Sunday, 8 May 2011

Dinner Parties Made Easy at The Cheshire Cookery School – A Review

It's the middle of 2010, and I'm googling ‘Cookery Schools Cheshire’ to try and find a cookery course that would not require expensive trips to London and B&B accommodation.  I was given a very disappointing list in return, except for glimmer of hope that lifted my heart – ‘Opening soon, Cheshire Cookery School, Altrincham, Cheshire’. Hallelujah! At last, somewhere for us North West foodies to retreat and to learn!

I waited with baited breath for the opening and in March, I found myself signing up to ‘Dinner Parties Made Easy’ on 5th May, for the princely sum of £75.

The Cheshire Cookery School - not as expected,
but wait till you get inside
Knowing the school was in Altrincham, I stupidly expected a Victorian building in lush grounds, but as I pulled up to The Cheshire Cookery School, an hour early not really knowing what to expect, I drove into what could only be described on first glance, as an industrial estate. I double checked (and re-checked again) my sat nav and my confirmation letter – this couldn’t be right, surely? Every cookery school I’d been to was either a modern establishment in Central London, a converted barn in the country side, or in peoples home, restaurant or shop kitchens. I checked again - the school was inside COD Electricals. Not as expected, but, as I was to discover, there was a culinary good time lay behind those doors.

I entered the school through a kitchen showroom (alas, COD Electricals) that made me weep with longing; none of your Cooke & Lewis at B&Q, oh no, these were granite, gadget and glory filled kitchens, the things dreams are made of
 (at least mine are anyway).  After being greeted by two very friendly salesmen, I made my way through the showroom-of-dreams into the schools demonstration area – a black granite and shining chrome sight to behold. At that point I didn’t want to leave and could quite happily have spent my days there. I was distracted from the fully loaded champagne rack I was drooling over by the sound of voices chatting enthusiastically, and followed a distinctly Mancunian accent to find Jason Palin, Chef Director, chatting away with Claire, Cheese Extraordinaire, in the schools kitchens (more on this in a later post, but for now, please, please go out and buy Burt’s Cheese. Hey, that rhymes). 

The Demonstration kitchen

Feeling shy and being very early, I loitered by the rows of champagne bottles (a good place for me to be.  I felt content, warm, happy.  Anyway).  Jason sounded so friendly that I went in and introduced myself. I was greeted with a kiss like a long lost friend and, after being offered a cup of tea (or something stronger?), Jason and I sat down to chat about food, the school and life in general.

It became clear that The Cheshire Cookery School is the realization of a dream and an extension of a family kitchen business ran by Andrew Warnes, whose father started the business before him. A foodie himself, Andrew saw the opportunity to create something special in what use to be the unused area of the kitchen showroom and has since created a magnificent space to be enjoyed by all who cross the threshold.  The kitchen showroom and industrial frontage made sense now, an asset even.  Jason, a regular face on the North West foodie scene, joined the school from day one and helped create the open, friendly, relaxed atmosphere with his open, friendly, relaxed personality. 

Jason Palin - Chef Director at
The Cheshire Cookery School

Jason has cooked in some 42 countries and managed to name drop Raymond Blanc’s legendary Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saison as a kitchen he's worked in without a hint of arrogance (surely a little would be allowed) – I was impressed. He also represents Roberts Bakery at the annual Cheshire Show, designed all the recipes featured in the bakery’s 2011 calendar and is on the judging panel for Roberts Bakery competition to win a lifetimes supply of bread, to be judged at the Cheshire Show. 
The School Kitchen

As Poppy, Andrew’s angelic daughter
 (who can’t be more that 6 years old) directed guests who’d lost their way and handed out aprons, Jason chatted to me about his love of teaching and creating dinner parties in people’s homes, indulging me in amusing stories of situations he’d found himself in. (I’d love to repeat some here but I’d hate to incriminate anyone – perhaps you should book yourself a place to hear the tales first hand!).  My nerves had disappeared.  Jason has a way of relaxing attendees the second they step through the door - maybe it's his ever pleasant giggle (I wish I could put it in a jar to open up when I feel sad).

As the seven other attendees (a mixture of men and women of all ages) were greeted and settled in with tea, coffee and wine, Jason began by explaining that his classes were designed to be relaxed, fun, friendly and, most importantly without pressure.  In Jason's opinion, pressured, stressful environments create bad food and bad atmosphere – I couldn't agree more, a man after my own heart. Jason asked us to treat the kitchens as our own, using the facilities as we pleased and helping ourselves to wine; I didn’t need to be asked twice – this is clearly my kind of school!  But I didn’t need to get the wine, the wine was brought to me as Alexander, Andrews son, couldn't have been more attentive, bringing wine and taking away dirty pots. Hmm, I wonder if I could kidnap him to come to my house?  

