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The Cook School by Martin Wishart

WE all know someone who claims they really can't cook, but often it's revealed to be false modesty when they invite you round for dinner and serve up pan-roasted trout followed by creme brulee and home-made petits fours. When I say this, however, I mean it and my friends and family would readily agree.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to attend a class at The Cook School by Martin Wishart. This recently launched culinary academy is the latest venture from Edinburgh's Michelin-starred chef. Located in Leith, it is close to his eponymous and highly acclaimed restaurant on the Shore, where I have eaten but whose menu I could never hope to emulate. Or could I?

As the day of truth approached, my feelings of trepidation grew. This attack of nerves wasn't really that surprising, given that 2008 didn't get off to the best start. I somehow managed to set a supermarket-purchased steak pie on fire on New Year's day and panic my neighbour into thinking the building was about to go up in flames.

Still, things can only improve, I decided.

The respected Wishart opened his award-winning restaurant on the Shore in 1999, and on 28 January this year he launched his school on Bonnington Road. It is immediately apparent on stepping through the doors that a great deal of work has gone into creating a sparkling, fully equipped modern kitchen, where classes are kept small to ensure everyone gets attention from the chef and has their own individual cooking station. Also impressive is the luxurious dining room, where students sit down to sample their creations at the end of each session.

The class I signed up for was Practical Modern Cookery, in which students learn to prepare an impressive three-course meal designed by Wishart and principal tutor Bruce Rennie, which can then be recreated at home. Rennie has worked with Wishart at his restaurant since 2002, so who better to learn some of the tricks of the trade from?

The new girl at school

TURNING up at the class, I really did feel as if it was my first day at school. But I relaxed as I met the other seven students in the kitchen, where a breakfast of coffee and Danish pastries was supplied, while Rennie prepared to deliver his first demonstration.

This lull before the activity also gave me to have a chat with Wishart himself who had dropped into the school about the thinking behind his new venture. He is quietly enthusiastic as he describes how he juggles the commitment of his restaurant and The Cook School.

"The priority for me is still the restaurant. Diners tend to return, so I like to change the menu regularly," he says.

"The concept of the school is a small, intimate modern kitchen, where each of the students has their own workstation. There are different styles of classes available, including baking fresh bread, making traditional deserts or preparing Italian and modern European dishes. I use local ingredients from organic producers, so the principles are the same as in the restaurant."

'A welcome touch you don't get at home is having a kitchen porter on hand'

STRAIGHT into action now, as I don my Martin Wishart-branded apron which thankfully bears no resemblance to the white monstrosity I had to wear at secondary school and attempt to get my head round the rather complicated-looking menu.

We are to cook cauliflower soup with sauteed scallops for starters, followed by a main course of guinea fowl served with caramelised onion and walnut risotto, finished off with Armagnac parfait and poached pear coulis.

Some people might not find this daunting, but given that it's not unknown for me to enjoy a salad-cream sandwich for dinner when I'm in a hurry, I was slightly taken aback by sheer length and diversity of the list of ingredients.

Luckily, Bruce Rennie breaks the menu down into manageable sections and explains how we should actually start by preparing the dessert, as it has to set for two hours, before moving on to the main course and, finally, the starter. That way all the courses will be ready for your (hypothetical) dinner guests to arrive. Simple! As Rennie expertly demonstrates how to make the dessert, he imparts a multitude of practical tips and explains how things work in the kitchen of a top restaurant. For example, while it's acceptable to do some of the whisking using an electric device, it's better to whip the cream by hand to inject more air. Rennie also advises not to overdo the alcohol, as this will prevent the dessert setting. After this enlightening demonstration, it's up to us to get stuck in to preparing our own Armagnac parfait. It's relatively easy to follow the chef's demonstration and to feel comfortable about asking questions as he goes along. The small number of 'pupils' also means people tend to help each other, rather than get into competition, as I had feared would be the case after having watched the fearsomely aggressive MasterChef on TV. The next half-hour flies by as we separate egg yolks, whisk cream and poach pears without any unforeseen incidents. I forget what order I'm supposed to be doing things in a couple of times, but Rennie is on hand to get me back on track. The other welcome touch you don't get at home is having a kitchen porter on hand to do all the washing-up and bring you the necessary ingredients.

'I was troubled to find my guinea fowl had jumped out of the pan of water'

RENNIE now delivers his demonstration of cooking the main course, before letting us students loose once again. We started off by simmering the walnuts for the risotto in milk to get them ready for peeling. Yes, peeling. This dish involves peeling 60 walnuts, which made me appreciate the work that goes into a meal in a good restaurant. "Walnut peeling is a good way to test out the new boy/girl in the kitchen," said Rennie. I don't think I'll train as a professional chef any time soon.

Then it's on with cooking the onions and preparing the rest of the risotto. This involves a lot of multi-tasking and keeping on top of the recipe, or at least keeping up with your fellow students.

The class is more fun than I expected and I find myself learning a lot from Rennie's tricks of the trade. These include how to avoid bruising garlic by not bashing it with a knife, the benefits of using unsalted butter in cooking, and relying on your own palate to tell you when something is ready.

While he admits that "all chefs are control freaks", Rennie is a very patient tutor and I realise I'm not going to end up in tears, as happens to the hapless fumblers on so many TV cookery shows. By now my stomach is starting to rumble, as I inhale the aroma of all the delicious ingredients. My mind begins to wander.

Inevitably, mistakes start to creep in to my main-course preparation. I was troubled to find my guinea fowl, wrapped in cling film to be poached for ten minutes, had jumped out of the pan of water I had put it in before I nipped off to the loo. But Rennie was alert and removed the bird from the pan because I had forgotten to boil the water in advance. Oh dear, no gold star for me. It's now approaching 1pm and everyone seems ready to serve up their main courses before sitting down for a well-deserved lunch and a glass of wine, served with salad and freshly baked bread rolls.

I'll try the dishes at home, despite having to do all the washing-up

RELAXATION over and it's time for the starter, cauliflower soup, to be prepared. But I have to cut my day short to get back to work, while the other students get ready for their afternoon session, which ends at 3:30pm.

To my mind the class was excellent for a novice cook who enjoys good food: I'm looking forward to trying the dishes at home despite having to do my own washing-up. The other students I met had previously attended cookery schools with well-known chefs and were all in agreement that this was one of the best they'd experienced, partly because of the intimate size of the class and the mixture of people.

This variety is the norm, according to Wishart.

"We sometimes get mothers and daughters coming along together, or older couples. There may actually be more men than women attending. What they all have in common is being quite passionate about cooking. Celebrity chefs on TV have encouraged people to cook at home and there are better ingredients available (in our local shops] now.

"People see cooking as a pastime; coming to the school as a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

"We plan to bring classes of children in and get them to work together as a team."

The Cook School is certainly proving popular, with many of the classes booked up already and, according to Wishart, nobody has burnt anything yet. Not even me.


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