Cookery Courses: Some Pros and Cons

Last month I spent a pleasant Sunday at the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School. It occurred to me that although I have been on a fair few such courses over the past twenty odd years, and on several continents, I don't recall reading many column inches on them. So here are some thoughts.

Michelin Starred Tortellini

The ultimate in cookery classes, of course, is the one which will see you emerge ready to take your place in the maelstrom of a professional kitchen. Well, let's assume that doesn't apply to you. (Though I was once taught to make tortellini in a Michelin starred kitchen.) So why are you going, and what do you hope to get? In many cases the first experience for foodie folk may well come in the form of a voucher for such a class, in which case you have no choice of venue. But take a step back and assume you have carte blanche. Which places to go to and which to avoid?

Realistically, what level are you at and what gaps do you have in your skills set? Remember the old saw - give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life. I guess the culinary equivalent would be along the lines of, teach a person a recipe and you teach her one dish: teach the basic techniques behind it and you teach hundreds of dishes. Read the websites carefully. Speak to people who have been on similar courses, or ask to speak to the course leaders themselves. You can be parting with quite a bit of money, so don't be frightened of doing your research. Find out, in particular, just how hands on things will be. There is no substitute for doing something yourself. If it's a demonstration only day, I would avoid like the -  what's the word I'm looking for? - oh, yes, COVID 19. You might just as well save yourself the money, sit in the comfort of your armchair watching, Keith Floyd, Rick Stein or The Hairy Bikers. Entertainment is guaranteed, plus a bit of documentary, travelogue and history thrown in.

How many people will be on the course, and what is the stove:student ratio? The smaller the number of participants, the more attention you will get, and the greater your chance to ask questions; however, the cost will be greater. And who precisely will be taking the course? There are a few big name chefs who have their own cookery schools. If it's important to you to meet the great man/woman him/herself, check carefully to avoid disappointment. One of the best courses I ever attended was at Martin Wishart's Cookery School. It was made crystal clear that it would not be taught by Martin. I believe he does take a few himself, at a higher fee. You knew in advance what recipes you would be making - it was the pigeon which sold it to me - but what made the day special was the constant stream of handy hints and tips from a couple of top pros. Anti sodium brigade note: salt is a flavour enhancer. Everyone note: pepper is a spice; not all dishes require spice; so don't assume the words and pepper must automatically follow salt.

A market tour in Bali

One of the best reasons for attending a course is to learn about a completely new cuisine. The caveat again is to find out as much as you can about the course content. I loved Thai food but knew little about it. Learning how to make my own curry pastes lifted my future efforts miles above those made using stuff from a jar. I've also done a lot of courses abroad, primarily in the Far East. Be realistic. A few hours is not going to turn you into an expert. But if it's combined, as many are, with a trip to a local market, you'll come away with a greater knowledge of the ingredients. Oh, and probably with a certificate of dubious value. My collection includes a merit for a spring roll made as the sun was going down in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, a splendid day in Bali presided over by a hysterically funny chef whose head was even fuller of trivia than mine, and a morning bashing Thai paste with a mortar and pestle while watching hotel staff trying to round up a lost baby elephant.

Pasta making in Tuscany - Dangerous!

Finally, a word of warning on the alcohol front. It is customary to eat at least a part of what one has cooked. The blurb will usually say that you may enjoy a glass of wine with your food. What, pray, is the problem, I hear you ask, especially those who know me? I raise the point simply having regard for your driving licence, and, in certain cases for your liver. I did spend a raucous week in Tuscany where the prosecco was likely to be opened at 11am, and the last wine consumed when the chef fell over about 12 hours later. The glass of wine may be just that, or it may be a bottomless bottle left on a serve yourself basis. Consider how you are going to transport yourself home.

You should expect to come away with a goodly number of recipes. On my last visit, focusing on Spain. it didn't help that the teacher seemed to disagree with half of the written material. I did ask if I could reproduce any of the recipes, but they didn't come back to me. No matter: we'll dig out a treat for Friday.

I've had a lot of fun in cookery classes over the years.  My first ever was led by a relatively unknown Sikh chef by the name of Tony Singh. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge; but if you have a specific goal, it pays to do a little research.


  1. Liz Wood on 14th October 2020 at 6:33 pm

    Ohhh…Tuscan one sounds great. Just a pity you didn’t think to say ‘basta’…!

    • Tom Johnston on 15th October 2020 at 9:55 am

      Not like you to be a party pooper, Ms DuBois. Mind you, Lesley was heard to mutter something very similar first thing of a morning.

  2. Robert Corrigan on 14th October 2020 at 6:53 pm

    Most enjoyable indeed as ever.
    Doing night classes in college is also a good way of adding to your skills. I did blown sugar and chocolate classes in 2003.
    As for Thai curry paste. I was in a lunch queue at Terra Madra in 2006 in Turin. In front of me were a small group of farmers from Thailand. They asked me what I knew about their country. I told them what I knew, as well as how I made my own fresh Thai curry paste. The guy with the best English said ” we buy it in a jar”.

    Enough said!

    • Tom Johnston on 15th October 2020 at 9:57 am

      I know for a fact that curry paste in jars in Thailand bears little resemblance to the stuff we get here. I have a good recipe – and you’ve just given me an idea for a Tom Cooks! column.

  3. Michael Brown on 16th October 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Hello Tom, it is Mike and Morag (friends of Mike and Marianna) we have move to Tuscany 3 months ago to retire. I am also a great food lover and will follow your blog and contribute when we can, Salute.

    • Tom Johnston on 16th October 2020 at 5:04 pm

      E salute a te, signore! I remember you chaps well. You and I bumped into each other in Roseburn a good few years ago. Whereabouts in Tuscany? I’ve been learning Italian off and on for a good few years now. Speak it quite well, but my comprehension isn’t great. I get the occasional message from Michael on Facebook. I’ve taken the liberty of signing you up for the Mailchimp notifications – one a week for each of the three blogs. You can unsubscribe any time.

      Happy retirement. I took the plunge over six years ago andit’s been briliant, apart from the plague year.

      Love to Morag

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