Tante Marie cookery school in Woking
PUBLISHED: 18:26 15 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 August 2014
He may have been in the press for all the wrong reasons of late, but here in Surrey, it's business as usual for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as he gets to grips with his new cookery school, Tante Marie in Woking. JANET HARMER went along to find out more
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2009
GORDON RAMSAY ON TANTE MARIE
"Over the last 50 years, Tante Marie has become one of the world's most renowned training academies for young chefs. I am very excited to be involved in the future of the school and help unearth the next generation of cooking talent. With the most amazing staff, venue and resources, Tante Marie is the ultimate launch pad for a career in cooking."
WALKING into the entrance hall of Tante Marie - the oldest independent cookery school in the UK - there is no doubt about the personality behind the recent purchase of the business.
Gordon Ramsay's 13 books, proudly displayed in glass cabinets, are the first indication that Britain's highest rated chef, with nine Michelin stars to his name, intends to make his mark on the place.
Last April, he became the majority shareholder of Tante Marie through Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH), the business that operates his 24 restaurants around the world, in partnership with Lyndy Redding and Andrew Maxwell.
Lyndy is a former graduate of the school and now runs Absolute Taste, the event and party catering company that caters for, among others, the McLaren Group and private jets, while Andrew, who was previously the deputy principal, is now the school's managing director and principal. Meanwhile, the former owners, Marcella and Hugh O'Donovan, have retained a small stake in the business, too.
"Gordon's involvement gives Tante Marie an important seal of approval," says Andrew as he shows me around the school, which has been located in Woodham House, a Victorian property in Carlton Road, since 1967. "He is very enthusiastic about the school and its prospects for the future. On his first visit to Tante Marie, he spoke with great passion about the school being a stepping stone into an industry that, although requires a lot of hard work, can be enormously rewarding, both financially and from a career point of view."
A distinguished history
Originally situated in nearby Chertsey Road, Tante Marie was founded in 1954 by cookery writer Iris Syrett. Over the years, ownership has changed on several occasions until 1999 when Marcella O'Donovan, a teacher at Tante Marie, bought the school with the backing of her family.
"Marcella first mentioned in August 2007 that she was thinking of retirement and I was thrilled when she said that she would be interested if I was to make an offer for the business," says Andrew, who undertook his own culinary training at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland. He then went on to teach at the school before working as a chef in private service and in restaurants in Sydney, Australia, and London, including Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
In seeking financial support to make a viable bid, Andrew spoke to Lyndy Redding, a non-executive director of Tante Marie and a business partner of GRH. One of the divisions of her company is 'Gordon Ramsay by Absolute Taste', which offers his food at events and parties. Past functions have included David and Victoria Beckham's pre-World Cup party in 2006 and Gordon's own 40th birthday party.
"Lyndy agreed that there was extraordinary potential for the development of Tante Marie," says Andrew, "and put together a business plan to present to Chris Hutcheson, the chief executive of GRH."
The buy-out was approved and the new owners took over nine months ago.
In its early days, Tante Marie was frequently used as a finishing school by upper-class young women. Today, it is more likely to be attended by school-leavers looking for a long-term career in the catering industry or by professional lawyers or accountants seeking a career change. No doubt, the prospects of finding a job upon completing a Tante Marie course have been boosted by Gordon Ramsay and Lyndy Redding's involvement.
Andrew says that the new ownership has created a link to what is probably the world's leading restaurant group and to one of the UK's top events management companies.
"The combination of GRH and Absolute Taste means that we are able to develop our courses and teaching methods in whatever manner the industry requires," he explains.
"Between GRH, Lyndy, myself and the O'Donovans, whose experience in running the school is invaluable, we have the perfect mixture of industry knowledge, vision, drive and teaching experience to develop Tante Marie into a global leader in the field of hospitality training."
Students have already experienced the practical benefits of the new high profile owners with Gordon himself - and key chefs within GRH, including Angela Hartnett, Mark Sargeant and Jason Atherton - giving demonstrations at the school.
