A Taste of Knife Skills For Beginners
To purchase any (or all!) of my books, just click here.
Paul Delamare, chef and food writer, has been persuaded, against his better judgement and at short notice, to teach a course at a posh Belgravia cookery school. After a sleepless night, he walks to the school, which is only a few streets away from his quaint little house, and introduces himself.
The front door of number forty-one is not in Chester Square at all but to one side of the property, in Eccleston Street. This particular house has always intrigued me because at some point the owners built a square extension at the back, with clerestory windows running around the top – a gallery, or perhaps a library?
By Belgravia standards, the place looks shabby. The Grosvenor Estate, which owns everything around here, has draconian rules on exterior maintenance, so it's not a case of peeling paint or cracked windows, but there's something unloved about it. Cinerarias in the window-boxes look as if they'd benefit from a feed and water, and the steps could do with a sweep.
Beside the door – regulation black gloss, somewhat scuffed – is a touchpad with numbers, and a round button marked VISITORS. I press this and there's a jangling of bells, followed by the clash of electric locks leaping back. The door half-opens, and a pale, slender young woman in a high-necked white chef's tunic looks me up and down. It's as if she's gone out of her way to be unmemorable: no make-up or jewellery, wishy-washy hair.
'I'm Suzie,' she says. 'Suzie Wheeler.'
Not the enthusiastic welcome one might have hoped for… Thank you for coming to the rescue at short notice, Paul! Or: You must be Paul Delamare – our knight in shining armour!
'I'll show you up. Christian isn't here yet.' She's a rhotic speaker – burrs her rs as they do in the West Country; my mother was too. As the door closes behind us I notice she bites her nails.
'Is there a code so I can get in and out by myself?' I ask.
'1904,' she replies.
I've set the questions for a few food quizzes in my time, so I parry this with 'Invention of the tea bag.'
'Also the boss's birthday.' She smiles, cautiously. 'Not the year, obviously – the nineteenth of April.'
My first impression on stepping inside is the smell. I have an especially keen sense of smell – it's something chefs develop. This is that instantly recognisable 'institutional' pall, of dinners and disinfectant. Otherwise no surprises: a thick but well-worn carpet in burnt gold, console tables with magazines and tired vases of chrysanthemums, dingy Victorian landscapes hanging from picture rails.
I follow Suzie up a broad flight of stairs – 'The Grand Staircase,' she says with a sniff – and along a landing. If downstairs is like a waiting room, this has more of an auction house vibe, crowded with lumber and glass display cases. I'll take a proper look later, but we seem to have a collector in our midst – of antique cooking equipment.
We pick our way to a door bearing a hand-painted plaque: Shelley Room. Suzie taps on it, calls out, 'Your visitor, Mrs Hoyt,' then melts away. I step into the oak-panelled lair of the cookery school's proprietor-cum-principal.
She's standing at tall French windows, facing away from me. Her silhouette is trim – braid-edged tweed suit, ash-blonde hair swept back under a wide headband – against the green backdrop of the planes in the square's central garden. In the middle of the room stands a large antique desk of the bank manager sort, topped with green leather, framed photographs and a laptop. A few tidy piles of paper are kept in check by antique brass weights, the bell-shaped type with a handle at the top. Running along the walls are further display cabinets and an ornate cast-iron strongbox, with a coat of arms traced in gilt. Hanging on the panelling: prints of herbs, fruits and spices; framed advertisements for Victorian bakeware and gadgetry; one of those School of Arcimboldo oil paintings in which the subject's face is modelled from vegetables.
I'm busy taking all this in when the woman wheels round. She's not that much older than I am – late forties, perhaps – elegantly made-up and presented, but holds her face to one side, as if hiding something.
'Rose Hoyt,' she says, extending a hand for me to shake. With the other, she dabs her eye with a handkerchief. 'You must excuse my appearance. I presume from your surprised expression that Christian didn't mention it.'
I fumble an apology and turn away. Her face appears to have fallen at one side, perhaps because of a stroke or palsy. Something similar happened to a matron at school during the school holidays – we were terrified it might be catching.
'Anyway,' says Rose, fidgeting with her hands, 'I did ask him to try and be punctual.' As well as engagement and wedding rings I see a big fat cushion-cut emerald in a diamond surround, probably Art Deco, worth more than I earn in a year.
'While we're waiting, let me tell you a little about the school and what we do here. This house has been in my family – the Strangs – since 1900, and I have lived here all my life. As you can see, it's on the large side. After my husband died – Hoyt is my married name – our daughter took a course at Leith's. It struck me we might be able to set up something along similar lines here.
