I could say some people are just slow learners; however in this case, it’s a group of highly inquisitive and motivated cooks who love to set me a lot of challenges. They started out as guests over twenty-two years ago and then added the cooking school option a few years later. In the early years it was always a full ‘family affair’, two sisters, their husbands and the collective three children. The younger kids were barely out of nappies and no allowances were made for ‘kid food’. Everyone was to cook – food; real food, with not a chicken nugget in sight!
Their earlier cooking schools would follow our annual program of classes, that had previously been either taken by myself or one of our guest chefs, such as Rosa Matto or Connie Rotolo, or they would often reflect our travels; so there have been Greek, Mediterranean, Vietnamese, Sicilian, Turkish and of course Italian cooking schools. There was often a lot of bribery in getting some of the younger members to at least try some dishes. They did not have to eat it all, but had to at least ‘try’ a little of it. The eggplant in Sicilian caponata stands out as a real challenge, some seriously amusingly screwed up faces gave the verdict!
The advent of the new Thorn Park by the vines, with fewer rooms, saw a change in how we now run the cooking schools. We no longer have a ‘program’ of classes throughout the year, but offer classes on demand. Aptly called ‘a la cart’, the classes can run over one or two days and are custom designed for one to six participants working around menus of interest. Our happy group embraced the changes recent weekends have included updated ‘Retro’ dinner parties. Think ‘70’s entertaining, where the average dinner party would take several days to prepare. Five or six courses were mandatory and the following week was spent cleaning up and recovering!
That little challenge ended with the ubiquitous ‘prawn cocktail’ becoming a little creation of an Asian-inspired number, consisting of carrot and daikon salad with a coconut, tomato and lime dressing and a twist of chili. “Borscht” became a fresh beetroot soup in a cappuccino cup, with tiny potato croutons. “Beef Wellington” was ‘deconstructed’ to become slow cooked rare beef on a braised bed of mixed mushrooms, with foie gras, demi glaze, completed with miniature vegetables and a puff pasty ‘hat’.
Other weekends have included a ‘The Fat Duck comes to Thorn Park” Cooking School’. This was a recreation of some of Heston Blumenthal’s wonderful dishes from our luncheon at his famous dining room where we ate in 2011. I just had to just about re-stock the entire kitchen with a vast array of new cooking equipment and ingredients so that we could embrace his ‘sous vide’ cooking methods, create gels, foams, purees and even source dry ice to make the ice creams!
This year it was “Thorn Park meets New York” an acknowledgement of walking and eating our way around New York City in 2013. Recipes included Autumn squash soup with warm salad heirloom carrot, baby Brussels leaves and apple. Slow braised lamb shoulder was served on a fine puree of broccoli. However the standout dish was the “peanut butter semifreddo with candied peanuts, lady finger bananas and toffee sauce, warm chocolate fudge, salted caramel macaroons and a dollop of fresh cream on the side”! Michael insists the cream is needed to cut the richness – all of which goes to prove no matter how much you eat there is always a separate stomach for deserts!