Meet the chef: Rosalind Rathouse

With over 50 years teaching in the kitchen there’s not much that Rosalind Rathouse from Cookery School at Little Portland Street doesn’t know about cooking. We chat to one of the most fascinating women in food…

How did you come to be running a cookery school?
I was a study skills tutor and had a ‘year off’ boy who was doing retakes and needed to fill his time constructively.  Of all that I suggested that he do, only cooking appealed. Unfortunately, there were only a few cookery schools in existence in London at the time and none could accommodate him. I said that if I had more time, I would teach him how to cook. I had had a cookery school in South Africa in the early 1970s, when we were there for a couple of years, and had always yearned to have one in England too. That night, on repeating Jacob’s wish to learn cooking to them, my family all said that they thought that that was the time for me to start one as I had no family responsibilities any longer. Within a short while my husband, an architect, had found the space where our original kitchen started and we fitted it out as a teaching kitchen.  I used to teach over weekends and some evening as I had promised those that I was teaching that I would continue teaching them until they no longer needed me. As pupils slowly left me, I did more and more time at Cookery School and about four years later I was working full time there.

Cookery School at Little Portland Street has a great reputation, what makes it so special?
I think it is because everyone associated with the school has a passion for food and for teaching.  The fact that we are always finding new classes to teach and keeping ourselves as fresh and interesting as possible helps.  We are currently focussing hugely on cooking with food waste and turning out delicious dishes. Likewise, with gut health that is so important in the times in which we live where really good research is showing its importance. Again, we work at working on new dishes that reflect the important elements making for good gut health and surprise those doing classes with how delicious that food is and at no cost at loss of flavour or feeling peckish as is often the case on diets.

Because ingredients are of paramount importance to us, we use the best possible ones that we can find – most of which are organic. Our meat and poultry is organic, our fish is local and line caught and all other produce, eggs and dairy are as local as can be. If one uses best possible ingredients and cooks them simply and well, resulting food is wonderful.

What’s the best part of your job?
I love teaching but do not do a lot of that now as I had a medical accident in 2008 where a doctor paralysed me in my right arm so the physical part of teaching is not as easy as it once was. I love writing menus, planning courses and classes and helping to generate new work. We do awesome corporate training sessions where we use food as a training tool. We have been delivering a module on Desmond Tutu’s African Leadership Institute programme for the past thirteen years and I love the challenge of working with the organisational psychologist that facilitates them in finding new ideas to bring into the sessions to keep them interesting and exciting.  We work with a lot of high profile companies but cannot publicise the success of these events because we take confidentiality so seriously. I mentor our six week, professional, Cook’s Certificate course and love that. I wrote the course and also really enjoyed writing the course material for our Sustainable Kitchen course where we teach our staff, suppliers and professional course guys how easy it is to be sustainable when cooking.

And the worst?
Running a business. When I started Cookery School at Little Portland Street, I wanted to teach people how to cook.  I now run a business as there is so much more to running a cookery school other than teaching.  I am ably assisted by Jo, who has taken over as principal. We have a team of ten permanent staff as well as lots of teachers and back of house people that come in which means generating a lot of work to keep it all running well. The odd days in the kitchen are now a real treat. Having said that, I am often in the kitchen tasting food that is made on the myriad of different classes that we run.

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What type of people come to your school?
Amazingly we cover a vast age range. The main demographic is of mid-twenties to those in mid-thirties with people on either side. We have requests for very keen kids to join classes and encourage them to do so as home cooking is so important in this world of instant foods. We run a summer course for kids so have a younger crowd of adolescents descending on Cookery School during the holidays. Interesting, these days we have older people coming in who have lost a spouse because of death but increasingly because of dementia related problems where they are learning to cook for themselves. This has prompted us to put on a Supper for Seniors – or similarly named course – for older people to come in to learn to cook and socialise with their peers as we understand that many OAPs are lonely. I remember a class where a thirteen year old and an eighty year old became friendly at a course and sat next to one another each day that week.  We are still waiting for a romance to happen although we understand that people do meet romantically at Cookery School from time to time – this learnt from the odd messages seen on the web.

Can anyone become a decent cook with the right training?
DEFINITELY. Our professional course called our Cook’s Certificate proves this. It is a dynamic course where we take those attending from zero to hero (to use a cliché) in six weeks. I would love to be able to pit what we do against what others do as know that our course is spot on. I think that it is because of my background in teaching. As I have been a teacher for well over fifty years, good teaching forms the basis of what we offer and we ensure that our students understand what they are doing and feel confident. With the way that classes are structured, they are able to understand the ‘bigger picture’ and feel in control of what they do in their own cooking.  Technique is less important that other factors in creating good food like using best possible ingredients, ensuring that taste is right – by using salt – and reducing sauces to concentrate them and intensify flavours. We NEVER do any fusion cooking as that does not make sense to learners. It is wonderful to witness those that arrive at Cookery School unable to cook leaving us six weeks later as enthusiastic and competent cooks.

