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A passion for food is Rosemary's recipe for success

Rosemary Shrager loves talking about food nearly as much as she loves eating and cooking it.

The larger than life TV chef is so passionate about it, it is infectious.

"That is just so delicious," she says, pointing with gusto at a recipe for individual steak and kidney puddings in her new book Rosemary Shrager School for Cooks.

It is the book from the ITV series of the same name. Rosemary has just finished filming the second series, due to be screened in October, in which wannabe chefs battle it out to win a position at a top restaurant.

Sitting in her "den" at her lovely house nestled in the centre of Masham, a few miles from Swinton Park hotel where she has her famous cookery school, Rosemary holds court. She may be slightly eccentric and disorganised and talk with plummy tones reminiscent of Clarissa Dixon Wright, but Rosemary Shrager is not the formidable schoolmarm she portrayed in the television series Ladette to Lady.

"I love performing," she laughs. "I wanted to be an actress when I was little and I think that's why I enjoy all the television work."

She is definitely a darling with production companies having had numerous TV series and made regular appearances on The Alan Titchmarsh Show.

And it is clear that Rosemary is very at home in Yorkshire.

"I come from Yorkshire stock," she booms. Her mother's family were the Twentymen, who owned Kirby Misperton Hall, which they sold and would later become Flamingo Land.

"My great grandfather used to keep flamingos and monkeys," she continues. "The family spent a lot of time in China and I think that's where he got the love of animals from."

Rosemary says she also feels very comfortable in Yorkshire.

"I really feel like I fit in," she says. "I think I was a bit of a novelty in the South but up here I feel very at home."

She was brought up in Buckinghamshire and it was there that a young Rosemary got her love of cooking and passion for fresh seasonal produce.

"My mother was a good cook and she had a smallholding which would supply us with vegetables and fruit throughout the seasons."

She remembers vividly helping her mother dig the new potatoes and pick runner and French beans aged just six.

"I was encouraged to cook, and I was entering village fetes at the age of eight with my scones and biscuits. I used to love beating all the old ladies in the village," says Rosemary with a mischievous grin, looking far younger than her 50-something years.

But this is as far as her training went.

"It was a hobby no more. I was going to be an architect and went to art college."

It was not long before Rosemary realised that the world of technical drawing was not for her and, encouraged by friends, she went into the catering business, despite having no formal training.

"Everyone asked me to do it: I seemed to get a reputation for knowing what I was talking about, although I didn't really, even if I thought I did.

"If I got into trouble I would ring a top restaurant and ask for the head chef and ask his advice. Invariably it was 'start again'. It was all learning on the job. And then I realised I still really didn't know anything."

Rosemary decided that if she was to pursue her desire for perfection she would have to learn properly.

But rather than enrol on a catering course, a determined Rosemary worked free of charge in some of the top restaurants in London, just so that she could learn from the best.

"You never stop learning. I have been learning for more than 30 years and there is still so much to learn. I worked my socks off for everybody, learning, learning, learning."

Her break came when Jean Christophe Novelli offered her a job.

"I couldn't believe he really wanted me. I took the job although I didn't really know what I was doing. I had to wing it," a broad smile lights up her jovial face as her eyes blink behind her trademark specs.

"I had a ball," she recalls, "and he is still a great mate."

During this time she married the brother of a friend from art college and they had two children, Tom and Kate.

Looking back, Rosemary says she has no regrets, but admits that her family were sacrificed for her hunger for knowledge and the pursuit of her first love.

"I don't think I was a very good mother," she says frankly. "I always had nannies and I have missed family weddings and funerals because of work. Being a chef is an 18-hour-a-day job, including weekends. But they don't seem too scarred by it."

Kate is expecting identical twins later in the year and it is clear that Rosemary is very excited at the prospect, although slightly concerned about fitting the event in to her busy diary. She is about to start filming an Australian version of Ladette to Lady as well as other more secret projects, and of course, there is the cookery school.

Tom has two children, Freddie and Sukie, and it is clear that Rosemary is a doting granny. There are photographs of her grandchildren everywhere and childish masterpieces drawn by Freddie, nearly four, adorn the walls of her cosy kitchen.

Freddie is the apple of Rosemary's eye. She had just spent the weekend in London with her son, who she loves to cook for despite him being a good cook in his own right. I get a slight feeling that in some ways she is making up for lost time.

Time is not something that Rosemary worries about.

"If I want to do something I do it, I won't let distance or time get in the way. If I want to see my family I will jump in the car and drive south, you can't let being busy get in the way, that's just an excuse."

Much of Rosemary's drive has come out of necessity.

In the late '90s, after she finished work for Novelli, she started her own restaurant, but then the country was plunged into recession.

"I lost everything; I lost my home, my dog, my restaurant and my marriage. I was in a bit of a black hole for a while."

It was down to good friends that Rosemary was able to put her life back together.

"I'd always worked because I loved it, not because I needed to. The difference was that I now had to work to put a roof over my head and food on the table. I suddenly realised I had to take it all a lot more seriously. I was in my early 40s and had to start my life again. I had a decision: I could either sink or swim." Not surprisingly Rosemary decided to swim, and how.

She aimed high and wrote to her hero, the three Michelin-starred Pierre Koffman at Tante Claire in London. He gave her a week's trial and offered her a job.

But three weeks later she said she would have to leave.

"I was terrified. Losing everything had really rocked me. I had lost my own credibility and I just didn't think I could do it. The standards were just so high."

But she stuck at it and says in the months she was at Tante Claire she learnt so much about top quality cooking. "It was such a privilege to be there."

With her confidence and credibility regained Rosemary was persuaded by John Bulmer (of the cider family) to up sticks and move to the outer Hebrides to be head chef at his Amhuinnsuidhe Castle,

and it was from here that she got her idea to start a cookery school.

"I'd been thinking about teaching for quite a while. People have taught me throughout my life and I thought it was such a wonderful thing; to pass on my love of food to others."

In the summer of 2000, TV production company Wall to Wall filmed six students taking part in one of Rosemary's cookery courses. The six-part series, Rosemary – Castle Cook was broadcast on Channel 5 in January 2001 and led to a second series, Rosemary on the Road.

She has now taken her cookery school to Swinton Park, and it remains her passion.

"I never take anything for granted," she says. "I always give everything I do 300 per cent. If you want something in life you have to work for it and try to remember to be nice to people along the way."

 
 
 

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