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I was one of two boys who took cookery O-level at my secondary school

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 10 October, 2003 | By: Geraldine Brennan

This had never happened before

Joe Yates taught me about flavour, a word I had never heard from any of the other lecturers on my catering course. We had a real dragon of a principal who insisted on strict adherence to the curriculum, which was all about old-style French classical cooking, with no bearing on what people actually liked to eat. A lot of time was spent on boring garnishes and sauces that never touched the rest of the dish. It was all about showing off and nothing to do with enjoying food.

One afternoon a week we studied "continental cookery" with Joe Yates, who was running his own restaurant. He took the Elizabeth David approach, introducing us to the food that was eaten in homes in France, Italy and Greece, and teaching us where flavour came from and why it mattered. He brought in a big bunch of basil for us to smell, when all I'd seen before was grey dust. This was all very off-curriculum. He was a naughty man; he was older than the other lecturers, in his sixties, and he did what he liked. Nobody else swore, but he did. Rather than let us taste in tiny spoonfuls, he would hand out knives and forks and tell us to tuck in.

I was one of two boys who took cookery O-level at my secondary school. This had never happened before and there had to be several major meetings before it was allowed. Attempts has been made earlier on to steer me towards woodwork and metalwork - with horrible results. The girls in the class were very kind and supportive to us boys but the teacher was clearly horrified.

I can't imagine why a school would want to deter anyone from learning how to make a meal for themselves before they leave.

I taught myself to cook at home when I was quite young, and later I was allowed to help my stepmother in the kitchen. The first thing I made from beginning to end by myself was a cold blackcurrant souffle. It's typical of males to go for the most difficult option, and I remember a jam-like layer at the bottom of the dish where the souffle split. The recipe came from a Marguerite Patten book I took out of the mobile library. Besides cookbooks, I read stacks of Agatha Christies and Pan Books of Horror. I was head librarian at my secondary school, where the English teacher, Mr Drew, was just lovely and encouraged me to write pages and pages in essays.

When I left college, I came down to London with my backpack, knocked at the door of the Savoy and asked for a job. You could do that then, and I thought the bigger the kitchen, the more likely they'd find something for me. I was serving wonderful food for businessmen and politicians while I was sleeping on someone's floor and eating McDonald's and toasted sandwiches in cafes, because I had no cooking facilities of my own.

I went on to a wandering apprenticeship of hotels and restaurants all over the UK. I liked working for chefs who were hands-on and made you feel one of the family of the kitchen. Kenneth Bell, who owned Thornbury Castle near Bristol, was very strict but it was great experience because there were only two youngsters in the kitchen, and he would cook alongside us sometimes. Again, the food was French provincial, full of flavour.

John Tovey of Miller Howe in Cumbria, which is famous for afternoon teas, taught me how to make scones. He made me make them without looking down - looking out of the window at the lake. He told me: "A light heart makes for light cooking." When I planned my new kitchen, I made sure I could cook looking out of the window.

Food writer Nigel Slater was talking to Geraldine Brennan

The story so far

1960s Attends Woodfield Avenue primary school, Wolverhampton, then Chantry high school, Worcestershire

1976 Leaves Worcester technical college with OND in catering. Works in various restaurants and hotels around the UK

1988 Food writer for Marie Claire

1992 Publishes first cookbook, Real Fast Food, followed by The 30-Minute Cook (1994) and Real Good Food (1995)

1993 Starts column in the Observer

1998 Eight-part Channel 4 television series to accompany Real Food

2001 onwards Becomes associate editor of Observer Food Monthly

2003 Toast, a memoir, published by Fourth Estate (£16.99)


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