“ Address: Woodham House / Carlton Road / Woking / Surrey GU21 4HF / England „
I have just completed my Essential Skills course at the Tante Marie Cookery School. I have learned quite a lot of new things and I thought a review would be helpful for anyone else considering this course, as it's not cheap at £2.825 for the 4-week course (it was £2,625 when I signed up in November 2008).
What is included in the Essential Skills course?
You get tuition and all the ingredients are provided. On the first day of the course we were given a set of chef's knives in a knife wallet (I have written a separate review of these), a pair of chef's trousers, a white chef's jacket, a blue hat and an apron. We were also given a recipe file with hundreds of recipes included. Although we were not examined on this course, we all received a certificate of attendance at the end of the course.
What did you learn to cook?
During the 4 weeks we covered the following of Cordon Bleu cookery:
- Sauces such as Béchamel Sauce, Crème Anglaise
- Soups such as Carrot & Coriander, Butternut Squash and Red Pepper
- Seafood such as preparing fresh scallops, skinning fish
- Meat and roasts, such as Lamb Cutlets, Roast Pork
- Poultry, such as Chicken Curry, Coronation Chicken
- Vegetables and Salads, with different flavourings and dressings
- Canapés, such as Quail Egg Scotch Eggs
- Desserts, such as Sticky Toffee Pudding, Strawberry Soufflé
- Pastries, such as Apple Tarts, Oven Roasted Mediterranean Tart
- Cakes and biscuits, such as Carrot Cake, Magda Biscuits
- Bread, such as baps, granary bread, pizza dough and beer bread
- Ice cream, such as Crème Fraiche Ice Cream
Where is the school?
The school is located in Woking, Surrey. My family still live in Woking and that is one of the reasons why I chose to attend the school, as I could stay with my brother. The school is about a 5 minute drive or a 20 minute walk from Woking train station/town centre. It is located down Carlton Road, which is a private road and the road itself is more like a dirt track with lots of holes in it, so it really doesn't do the suspension of your car any good!
What's the school like?
I didn't visit the school before I signed up for the course, as I was living in San Francisco at the time. From the photographs on their website, I expected it to be a huge building with a long, sweeping driveway. In reality, it is quite a small, old building and it hides behind a hedge. The most visible feature from the outside is the green copper turret on part of the roof. The building has a lot of character and I think it is a converted house as there are original fireplaces in some of the rooms. The front door has some beautiful stained glass and therefore we weren't allowed to use this door because a past student let the door slam and broke the glass!
The kitchens are quite compact, considering there are a maximum of 10 students per group. There are 4 kitchens that students use, all named after different regions of France, and some are better than others. The décor is quite outdated and for some reason I expected them to look all new and sleek, like a showroom kitchen. The ovens are quite old and a mixture of gas and electric, but in a way I thought this was a good thing, because these are the type of oven the average person has at home. If the school had top of the range new-fangled ovens, then I wouldn't feel so confident about being able to recreate the dishes at home. The hobs were a mixture of gas and electric, but they also had some induction hobs, which were interesting to use as they heat up almost instantly - I still prefer to cook on gas though!
The other kitchen equipment provided was from good quality brands, such as Kenwood hand mixers, Magimix food processors and ice cream machines. All of the saucepans are made by All-Clad so they are brilliant to cook with and there are Le Creuset roasting dishes and casserole dishes, which really makes me want some at home if I could ever afford them! In the secretary's office there is a little shop where you can buy some of the smaller items, such as heat-proof spatulas, baking beans and muffin tins. I got a price list from the secretary and I compared them to places like Amazon and Lakeland and they are pretty competitive, so I treated myself to some spatulas and rosti rings to make my food look posh!
We had to cook in the 4 different kitchens over the 4-week period, as there was also another group doing the same course simultaneously as us and there were other groups who came in to do 1 or 2 day courses, such as an Indian Cooking Course and a Men Only Course. Moving kitchens was extremely frustrating because once we'd learned where everything was in one kitchen, they would then move us to a new one! Just imagine walking into your kitchen at home and someone had moved everything to a new place. Maddening! Add to this scenario 8 or 9 other people getting in your way as they're all looking for ingredients/equipment as well. I get cross when just the dog gets under my feet in the kitchen at home! Thankfully they did let us spend about a week in each kitchen before moving us on, so we did get used to where things were.
The school is spread out over 3 floors:
* Ground floor - 2 Kitchens for students (plus another for staff), the Demonstration room, Secretary's office
* First floor - 1 Kitchen, the Library (full of cookery books!) and Staff offices
* Second floor - 1 Kitchen, Male and Female Changing rooms and a Theory room
Going up and down the stairs was so tiring, but it has really toned up my legs and it was a good way to burn off some of the calories that we were consuming!
There was a simple garden area where we could chill out during our breaks. Unfortunately it rained quite a lot during July so we couldn't spend much time out there, which was a shame as it was lovely sitting on the grass in the sun. I spotted rosemary growing in the garden and every now and then a teacher would pop out to the garden to pick some fresh bay leaves when we needed more. This has really inspired me to add herbs to my garden-growing repertoire, as we have used so many different fresh herbs and now I really appreciate how much difference they can make to a dish.
