As soon as you walk into Waitrose’s gleaming new cookery school, it’s clear they’ve splashed the cash. I went along to the Finchley Road branch, above which the school is located, to find out whether aspiring home cooks should do the same. Our aim for the evening: perfect macaroons.
The space is certainly attractive: there’s an expansive dining area with chunky light-wood tables (no doubt available from John Lewis), an attractive wall of wine and a modern bar.
Off to the side is the theatre, which looks like a TV studio kitchen, with seating for about 40 people. Separated from the dining room by a glass partition is the kitchen itself, which has a demonstration area, and then nine workstations, each with an oven, hob, fridge and cupboards and drawers filled with pans, utensils and gadgets. Around the sides more equipment sits on windowsills – behind me are umpteen Le Creuset pans, pots and tagines.
It all looks good and of course it’s all immaculately clean (this is only the second night the kitchen has been open). The major appliances are John Lewis own brand and the stations are meant to deliberately mirror what most people have at home, although the food mixer we’re using is a top-of-the range professional one.
After a welcoming glass or two of champagne and a couple of canapés – one of which we’re accurately warned is tongue-scaldingly hot – we don our whites and gather round to watch head pastry chef James Campbell (formerly Gary Rhodes’ group head pastry chef) talk us through the macaroon making process.
When it comes to our turn, the ingredients have already been measured out although we have to separate our own eggs. We’re making Italian meringue because it is easy and stable, but it does mean pouring hot sugar syrup into whisked egg whites (a fancy digital thermometer tells us when we hit the 114 degree Celsius mark.).
We’re working in pairs, which I find a little odd – people are rarely allowed IN my kitchen, let alone permitted to pick up a spoon unless under close supervision! However, it turns out that my cooking buddy actually teaches cooking classes herself, although is quite scathing about wasting time cooking patisserie.
The vast majority of the people here are food bloggers who Waitrose has invited to this second preview night. The first one had been for the mainstream media. Celebrity Masterchef winner Lisa Faulkner had been there, and Heston himself had even made a fleeting appearance although Delia hadn’t graced the school with her presence.
There are no celebs tonight, but as the chefs introduce themselves, you realise quite quickly that it’s not just the fixtures and fittings that have cost money. Charming head chef James Bennington won a Michelin star at La Trompette, sous chef Eleni Tzirki casually namedrops Pierre Koffmann and Bruno Loubet as she introduces herself, while Aussie Wilson Chung, who’s in charge of cocktails tonight, has an astonishingly eclectic CV that includes running the kitchen at the Sydney Good Food & Wine Show.
One of the best things about the experience is the ratio of chefs to punters. As we’re busy worrying whether our peaks are stiff enough or our mixture smooth enough, one of the team is always around to advise.
While the macaroons bake, we head to the bar to learn how to make bitter orange cocktails (Grand Marnier, orange juice with maple syrup, ice – simple) and get the chance to practice our cocktail shaking technique. Then, while the macaroons cool we get a demonstration of how to make espresso martinis (these really aren’t hard either). Of course we get to drink all these things too. This isn’t an evening to have planned to drive home.
In the full version of this macaroon course, you get to make your own filling, but this has been done for us. We get to practice on some glittery pink macaroons, filling them with some berry mixture and a mulled wine flavoured liquid centre.
For our own creations, there’s an apricot filling in the fridge and, despite some dodgy piping skills, they all end up looking pretty good. Certainly everyone seems happy as they pack the fruits of their labour into boxes to take home.
If we were paying customers, this evening course would set us back £105. Whole day courses are £175 and cover everything from Thai cookery to Boxing Day leftovers. I suspect the cookery school will be very popular with corporate events as there is so much flexibility to meet quite specific needs. It is not cheap, although I’m sure most people would enjoy the experience, and a quick trawl of other London options suggests it’s broadly in line with the market.
Waitrose Cookery School
Nearest tube: Finchley Road
T: 020 7372 6128