Why cookery schools have become big business in Yorkshire

Andrew Dixon runs the classes at the Grand Hotel's new cookery school in York
Andrew Dixon runs the classes at the Grand Hotel's new cookery school in York
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Whether you are a beginner, an experienced cook or even a professional looking to hone your skills then there is a cookery school for you somewhere in Yorkshire.

It seems like we just can’t get enough of cookery schools - whether they are attached to high-end hotels, stand-alone businesses or not-for-profit organisations. If you ask pretty much anyone who has even the tiniest interest in food in Yorkshire they will be able to reel off at least half a dozen cookery schools within a 20-mile radius of each other with, it seems, more popping up on a regular basis.

The Grand Hotel's cookery school is based in an industrial-style basement kitchen that is in contrast to the hotel's traditional decor

The Grand Hotel's cookery school is based in an industrial-style basement kitchen that is in contrast to the hotel's traditional decor

But it isn’t just our desire to learn the perfect dinner party recipes that is fueling this demand.

Businesses looking for a different corporate team-building experience and people wanting to give an experience instead of a material gift means vouchers are also big business. And Yorkshire, in particular the north of the county, is making the most of this culinary explosion.

The Grand Hotel in York

The most recent to open its doors is the state-of-the-art cookery school at the Grand Hotel in York and is a sign that those in the know don’t believe our love affair with cooking will abate any time soon.

Malton Cookery School

Malton Cookery School

The £1m cooking school is part of a £15m development of the five-star hotel in York which now has 207 bedrooms.

“The redevelopment left us with 2,500 sq ft that used to be an office block basement that we needed to do something with,” explains the Grand Hotel’s general manager Philip Bolson.

“We thought of all manner of different uses from a bowling alley to a cinema, then my boss said ‘what about a cookery school’? We are in the centre of York which has a burgeoning food scene and so it just made sense to create a state-of-the-art cookery school.”

Although attached to the hotel, the cookery school has its own entrance to appeal to locals from York, as well as hotel guests, tourists and corporate customers.

And it is clear that no expense has been spared. “If you are going to do something then do it properly,” says Bolson.

Headed by chef/tutor Andrew Dixon, the school has a modern industrial feel to the interior design which is in contrast to the traditional style of the hotel. Distancing itself somewhat from its grand sister is not an accident.

“People need to know that it is accessible to all. We want to be part of the community,” says Bolson, who doesn’t believe that the cookery school market in Yorkshire is saturated. He believes the demand is there, if the quality is there."

The hotel model

Swinton Park Cookery School near Masham is one of the longest established cookery schools in Yorkshire, headed for many years by the renowned Rosemary Shrager and now run by Marc Williams.

The Yorkshire Wolds Cookery School also has the benefit of on-site accommodation. Owner Alison Johnson says: “I wouldn’t like to think that any more cookery schools would open in Yorkshire. Although I think the ones we do have all offer something a little different, which is important. We have the on-site accommodation which is a great bonus for us.”

She believes the keys to success are keeping up with food trends (vegan is currently all the rage), using quality produce, having a varied course calendar and including guest chefs.

Although having rooms can be a huge benefit, it isn’t always a guarantee of success. Cooks at Carlton Towers has changed how it operates after the hotel management found that having a hotel as both a wedding venue and a cookery school often led to logistical issues.

“Carlton Towers and Cooks couldn’t function at the same time, so if two things such as a cooking course and an exclusive use wedding were taking place at the same - which both use the front of the house, parking facilities etc - they clashed. Therefore, one aspect of the business has to stop trading while the other takes place,” explains general manager Clare Baker. “It was always a school of food, rather than a cookery school.”

The MasterChef effect

Most often success is due to responding to demand and none more so than at Malton Cookery School. Gilly Robinson has been running it since it started as a temporary pop-up as part of the Malton Food Festival in 2014, but demand meant it is now a permanent cookery school with two staff open four days a week and has recently moved to a new home.

