eats more and more ready meals. Webber believes the cook school. which charges £139 a day and £49 for a half-day, can help bridge the gap.
“We have people coming back again and again. One person has been 28 times and we have a lot of people in double figures. If you work in a restaurant the best you can hope is to give someone a nice meal or a nice evening. But when you do this you can actually change someone’s life”, he says.