"Gordon has already been down to Tante Marie, and we hope he will visit us once a term in future," says Andrew. "He is a man who has a tremendous aura and the students he demonstrated to were totally in awe of him. But he put them at their ease by getting them to introduce themselves to him and, by doing so, made them feel very special.
"One of our members of staff said that their image of Gordon improved a thousand times over as he came across as very personable, polite and well mannered. In fact, he only swore once - right at the end of his hour-long demonstration!
"There is no doubt that Gordon's involvement is enormously inspirational - to students and teaching staff alike."
With its five teaching kitchens and demonstration theatre, Tante Marie has a maximum capacity of 60 students, with around half of them enrolled on the Cordon Bleu Diploma, held over two or three terms. Outside the Le Cordon Bleu London, Tante Marie is the only cookery school in the UK to offer the internationally recognised professional qualification.
A number of shorter courses - from one or two-day courses for keen amateurs up to the 11-week Cordon Bleu Certificate course - are also available. Prices range from between 130 for a one-day course and 16,500 for the three-term Cordon Bleu Diploma course.
A bright future
Looking to the future, Andrew says that the development of Tante Marie is currently restricted by the domestic nature of the building that the school occupies.
"So I can see at some point we may move to new larger premises with a small restaurant or caf attached, which will be open to the public," he says. "Now that really would be a big step forward!"
- Tante Marie, Woodham House, Carlton Road, Woking. Tel: 01483 726957 / www.tantemarie.co.uk
A cookery course at Tante Marie
With the Tante Marie cookery school now the talk of Surrey, we sent Josephine Murray along to sample one of their courses
For a dinner party on Friday, I cooked Moroccan lamb, marinaded overnight with dried fruits, followed by petits pots de chocolat au rhum and biscotti. It all worked brilliantly, apart from the biscotti, which I burnt on its third and last stage, but as Andrew Maxwell, principal of Tante Marie, says, "you never stop learning."
Doing a Cordon Bleu Certificate course, however, has given me the confidence to make things I'd never have attempted. As a vegetarian, I've moved from teenage activism to quite enjoying cooking free-range meat, but I wanted to expand my limited repertoire and stop skipping recipes I considered beyond me.
Our group comprised five men and six women, ranging in age from Natalie and Jo, on gap years before uni, to 50-something Tim, who said he "wanted to be able to do something other than washing-up". The rest of us were in our 20s and 30s. Laura wanted to set up a catered chalet, Andy and Sophie were between jobs, and Chris and Matt were considering cooking as a career. Jo, Andy, Chris and I were doing the 11-week Certificate course (an introduction to professional cooking); the others were doing the four-week Essential Skills.
Every morning, after putting on our uniforms - chef's whites, checked trousers, striped apron, trainers and a hat - we sharpened our knives (included, like the folder of recipes, in the course fee) and worked in pairs to cook a two or three-course meal, which we ate for lunch.
The pace was tough at times - we did all our own washing-up, which had to be fitted in between the vast number of dishes, most of which we saw demonstrated by teachers beforehand. The afternoons were more relaxed, with bread, cakes, biscuits, marmalade and chutney.
As the weeks passed by, we progressed from the basics of fruit salad via jointing a chicken, boning meat, and filleting fish, making ice cream and working with gelatine, to savoury roulades and meringue gateaux.
We also covered different types of pastry, including choux - which is jolly hard work by hand. I'll never forget our teacher Helen singing Michael Jackson's Beat It as we struggled to turn flour, butter, water and egg into a thick, glossy mixture.
As well as practical cookery, the course includes theory sessions, too, about everything from buying, storing and cooking meat to making cakes, pastry, stocks and sauces.
We also found out about the wider culinary world with a one-day course by a master of wine, a talk from executive chef at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, David Campbell, and a demonstration by high profile chef Angela Hartnett.
For me, the hardest part was the exams, when I fell apart as spectacularly as the chocolate tart I was trying to prise out of its tin... But I passed - and I got a distinction for the theory exam! There was even a graduation ceremony with family and friends and a fabulous lunch we'd prepared.
While I was doing the course, my friend Rachael asked: "Don't you get fed up with cooking every day?" Au contraire. The more I discover about food, the more I want to learn!