Learning how to cook like a Michelin starred chef at the Northcote Cookery School
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 July 2019
A self-confessed kitchen klutz heads to the Michelin starred Northcote cookery school for some expert tuition
If you ask him nicely, there is every chance Jason 'Bruno' Birkbeck will share the secret of his famous butt rub. Before you get any funny ideas, you should know that Bruno is an award-winning chef and this particular rub is a culinary concoction that turns barbecued pork into a thing of great beauty.
I'm in the cookery school at Northcote, the Michelin-starred luxury hotel and restaurant in the Ribble Valley. Fellow students who have already been introduced to 'the rub' go misty-eyed and a shade wistful at its mention. It clearly has a deep affect on the cooks as well as the pigs.
Butt rubs aside, I am here to learn how to cook like a top chef and we are particularly pleased because we not only have the undivided attention of the school's boss, Bruno, but Lisa Goodwin-Allen, the hotel's executive chef and TV regular who is delivering her master class. For good measure, we have tutor Emma Lawson.
I've always been baffled by grown men and women with perfectly good jobs who go on cookery programmes and profess a burning desire to swap their cushy numbers as barristers or captains of industry to work long hours in a sweaty kitchen. Perhaps I'll understand better after this day-long session.
The school is based in a large modern glass box and looks a little like the MasterChef kitchen, kitted out with upmarket work stations, top-of-the-range gadgets and all manner of sharp things.
Through the walls, the Northcote kitchen team can be observed in the midst of a well choreographed service that has more syncopation than an am-dram musical. It's hypnotic but focus is required if I am to be elevated from a man who burns water to someone who can produce something, well, almost edible.
There are four fellow students and I am clearly the runt of the litter. Alastair Muir is a newcomer but eats regularly at Northcote and cooks while out working in the Middle East, Tracy Spence has been at the school a few times and looks calm and confident. Head boy and girl have to be Craig and Stephanie, experienced hands and both on the verge of long service awards having almost gone through the card of Northcote courses.
Lisa and Bruno are either good actors or they genuinely enjoy working with keen amateurs and the odd stumblebum (i.e. me). They show infinite patience and if, deep down inside they are slapping their foreheads in exasperation, they don't show it. It is quite a double act, filling the kitchen with banter, especially as both are on diets. Lisa looks like she's well ahead on points.
Our starter is char-grilled Wye Valley asparagus with sheep's curd and a sorrel oil. Lisa is at the head of the class and we, metaphorically, sit cross-legged in rapt anticipation. After watching her, we are sent off with our folders of recipes to have a bash. I stand at my bench delicately sandpapering the knobbly bits off an asparagus spear using a pristine square of pan scrub. Is life too short to sandpaper asparagus? Not if you want a Michelin star, it isn't.
Our main was lamb with a delicate white curry sauce, faggots, broad beans and peas. There are also onions roasted in fatty lamb trimmings; once tried never forgotten. Lisa starts off by butchering a substantial saddle of lamb with the enthusiasm of an orthopaedic surgeon.
This, I think, is fascinating to watch but probably not something I'll ever do…until I turn around and see that each of us has a saddle to dissect. Within a minute I am in need of a sticking plaster, but manage to produce something that doesn't entirely look like the cat has dragged it in from the garden.
The faggots are little balls of delicious minced meat which we wrap in caul, the lining of a pig's stomach. It's a bit like juggling a damp string vest.
For dessert, the rhubarb and custard is nothing like your mum made. This is the Generation Game challenge, making real custard with vanilla pods, then filling hemispheres of a mould prior to freezing. In the meantime we poach rhubarb and make an unctuous syrup. Then we somehow manage to turn the frozen custard into complete spheres and dip them in white chocolate. They look the real deal. Even mine tastes good.
At the end of a really fun day, punctuated by a delicious lunch made by proper chefs, you feel like you've put in a shift but you also come away with more confidence to create dishes that are less ordinary.
Happily, you get to keep all the ingredients (and the apron) so you can go home and dazzle your partner by recreating the meal. My faggots got a big thumbs up and the custard balls were particularly well received (not at the same time, of course). I overcooked the lamb but, hey, it was tender and tasted good.
So, would I swap this cushy number for the heat of the kitchen? Only if Lisa and Bruno were there to watch over me.
And the most valuable lesson I learned? I think that has to be that knives in professional kitchens are much sharper than the ones at home. Pass the plasters.
Northcote has a calendar of courses running throughout 2019. They includes Bruno's barbecue course complete with butt rub. Go to northcote.com.