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Cookery schools: Why do people pay so much money?

Chef Kieran Lenihan shows a group of students his knife skills

From curry-making, bread baking through to men-only classes, cookery schools are cropping up everywhere. Why do people pay so much money for a day in the kitchen?

"There's so many of them now it's crazy," says baker and chef Richard Bertinet, describing the surge in cookery schools he has witnessed over the last four or five years.

With classes ranging from around £45 for an evening to around £200 for a luxury full-day course, cookery schools are reporting rising interest from clients seeking a high-end culinary experience.

"People often visit after foreign holidays wanting to recreate dishes which they ate abroad," says chef Jo Ingleby from The Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath.

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All the school's classes are attracting more students, but its best-sellers introduce people to exotic cuisines such as Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Moroccan and Turkish.

"We have also noticed a rise in interest in evening classes - people enjoy having a relaxed, fun evening… students often book these as groups as an alternative to meeting for a restaurant meal."

Mr Bertinet, who runs Bertinet Kitchen also in Bath says the school's bread-making class is particularly popular.

"The main thing with bread… people make it good one day and bad the other day and don't know why."

"It's not something you learn from a bread-maker, it's not something you learn from books. You've got to feel it and understand it. Our motto is, show [the bread] who's boss."

There are no definitive reports on the number of cookery schools operating in the UK.

However Nick Wyke, food writer at the Times and founder of online directory Looking to Cook, says hands-on schools (both short courses and professional qualifications) are growing in popularity; from teenagers "who are opting to take chef training courses rather than go to university, to dads who are keen to add to their repertoire at home."

This is in line with people "seeking more experiential ways to spend our money and leisure time," he suggests.

Jo Ingleby with a student at the Vegetarian Cookery School Many students want to recreate dishes they tried abroad, says chef Jo Ingleby

Baking in particular has "boomed" in recent years: "It is less likely to be passed down through the family line these days and can be quite scientific, so people are signing up to baking courses."

Although new cookery schools are opening all the time, a few are closing, and the "core market has remained fairly steady", Mr Wyke tells BBC Food.

A strong draw is the luxury element of cooking in an intimate class with a top chef.

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"There's a lot of birthday presents," says Mr Bertinet: people wanting to treat a loved one to a "little luxury".

The company Red Letter Days, which sells experiences as gifts, says demand for cookery school days has boomed in the last five years. Sales of "foodie experiences" (including cookery school days and dining experiences) are growing at 18% year on year, according to a spokesperson.

A fairly standard price for a day at a high-end cookery school might be around £150. For that you can master basic knife skills; become a hands-on butcher; or perfect classic French or Italian cooking.

Or can you?

Chefs usually train for about two years before they are ready to start work in a professional kitchen. So can a day-long cookery class really make you into a good cook?

"There is a danger of information overload," argues Michelle Rice, who writes the blog Utterly Scrummy, about feeding families good food on a budget.

"It is very difficult to cover a large amount of cookery skills in one long day… consequently most one day courses are on one topic or theme - not a good general grounding in cookery techniques."

Onion chopping Knife skills never go out of fashion

She adds she has never been to one herself because of the expense: "In my opinion, it is an expensive luxury that most people would struggle to afford.

"I wouldn't be able to justify spending that amount of money, the equivalent of our grocery budget for a fortnight, unless the course was going to be very useful indeed."

Mr Wyke acknowledges that cookery schools can be expensive, but argues: "At a quality school, with expert teaching, plenty of time and equipment to explore the theme, and good food and drink, this fee is justified.

"Many people feel that above £150 per day, [the] course needs to offer something really special."

He believes attending a cookery class can translate into becoming a good home cook "if it's a good course that covers a lot of the foundation culinary skills."

But homework is required.

What inspires your cooking?

The Vegetarain Cookery School

A consumer poll by Leatherhead Food Research asked people what inspires their daily meals. It found:

  • 45% of people asked used their own knowledge as inspiration for cooking
  • 14% were inspired by online recipes
  • 12% took ideas from family and friends
  • 12% said they always cooked the same things

"You will only ever become a good domestic cook by practising what you learn regularly until it becomes part of your repertoire."

Alongside its high-end classes, Square Food Foundation cookery school in Bristol offers community classes for £2.50 and free ones aimed at sex workers, teenagers from behaviour units and people with drug and alcohol problems.

Ms Holburn says there is a strong therapeutic side to people cooking together in these free classes: "It helps people communicate. It helps their confidence."

Since the foundation moved to a more deprived part of the city, it runs more community classes and sees fewer top-fee-paying clients. "Maybe they would prefer to go to Devon for a day," jokes Ms Holburn.

But despite the school's change of scenery, fee paying students continue to come to try out a new hobby; to experience a "different" kind of evening or because they want to specialise in a particular area of food.

"Last year one of the most popular classes we did was a curry class."

One school that has recently opened in the south west of England - a hotspot for cookery classes - is Vale House Kitchen near Bath.

Chef Kieran Lenihan's chef skills course focuses on knives, teaching people how to chop and dice their ingredients like a pro. "I am surprised at the lack of knife skills people have," he says.

Mr Lenihan believes it is "much easier" to learn "basic" chef skills face-to-face than from TV or books.

But cookery schools' classes have to compete with the wealth of free or much less expensive information now at our fingertips. A plethora of how-to videos, blogs and recipes are available online. And many people love to follow traditional recipe books when they cook.

Can't afford cookery school?

Food blogger Michelle Rice's advice on how to learn to cook well on a budget:

"Community classes are a great way to learn cookery skills. Some high schools and regional colleges offer low cost cooking classes with discounts for those on low incomes."

"Sadly there seems to be an absence or the traditional way cooking was passed down through generations. However ask relatives, friends and neighbours if they can help."

"Borrow cookbooks from the library. There are some really useful step-by-step style cookbooks."

"There are innumerable food blogs with recipes to suit all tasted and budgets."

Ms Rice recommends asking a relative or friend for a free lesson. "I learnt through helping my mum prepare dinner when I was younger and I learnt to bake with my nan during school holidays," she says.

With so many cookery schools now in business, Mr Bertinet warns: "The only problem with the cooking school [is] they're not regulated, so anybody can open a cooking school."

He advises: "Make sure you know who you're going to cook with" before forking out.

For those that can afford it, cookery schools insist classes are not just a one-off novelty: Ms Holburn and Mr Bertinet report people returning again and again to master a new skill or learn to cook a different cuisine.

"Being able to cook enriches people's lives… straight up cooking skills obviously means you can look after yourself," says Ms Holburn.

"There's something to be had in cooking for yourself and others.

"At the very least a cookery school should be an inspirational place that makes you think about food in perhaps a different way."

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