PRINCIPAL OF LEITHS SCHOOL OF FOOD & WINE SHARES HER TOP TIPS FOR CHRISTMAS
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you worked in the area?
Since 2007 when Leiths moved from Kensington to Wendell Road. I've worked for Leiths since 1997 and I took over as principal from (co-founder) Caroline Waldegrave in 2002. I have however been connected to Leiths since 1992 when I did my diploma.
Where did you grow up?
Hagley in the West Midlands.
Who inspired you to be a chef?
Mum is a good cook and we all cooked as a team, but the main person was my grandmother. She used more extravagant ingredients. I studied English literature and publishing at uni but I always wanted to come to Leiths. When my grandmother died she left me a little money. I spent it on the diploma.
It wasn't till I cooked for Prince Charles that Dad realised I was a proper cook
Is your family in the food business?
No, my father is a retired surgeon. He was in a prison-of-war camp so will eat anything. He's 83 and still plays golf and tennis every week. My mother was a physiotherapist.
Did anyone advise you against becoming a chef?
No, but after I'd done the course I worked in a private members' club off Leicester Square and Dad found that very hard. He thought I was dancing on tables. It wasn't till I got a job cooking for Prince Charles at Highgrove that he realised I was a proper cook. We cooked at Sandringham and on the royal yacht. After that I worked on an island off Antigua as a private chef.
Is it true he orders several boiled eggs for breakfast to ensure one's perfect?
That's a load of nonsense. He was great, and ahead of his time. He was an early advocate of organic vegetables and he was right. I'd pick vegetables from the gardens in Highgrove and they tasted far better than anything I could get at the supermarket.
How do you stay calm when cooking for VIPs?
You reduce the stress of service by choosing dishes you can prepare in advance and that can hold for 30 minutes in case something goes wrong.
As a private chef it can be difficult cooking in someone else's kitchen but, no, not really. I'm not in the kitchen now but I loved all the camaraderie and excitement of doing a live event. I'm not now as good a cook as the teachers here but my strength is coping with disasters in the kitchen.
How do you avoid eating all the time?
I'm not very good at moderation so I do have to be very disciplined or I will just eat everything. It was my older son's fifteenth birthday recently and he asked for Chelsea buns. Sweet bread is my absolute downfall. The staff lunch here is made up of wonderful leftovers from the classes. There's usually a salad so it's easier to eat healthily. At home, the cupboards are stuffed with temptation.
With Christmas around the corner, how do you time cooking a turkey?
A 4–5kg turkey which will feed 8–10 people will cook in 2 1/2–3 hours in a 200˚C oven. Bring it out of the fridge a good hour before serving and let it rest for 20 minutes at least before carving – while you make the gravy. If you prefer to check with a thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 82˚C.
What about a veggie alternative?
Aubergine and chestnut pie. (Download recipe PDF here)
What's your trick for roasting potatoes?
I parboil and sieve them a few at a time to rough up the surfaces. Then toss in oil, perhaps goose or duck fat. You can even do it the day before as long as they absorb the oil all over so they won’t go grey. Or you can use unsalted butter. At Highgrove, we used to cook for the Duchess of Devonshire – she liked her food and liked them like that.
How do you get a Christmas pudding to flame?
Caroline Waldegrave says you must use a new bottle of brandy and add a slug of vodka and a little sugar; but please be careful because it really works.
Favourite recipe for Christmas leftovers?
Josceline Dimbleby – she's a local – in her Christmas book she has a recipe for Turkey gratin with almonds and sherry sauce, which is delicious. Leiths does an exciting Leftover turkey banh mi (Vietnamese) recipe on our Perfect Christmas Lunch afternoon.
Year-round, what are your go-to hacks for enhancing flavour?
Madeira – for anything savoury that needs a lift. Vermouth for paler sauces. I go mad in Chinese supermarkets and have lots of things like white miso paste, hoisin and even harissa.
TV chefs seem to use a lot of salt. How much is enough, for example, with pasta water?
When we train people to make pasta at Leiths, we don't use salt in the dough so the pasta water requires salt. It's supposed to be as salty as seawater. We don't teach students to add as much as we used to and we are happy with a wider range of saltiness when marking their food. We teach in secondary schools and some children grow up with no salt in their home cooking at all, but we feel food needs some salt to bring out the flavour.
What's your advice for aspiring chefs?
There are lots of ways in but if time and money are no object, and I appreciate that for most people they are, the easiest way is to go to a cookery school and do a diploma. With ours, in 9 months you'll see everything, all the techniques, the classic dishes and be exposed to the most innovative guest chefs of the moment. You can also do a shorter course and learn on the job, but at school you're taught in a calm and nurturing environment. The more trained you are the faster you'll rise.
What's the best meal you ever had?
Every meal I've had at Chez Bruce in Wandsworth. I got engaged there and every milestone of my life has been marked there.
Thank you, Jenny. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed November 2019
Photo: copyright Leiths School of Food and Wine