'We teach what I call "classic cookery". A lot of the cookery schools seem only interested in jumping on the latest bandwagon – "Macaroon Masterclass", "Vegan in a Hurry", you know the sort of thing. But if you study here, you learn real cooking – how to make a proper béchamel, French-trim lamb cutlets or poach a salmon. Proper culinary practice, in other words.
'You will be teaching a class of eight. It's a residential arrangement. I think part of our appeal is that students get to stay in Belgravia, which would normally cost them a king's ransom. From our point of view, if we have all these spare bedrooms, we may as well fill them.'
She checks her watch again. According to mine, it's four minutes fast, but maybe she likes it that way. 'Did Christian take you through the syllabus?'
'No,' I reply, and she hands me a printed sheet. I'm about to raise the question of my fee, but she's already stood up and crossed to the fireplace, beside which an ornate gilt handle is set in a decorative plaster border. She gives it a crank, and noticing my look of interest, comments, 'You'll find that in many ways we're rather old-tech here. This is one of the original servants' bells from the nineteenth century, although of course Papa had them electrified.'
I look down the list of lessons. Yikes! This is also like stepping back in time - to a 1970s catering college. Mastering the Art of Pastry. Well-tempered Chocolate. Syrups, Spun Sugar and Sugarcraft. What has Christian landed me with?
'Erm, is there any flexibility with this?' I ask.
'I think you'll find it well structured – it covers the basic techniques and gives a satisfactory balance across the days. I know some schools design their courses so the students effectively cook their own meals, but I find that a little, well, cheap. Besides, that's what Suzie is here for,' she adds, as the young woman enters.
'You rang, Mrs Hoyt.' Very Downton Abbey.
'No sign of him, I suppose?' asks Rose.
'I think he was late back last night,' replies Suzie.
Rose fiddles with an earring. 'In that case, please show Mr Delamare around and make sure he knows where everything is.'
I follow Suzie out and, as soon as the door is shut, say to her, '"Mr Delamare" makes me feel about a hundred. Please call me Paul.'
She nods and we file back past the museum exhibits.
'I do feel a bit let down by Christian,' I continue, hoping she'll tell me what's happening. 'He promised to be here.' She shrugs – barely perceptibly – then leads me downstairs to a stately door with an enormous brass gong to one side. The nameplate is inscribed Pink Room.
'This is where we eat,' she says, swinging it open. There's something about pink dining rooms that makes me feel bilious, though I have to admit the space itself is gracious enough, facing out over Chester Square and gleaming with mahogany. On one wall, discreetly let into the beeswaxed panelling, I notice a dumb waiter, and ask Suzie if it's still in operation.
I'm a sucker for old-fashioned mod-cons. When I was a child, my mother used to take me to a china shop in South Audley Street that had a magic doormat: when you stepped on it, your weight triggered a mechanism that set the doors juddering open. My first suit came from a men's outfitters that used pneumatic tubes to whizz cash and change between the shop floor and the accounts department upstairs.
'Right to the top,' she replies; useful no doubt in olden days, for servants ferrying breakfast in bed to their indolent masters and mistresses. 'But Mrs Hoyt doesn't like the disturbance while people are eating, so I still do a lot of traipsing up and down.' Suzie indicates a door covered in green baize – the real thing, which you rarely see nowadays except on gaming and billiard tables.
Leaving the Pink Room behind us, she leads me back into the hall, past the funeral flowers to the rear of the building. I knew these properties were big, but this one seems to go on forever. We step out into a dark little courtyard, towered over by brickwork, with a huge black steel door at the back which Suzie says opens into Eaton Mews. A narrow cast-iron stairway – like an old-fashioned fire escape – leads up to a glazed door. Christian told me he had a flat above the old coach-house, and this is it.
Suzie climbs up the stairway and taps at the door, waits for a minute then descends.
'Any idea where he might have got to?' I ask.
She raises an eyebrow, to indicate that it's no concern of hers, and I follow her back into the house. A fleeting idea passes through my head – why not slip out of the front door and go home, pretend none of this ever happened? Then I think of Julie, and how I'd be letting her down.
I trail Suzie along a broad passageway lit by skylights and down a short ramp. She taps a green button and doors whoosh open. 'The Old Ballroom,' she announces.
Not a gallery, nor a library – but a ballroom. Of course! And now the HQ of the Chester Square Cookery School. At one end, a demonstration bench, with mirrors above to give students an aerial view. Two rows of workstations, each with its own hob and sink. Ovens down one wall, fridges another. Marble, stainless steel, Gaggenau, Liebherr – I'm impressed.
There's a clanging of the doorbell – the students have started to arrive – but before disappearing to answer it, Suzie indicates a piece of paper on the bench.
The woman scribbled in at the bottom must have booked at the last minute – always beware friends of the boss. The name Gregory Greenleaf rings a bell, but I can't think why.