So far, The Cheshire Cookery School had managed that unique combination of the standards of a well appointed, professional Cookery School with the warm, friendly, relaxed nature of a family ran foodie home business. It was going well and I had a huge smile on my face, like the one I get every time I’m in a kitchen, only brighter and wider thanks to the beautiful kitchens and friendliness the of the people.

With the pop of a cork on a bottle of white, we got down to work, creating a simple but stunning three course meal that we could enjoy together at the end of the evening: 

  • Pea Soup with Burts Cheese Crumble 
  • Roast Salmon with Caper Butter,Haricot Bean Puree and Crispy Basil Leaves 
  • Lemon Syllabub with Shortbread Biscuits.

Dinner Parties Made Easy is definitely a beginners course and the menu was simple enough to re-create at home. Jason demonstrated his cheffy-expertise by showing us dishes that looked like they took hours to make, when in fact, they were decidedly easy.  He showed us the tricks of presentation, which for me was the highlight.
Jason and cookery school attendee June frying basil leaves

As Jason first demonstrated how to make the dishes, he peppered his pre-amble with amusing anecdotes of celebrity chefs he knows, in particular those who make guest appearances at the School, including Simon Rimmer (I used the salt he left behind – swoooon) and Aiden Bryne. 

Once Jason had done his thing, it was time to do ours. Jason managed to strike the perfect balance between being a helpful teacher and letting us try out for ourselves. Save for a few minor disasters that Jason quickly put right, everyone’s confidence soared and we were bouncing around the kitchen like expletives from Gordon Ramsey; in all directions and full of passion.

Cookery School attendees on the go
(although four seem to have wandered off with Jason)!

My personal favorite from the evenings dishes was the Lemon Syllabub, closely followed by Pea Soup (an eternal favorite of mine that I personally leave chunky and eat with chunks of fish fingers as croutons, in front of the TV on a cold night); it wasn’t so much the recipes themselves, it was the alternative flavor and decoration ideas that Jason gave to make these dishes dinner-party-special.

When making the pea soup, Jason gave us the recipe for parmesan crisps to serve alongside, but also demonstrated Burt’s Crumble. To make, mix a crumbled slab of Burt’s Cheese (or any Blue Cheese) with a tablespoon or two of wholemeal flour with your fingertips, to create a chunky, rubbly crumble.  Dry fry the crumble over a low heat until you have cooked away all of the floury taste, but the cheese isn’t melting. Leave to cool slightly and sprinkle over your soup before serving.

For the syllabub, as well as discussing different flavour ideas (my favouite being lemongrass), Jason talked us through how to make candied lemon peel. Pare strips of zest from 2 unwaxed lemons and cut into thin strips. Place in a saucepan with about 100mls water and a tablespoon of sugar. Bring to the boil, turn off the heat and leave to cool. You will be left with candied lemon peel in a lemon syrup. Drizzle the syrup over the top of the Syllabub's with the tip of a teaspoon  and top with a few slices of the peel. This little garnish took the syllabub from nearly sickly to very, very refreshing.
As the evening began to wind down and pans were being cleared (by the ever wonderful Alexander – I need one at home!), the sound of excited chatter, pans clanging and blenders whizzing lapsed into the sounds of murmured appreciation, cutlery on plates and wine sipped from glasses as we took our lovingly prepared three course meal to the dining room, allowing us to indulge while Jason entertained us with stories of foodie travels around India and Italy. 

Enjoying dinner

As we folded our new (and now food-splattered) aprons into our bags, we said our thank you’s and good-bye’s and vowed to spend another evening in Jason’s company at the School in the not to distant future. The atmosphere was one of satisfied cooks who had had a great evening in this gem of a Cookery School.  I can't wait to go back and a must for any Northern based foodies.

For details of courses at The Cheshire Cookery School, please click here

I paid to attend the Cookery School for my own enjoyment and all opinions are my own


  1. Ooh sounds good! Always interested in out of London places and the NW seems too good to be true. Great post!

  2. Thanks Helen! You should go, it's really fun (and I didn't get told off for licking the spoon ;-) bonus)

  3. You got a really useful blog I have been here reading for about a while already.