Most popular courses?
Believe it or not, knife skills feature amongst them. I cannot understand that as I think that is a cheffing phenomenon. One does not need to know how to use a knife skilfully to cook well.  It does help in speeding up some preparation and also makes one safer in using knives but my mother and grandmother did not have the knife skills that chefs display and were great cooks. Our fish and shellfish and meat and poultry courses are also full as are our sauces and all of our baking classes. We put on an advanced baking course (which was such fun to put together with challenging and super delicious dishes on it) as some watching television programmes are interested in extending their baking skills. More recently we have had huge interest in our vegetarian and vegan classes and all those that I cite tend to sell out very quickly.

Sustainability in the kitchen is obviously important to you. Tell us more.
Sustainability has been at the heart of all that we have done since our inception. My daughter, Kathryn, an environmental psychologist, encouraged me from the start to follow environmentally friendly practices. I used to joke about being a very well-trained mother in those affairs. It is now part of my DNA and it is wonderful to have the opportunity to teach the thousands of people that pass-through Cookery School each year, the basics of running a sustainable kitchen. It is so important not to be preachy about it but to show people how slow change in what one does alters one’s behaviour and slowly by adding more initiatives to one’s daily repertoire, without noticing it, one is following sustainable practices. We stopped using plastic film about twelve or thirteen years ago. At the same time we began electing not to use tuna and skate and have since added many more threatened species. We buy MSC fish and loads from day boats that work out of Plymouth as that small-scale fishing where there is complete traceability do not harm fish stocks as their impact is very small. We use good energy, are careful with water use and Delphis Eco cleaning products that are wonderful but also carbon neutral.  We send out PDS of our practices in case our students want to adopt some of them and are always updating these.

Do you cook for pleasure at home?
I love cooking for friends at home. My husband died a few years ago, leaving a huge hole in my life. He loved food and my cooking but we ate very simple and healthy foods.  I met him when I was seventeen so we grew up together and loved eating the same sort of foods. These days I cook loads for friends and enjoy eating leftovers in the following days.  Many of the meals that I cook are testing ideas so friends are guinea pigs.  I also love cooking for my children and grandchildren who are harsh critics and say that I use too much salt. I do not actually as I stick to less than recommended daily amounts but as they do not cook with salt, my food tastes over salted.  Salt is so important to me and I call it a magical ingredient as it transforms dull tasting dishes into wonderful ones.

Signature dish?
My family love my classic roast chicken with roast potatoes and piles of different vegetables. If Kathryn is eating with us, she brings incredible fresh veg from her allotment. The family birthday treat meal was Mozambique grilled prawns with a crude salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion dressed with good olive oil and vinegar. Then a seasonal fruit salad for dessert followed by a devil’s food cake or a fatless sponge filled and topped with a passion fruit icing.

Favourite restaurants?
I have so many that it is hard to choose as I just love food.  When my husband was alive we used to often go en familleto Hereford Road.  Because I like to keep the memories of places that we visited together remaining as they were, I do not revisit them.  There are so many wonderful restaurants and eateries in London that I am still spoiled for choice.  I love Quo Vadis, Portland, Clipstone, various St John restaurants, 110 Taillevent, Moro restaurants, a whole raft of different Chinese restaurants and likewise Indian ones.  More recently I enjoyed a meal at Cora Pearl in Soho with a friend.  What a wonderful treat that was and I cannot wait to return.  London is full of surprises always and never ceases to amaze me. There are also so many middle of the road, affordable places that I frequent for quick meals like Princi, Kaffeine (whose coffee I adore), Scandi Kitchen for open sandwiches, Melrose and Morgan, etc.  I detour when in London to pick up food to eat in the car or stop for a quick bite when on chores.  No food is too far to travel for as far as I am concerned ….

What would you be doing if not teaching cookery?
I cannot envisage that scenario as I have been teaching all sorts of things – starting with swimming in South Africa – when I was eighteen.  Teaching is just part of me as is finding solutions to problems.  I feel that nothing is ever insurmountable.  When I retire – I am 75 years old now – I intend becoming very involved in food education in England as I realise that I am one of the few very experienced teachers involved in a cookery school as most of the others come from a cheffing background.  I am used to writing curricula and have taught children of all ages so understand who learns what at particular ages in development.  Someone has to take the bull properly by the horns and tackle the problem of people not cooking.  If everyone in the country could do a small amount of cooking so many of the ills that have beset us would start to recede.  That would be the most wonderful of challenges to take on board and beat.  It would mean convincing a lot of people about the importance of teaching a subject simply called cooking from five to 15 year olds!  I am so lucky to work with a great team, most of whom are half my age, and together I know that we could start to make a mark. That is my ultimate dream…

Discover more about the courses at Cookery School at Little Portland Street here

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