Behind the scenes at Tante Marie's new central Woking cookery school
PUBLISHED: 07:24 07 July 2015
Having led the way in teaching professional cookery skills for more than 60 years, Woking's Tante Marie Culinary Academy has just moved to state-of-the-art new premises in the town centre complete with their own restaurant. Viv Micklefield gets a taste of what's being served-up
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2015
Now, however, there’s a new contender on the scene, with the famous Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking transferring to state-of-the-art new premises in the town centre complete with their own restaurant.
With a long history of training some of the country’s top professional chefs, needless to say, there has been much excitement as the cookery school’s new two-story centre has risen, almost phoenix-like, from the redevelopment of Commercial Way, joining popular restaurant chains Carluccio’s and Bill’s.
This gleaming expanse of plate glass, with its sleek reception area and pared back décor, certainly makes a marked contrast to the rambling Victorian house in Carlton Road, occupied by the cookery school since the 1950s, and as principal Andrew Maxwell explains, having recently celebrated their Diamond Jubilee, exciting changes are afoot.
“Woking can’t compete with Guildford in terms of a cobbled High Street and a castle,” says Andrew. “But it’s got a station that’s 20 minutes from Waterloo, we’re halfway between Heathrow and Gatwick airports, and there are a lot of businesses here. In all, around 16,000 people a day now commute to Woking for work.
“Additionally, there are plans for 2,000 new apartments and it’s got a great theatre. So, if you look at the bigger picture, it definitely seems the right time for us to make the move into the town centre.”
Having recently been a judge in Surrey Life’s own Food & Drink Awards (and more later about his passion for local provenance), Andrew can’t wait to introduce the renowned cookery school that he joined in 2006, and later bought out with gastronomic heavyweights Gordon Ramsay and Lyndy Redding, to a wider audience. However, as he candidly admits: “I’ve been through a bit of a journey myself over the last six months, trying to think about all the things we could do here.”
Providing the pastry to any new filling is Tante Marie’s renowned Cordon Bleu Diploma course. And a quick glance at the roll-call of ex-students currently working alongside the likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal, as well as its own celebrity alumni, such as barbecue maestro Neil Rankin and Harriet Eastwood from Channel 4’s Cook Yourself Thin, is instant proof of its pedigree.
As a result, no less than nine state-of-the-art kitchens have been installed within the new council-leased premises, although providing a sufficient power supply was evidently challenging. Right up until Christmas, temporary generators still lit the way with tradesmen working round the clock for the start of the spring term.
An expanded menu
“If you’d seen this building in April of last year, it was just concrete pillars,” recalls Andrew. “There were no walls, you could stand on the first floor and look round 360 degrees. The whole building has effectively been rebuilt for us.”
Whilst upstairs is fitted-out with teaching kitchens, plus classrooms and a library for 80 aspiring chefs, at street level the first surprise is Tante Marie Live. From bread-baking to knife skills, this dedicated space hosts the school’s popular part-time lifestyle courses for amateur cooks – the move opening the door to running these during evenings and weekends too.
As Andrew enthuses: “Interest in food has never been greater, and it’s our business not only to teach people how to cook properly but also to encourage them to think outside the box a little bit. Even if you don’t come to do a course here, just walking past and seeing something happening in that live kitchen, I hope will be an inspiration.”
The school’s biggest, and some might say, riskiest addition to its repertoire though is The Restaurant at Tante Marie.
As a former chef himself, working first in Ireland and Sydney, before joining The Sugar Club and later Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London, Andrew could find it hard to stay out the heat of the kitchen. But achieving a winning formula with paying diners is down to operations manager Marco Di Michele and Tante Marie-trained head chef Sue-Lee Jones.
Between them they’ve cooked-up a modern British and European style menu that’s available seven days a week. Expect to see lunches of mouth-watering starters, such as twice-baked haddock soufflé with mustard cream and roast cherry tomatoes, and mains courses that include chorizo, white bean and coriander stew, which at £6 and £12 respectively, certainly won’t break the bank. Neither will the cleverly re-packaged set price pre-theatre option.
At the top end of the scale, the à la carte dinner choice features seasonal attractions like confit pork belly with spring greens and black pudding accompanied by fondant potato and apple (£17.95), followed by a crowd-pleasing salt caramel tartlet, and one of Tante Marie’s signature dishes, Classic Baba (both at £6.50).
Also agreeable to the palate is the restaurant’s commitment to supporting Surrey’s food producers, so game and meat, as well as fish from local suppliers, should be making regular appearances.
“It’s not cooking by numbers,” Andrew stresses. “It’s fresh ingredients arriving every day. In addition, there may be specials where we’ll tie-in directly with the academy upstairs. For example, during butchery demos, a whole side of beef or lamb is used. Now, we can say to the head chef, ‘Come and have a look and write something for the menu’. It could be a chateaubriand steak just for two – this makes us unique.”
Maintaining this connection with the cookery school, the restaurant is staffed by Tante Marie’s own graduates, who are gaining an additional hospitality management qualification through a paid training programme.
And forget starched white tablecloths or crystal glasses, it’s all about enjoying a quality dining experience within an informal environment that you’d happily bring the whole family along to. This is typified by the outdoor seating area, which extends the number of covers to almost 100. As summer approaches and dining alfresco becomes de rigueur, it’s a chance to enjoy a cheeky glass of wine or beer, and to graze on what is being confidently labelled “interesting food”.
An obvious question is how much free rein has Andrew’s outspoken business partner allowed him in the £1.75m project?
“Gordon’s not been involved on a day-to-day level, as he’s in LA for up to 10 months of the year,” says Andrew. “But he’s excited about what’s going on here because it’s something new.”
However, Chef Ramsay would surely approve of Andrew’s redoubtable sense of ambition, when he adds: “I very much hope the business will grow from this. In the future, I would like to see a Tante Marie on the east coast of America, one on the west coast, one in Singapore, and one in Sydney. In fact, Woking could become our global HQ. It’s very exciting.”
Add into the mix the town’s annual Food and Drink Festival, and its choice of eateries expanding like the aforementioned soufflé, and Woking is certainly doing its damnedest to tempt our taste buds.
• Now click here to see what Surrey Life restaurant reviewer Matthew Williams had to say...
Need to know:
Where: The Restaurant at Tante Marie, 59-61 Commercial Way, Woking GU21 6HN
Open: Monday to Friday: 12-2.30pm and 6.30-10.30pm; Weekends: 9.30-11.30am for brunch and 12.30-10.30pm (open until 9.30pm Sundays)
Reservations: Visit tantemarierestaurant.co.uk or call 01483 724173