What were the teachers like?
We had a mixture of male and female teachers and they were all quite young, between mid 20's and 30's. The majority of them were absolutely brilliant but a couple were truly awful. But I think that is the case with any educational establishment, whether it be compulsory school or learning to drive. One particular teacher we had a problem with was new and he'd worked in some top restaurants and so he had a bit of an attitude problem, in that he thought he were so much better than us little people and therefore treated us like idiots. He admitted that he'd left the restaurant trade to teach because it was an easier job (less stressful, not such long working hours), but I suspect that he hadn't had any teacher training. I think that being a successful teacher is one of the hardest jobs in the world and just having knowledge and experience does not automatically make you a good teacher. The ability to convey that knowledge without being patronising and arrogant is something that this teacher needs to learn! I really hate to write such a scathing report about this teacher and I really hope that his teaching will improve as I would hate for the school to suffer as a result.
I learned the most from a teacher who has now unfortunately left the school to open a bakery on the Isle of Wight (Bembridge Bakery in case you're interested!). He didn't always follow the recipes in the folder we were given and as a result I learned a lot of new skills and techniques from his professional experience. So I now know how to cook simple things like chips and couscous in a totally different and amazing way!
What were the other students like?
I had wanted to take the course in January, but it was fully booked. So the course I took in July was full of people who had just finished their A levels and were killing time before going to University. This didn't bother me as I'm only 28 and there was one other girl the same age as me, but there was one lady who had just retired, so she was a lot older than the rest of us and probably felt quite left out. So the time of year that you take the Essential Skills course might make a big difference to whether you'll be working with your peers. Within our 2 separate groups we had students from America, Canada and Russia, so it is an internationally renowned school. The other students came from all over the UK, some as far as Norwich, and whilst quite a few stayed with family/friends, the school can put you in touch with host families with live locally if you need accommodation.
What were the classes like?
Everyday in the morning we would cook a 3-course meal and we would eat this for our lunch. Any leftovers were given to the staff to eat for their lunch. This meant that we worked in pairs, as most recipes served 4-6 people, so if we'd made all the dishes individually there would have been far too much food! There were 8 people in my group, so we were assigned 1 person to work with for a week and then swapped. Working in pairs can be a bit of a nightmare if you don't get on with someone (luckily everyone in my group got on well!) and sometimes you miss out on doing something because your partner is doing it. But we did repeat some of the skills with different dishes (whisking egg whites for meringues, making a white sauce for soufflés, making custards for ice cream or crème caramel), so most of the time we each got a chance to do it.
After lunch we would either have a demonstration (roughly 2 each week) where a teacher would demonstrate some of the dishes we would be making at a later date. After a hectic morning cooking and a heavy lunch, the ability to stay awake during a demonstration escaped most of us. The demonstration room had the nicest looking kitchen and it had one of those mirrors on the ceiling so that we could see what the teacher was doing on the kitchen counter. I did enjoy the demonstrations as it gave me more confidence to make the dish myself after watching someone else talk us through the recipe. It was also a welcome break from cooking, as the days when we cooked in the morning and the afternoon were REALLY tiring! Having said that, we would usually just make a cake or something sweet like fudge in the afternoon and we got to take these things home (which my brother liked, although we did give most of the goodies to his work colleagues as we couldn't eat it all ourselves - the Triple Chocolate Brownies went down particularly well!)
So was the course worth doing?
For me I will say yes it was worth doing, as I am now certain that a career in food is right for me. No matter how tired I was, I still looked forward and was enthusiastic about cooking every day.
I learned a lot of new things and I gained so much confidence. In particular, I am now very comfortable making pastry and dough as I have been shown how it should look and feel. This is something that I could never have learned from a book or even a TV show, as touching the food is the only way to really learn if it's right.
I loved preparing all the meat and fish, as I'd never cut up a whole rack of lamb before or skinned fish. I was shocked at how squeamish some of the other girls were when faced with a whole raw chicken, but I guess I have had more experience of dealing with meat that doesn't come straight out of a packet in neat shapes with no resemblance to its former state!
I have definitely broadened my cooking repertoire in terms of actual dishes I can make, but I have also learned so much about using fresh herbs and how they can totally transform a dish.
Learning how to make Sticky Toffee Pudding was a highlight, but now soufflés and meringues are no longer things I've put off making because they seemed scary and impossible.
Of course, I do have some grumbles about the course. The main one is that the lessons sometimes finished too early. The normal school hours were 9.30am to 4.30pm, but we very rarely finished that late. So even though it was nice to be able to go home early, some of us did feel that we weren't getting our money's worth. This feeling was enhanced by the fact that we made too many salads with dressings and too many desserts which were basically fruit salads. We expected to make more complicated dishes and not things that a child would make in home economics class at school!
Overall I did enjoy the course and I'm glad I did it, however I'm pleased that I only did the 4-week course. At first I wished I had been able to afford a longer course, but based on the teaching and the school itself, I don't think I would have enjoyed spending 6 months or a year there.
Tante Marie is an international cordon bleu cookery school with cookery courses for everyone.