Kitchen Confidence

28th September 2018

Rosemary Shrager is an acclaimed chef, cookery teacher and TV star. After working under Pierre Koffmann in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Rosemary began running her own cookery courses at Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and Swinton Park before opening a cookery school in Tunbridge Wells in 2013. She regularly appears on popular television series The Real Marigold Hotel, and, in 2017, was a judge on The Big Family Cooking Showdown.

Al Gordon tells us more…

“I think people can get nervous about cooking,” the much-loved tv chef tells me. “I wanted to write a book that’s really simple, easy and goes back to basics.” She insists she’s not trying to be clever, “I’ve kept it simple by showing people how to make everything from a boiled egg right through to a soufflé.” There are lots of delicious salad recipes in the book and a huge chapter on vegetables, one of them promising to deliver ‘the perfect potato’. “I did that on purpose because we need to eat vegetables and not as much protein as we used to. I want people to really enjoy this book – I’m genuinely proud of it.”

The star, who’s recently lost three stone in weight, says she’s never been in a better place. “I feel like a new person and I am ready for a new chapter in my life. I climbed a mountain the other day in Cumbria and cooked at the top. It was amazing.”

She’s hoping to inspire people who have little confidence in the kitchen, and is sympathetic to busy working mums who don’t have time to cook elaborate meals. “Family life has really has changed a lot. Now it is all about cooking together as a group. Also, there is a whole generation out there who don’t know how to cook and why should they? They haven’t been in a position to be taught how to prepare food from scratch. It’s all very well watching TV shows, but they can be very aspirational and actually, when it comes to food it is more difficult. This book is about gaining confidence as you go through it.”

The recipes are unapologetically quick and simple to make. “I tried to go back to basics without making it patronising. I wanted it to be a jolly and fun book… something for everyone.”
Her personal favourite is a ‘bird within a bird’ dish. Surely that’s complicated? Not at all, apparently. “It’s so impressive. You can get a butcher to get the bones out for you and you don’t have to be clever. It’s about enjoying cooking.” In fact, she’s all for making life easy. “We don’t have to be, what I call, ‘food snobs’. If you need to buy a jar of mayonnaise, get one! This is about how to cook something properly and getting the best out of your flavours. People will be able to find everything in the book and they will be able to do it.”

And that includes younger readers. “Cooking with children…for me, that’s where it begins. My grandchildren started doing Peking duck at the age of six. I remember my granddaughter making it and she burnt herself. I said ‘you have got your first burn, get back on that chair’. And she did. She loves it. It’s imperative parents teach children, but it’s also about having fun.”

Rosemary herself adored cooking from a very young age. “I was passionate about it. I did nothing but cook, cook and cook and as I got older I cooked, cooked and cooked! And then when I got married, I held dinner parties and I got up at 3am to cook. I couldn’t pass a bookshop without going into it and buying cookbooks. I’d buy five at a time.”

Despite her love for all things culinary, she initially eschewed a career as a chef. “I decided when I was working in the city that I wasn’t happy. I gave in my notice and I initially did directors’ lunches. Then I realised I wasn’t very good front of house!” She ran a restaurant in Cornwall, which unfortunately didn’t work out, and then moved to London where she met Michelin star French chef Pierre Koffmann, whom she credits with “giving me confidence, as he believed in me”.

She explains how she had a dream in which she wrote to Pierre – “he was my hero” – and so she did. Within 24 hours, she had received a letter back inviting her to join him at his restaurant, the internationally famous Tante Claire. “And so I went along in my whites with my knives, and he told me I had to work for him for a week before he would offer me a job, as I had no credentials in the kitchens. I worked for him and he came to me on the Friday and offered me a job.” At the time, Rosemary’s marriage had sadly broken down and she was living with friends in London in their spare rooms. “Pierre was so lovely and so supportive. I had lost confidence when I lost my own restaurant and I had to gain my credibility back. He gave it back to me. He is just the kindest person under the sun. I saw him the other day and he told me he was very proud of how much I’ve achieved.”

As well as appearing on numerous tv shows including The Real Marigold Hotel and The Big Family Cooking Showdown, Rosemary also owns a cookery school in Tunbridge Wells. “I love giving other people confidence. I used to be so scared and I shook all the time. Now having apprentices is the best thing. I want to give something back and be their mentor.” Does she have plans for any more tv? “I am off to do a Marigold on Tour series and I’ve done a documentary about diabetes. That was like a gift of god. I am not doing the Family Showdown programme as they have restructured it but that’s fine, as I’m doing other things. I am not hanging my apron up yet!”

She puts her weight loss down to a common sense plan of eating more healthily and moving more. “For me, it is all about exercise. I will have salad for lunch with a little bit of protein, but I love vegetables. My whole ethos has changed and it is empowering.”

She still makes time for lots of big family gatherings over food, though. “Food is my life,” she says. “My whole garden is edible and I have crushed cinnamon, fruit, teas, herbs and spices. You name it, it’s in the garden!”

And the hardworking chef has already started to think about her next potential project – she hopes to do a cookery book for sustaining weight loss. “I believe in eating really good food, making it affordable and doing exercise. Nobody does anything for my age. I have so many people coming up who are my age saying ‘Rosemary how do you do it?’ and I say, ‘bl**dy hell – if I can do it, anyone can!’”

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