“In collaboration with the Talbot Hotel we decided to make it a permanent cookery school all year round because there was the demand,” says Robinson who also worked with Rosemary Shrager at Swinton Park Cookery School and at Bettys.

“When we started as a pop-up four years ago I never thought I would end up giving up my job and moving to Malton. What makes us different is the relaxed atmosphere, we never ask people what standard they are and we don’t do a demonstration. We believe people are here to cook and cook something that they can replicate at home. We use entirely local ingredients, we hardly have any waste and we use environmentally friendly products.”

Robinson says the huge popularity of television cooking programmes such as MasterChef, The Great British Menu and Bake Off are helping to fuel the demand for cookery classes.

“I think as long as the demand for these programmes continues there will always be a place for a good cookery school that offers people something different.”

Cooking with a conscience

There is one cookery school that is definitely doing something a bit different. Based in an old fire station in Gipton, just outside the city centre, Leeds Cookery School calls itself a cookery school with a conscience. All profit goes back to help local charity Zest, which offers support and opportunities to disadvantaged local people, addressing health inequalities and social isolation through activities which improve physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing.

There are more than 30 classes on offer, all taught by trained chefs such as cookery school manager Simon Chappelow.

“We decided that we needed to try to make Zest Health for Life sustainable as a charity and less reliant on city council funding,” explains Chappelow. As a result Leeds Cookery School opened at the end of 2017.

Walking into the cutting edge facilities you would never know you were in a social enterprise with all profits going to a charity. Like all the other cookery schools. businesses make up a large proportion of the clientele.

“Food brings people together which is why I think a lot of companies like to bring their staff here. It is a brilliant way to bond, and the more experienced cooks help out the less experienced.”

But giving your profits to charity isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success. The Cooking School at Dean Clough in Halifax, which also offered training and apprenticeships, and gave its profits to Focus on Food, but closed in 2015.

The smaller-scale model

The lack of a decent business plan can also be the downfall of many small businesses, but that is not a problem for Kate Clarkson, founder of the York Cookery School. Clarkson had a career in financial services before deciding to follow her heart and start a cake-baking business and a cookery school at Clifton Moor in York.

“Our overheads are low, there is only me and my husband and then we have a list of guest chefs who deliver other courses mainly in the evening and weekends. During the week we let our kitchens to other organisations who use it as a development kitchen.

“We don’t make a fortune there is no pressure on us to make massive profits as there may be at some of the bigger schools.”

Brand identity

Being a trusted brand can also help if you are looking to succeed. Bettys Cookery School near Harrogate celebrates its 18th birthday this year. It was founded in 2001 by Betty & Taylors chair, Lesley Wild, who wanted to create a space that would provide off-the-job training for staff, a space for young people to learn about food and cooking and somewhere that Bettys’ craftspeople could showcase what they do and share those skills with the public.

Lisa Bennison, senior cookery school tutor believes the increased interest in cookery schools could be down to a gap in people’s knowledge.

“I believe we are still seeing people attending courses who unfortunately missed out on food education, maybe they didn’t have opportunity to cook along with their parents, or grandparents, and see a gap in their knowledge.

“Food is always in fashion, it’s a fundamental of life. Cookery shows still seem to dominate our TV screens and there is a constant stream of new cook books.

“Today people are more focused on eating well and not being wasteful. They want to know how to get the best out of the ingredients they buy and to share this with the family and friends. Learning to cook is really rewarding.”

A word of warning

Food writer Elaine Lemm, who has run cookery schools in this country and abroad, says it is not something to take on lightly.

“If you want to make a lot of money then don’t open a cookery school,” she says. “It is a lot of hard work but if you have a passion for it then it is very rewarding.

“There are a lot of cookery schools, especially in Yorkshire, the good ones stay and the others will fall by the wayside. As long as you are offering something different, done well then you can succeed but you will never be rich.”

This is just a snapshot of some of the cookery schools currently operating in Yorkshire - there are many more and it seems that if our love affair with cooking continues, there may be more in the not so distant future.