A Class Above

Historically I've not had a huge amount of success with cookery classes. There was the time I did a day-long course with Gaucho at Millennium Dome, during which the Malbec started flowing in the a.m's and I remember nothing of what I was taught, and the time I sliced my hand open at a West Mids butchery course and was too focussed on not passing out to take anything onboard. About a decade ago I also did a sushi class that was so difficult and overly involved that I've literally never tried to put my learnings into action, and never will. So yeah, mixed bag.

Above Simpsons restaurant, Eureka Kitchen (you're a stronger classmate than I if you don't internally imitate Vic & Bob's "Ulrika-ka-ka-ka" every time they say "Eureka") things are elevated. I don't just mean the food and the wine, I mean the whole kit and caboodle. The equipment, the teaching, the time and deliberation, the relaxation, the enjoyment. It's measured and professional and, honestly, wicked-good for your culinary repertoire.

You'll meet at 9am (if you think that sounds a little early, that's because it is) with just nine others and though the small talk is bound to be slightly over-bearing at first, you soon settle into a common ground — a passion for food. Even from here, right at the get-go, it's helpful as you'll trade notes with like-minded West Midlanders about everything from local restaurant recommendations, to regional weekend trips to "what's better to spend silly money on — if you ever have it — a Big Green Egg or an Ooni pizza oven?"

I was lucky enough to be given a complimentary spot at the day-long course (I know, tosspot right?) but other classmates came from all walks of life and all ages, 30 to 75 I'd say. I think that's testament to Simpsons, that long ago binned off stuffy white tablecloths and continues to offer one of the most affordable Michelin-starred lunch offers in the UK. As high-end restaurants go it's pretty accessible and that sort of showed in the c̶l̶i̶e̶n̶t̶e̶l̶e̶ studentele. Equally, at a price point of £195 per person, everyone wants to learn. Not at the expense of having laugh, mind, because there was plenty of that, but it's too expensive to "do a Gaucho".

Our teacher for the day was Simpsons Sous Chef, no less, Georgia Frend (above), who was predictably fantastic. I say 'predictably', in that she is clearly an absurdly adept chef, but less predictable is her teaching talent. It doesn't necessarily follow, as with any skill, that being good at it makes you good at teaching it, but Georgia has the patience and ability to engage that really raised this course from helpful, to outright enjoyable. It's a skill to put a roomful of strangers at ease, and Georgia has that in spades.

Chef toques also need doffing in the direction of Ella (commis chef and Georgia's right hand woman) and Bibi, a front of house teammate who handled much of the equipment distribution and hospitality bells and whistles. It was ever-so 'Simpsons' in its operation. While Georgia demonstrated the cookery she was handed items good-to-go by Ella. And while your attention was on the kitchen Bibi would be working behind you on laying out the next items needed for you to put into practice what you've just witnessed. It's so slickly done — you turn around and the worktops are laid out with completely different equipment and ingredients. Like I said, it's all elevated. What was also interesting was how both chefs would wipe down at all points, almost like a reflex. Everything is spotless except your workstation while you cook (which you're encouraged to pepper with flour and dough and anything really), and your Eureka apron, which you take home.

So what were we cooking? Well the menu was braised ox cheek ravioli with basil, sea bream with potato and tartar sauce (I swear you will never buy a jar of Hellman's again when you know how easy the mayo for this is to make) add Earl grey prune and almond tart with armagnac ice cream. Now if you're me (and you're not. I'm me and you're you) alarm bells would be ringing. I'm an average cook. I enjoy it when it's going well and I hate it when it's going badly. I think a good sauce can cover up bad cooking and I'm only ever organised if I'm making something I've made half a dozen times before. I don't really do things with dough, I very rarely bake and the concept of a pasta roller brings me out in sweats. Well... it used to.

What's most appealing about this menu is that it isn't a Simpsons menu. There is almost nothing I didn't have at home needed to make all of it — that's something they pride themselves on here — and probably the reason this is called Eureka (ka-ka-ka) Cookery Class and not Simpsons Cookery Class. It might be a little pricey, but it's also realistic. Don't teach them something they can't do tomorrow, is the mantra.

When the pasta rollers came out there were at least four of us who openly declared a trainwreck in the making. It was extraordinary to see how absolutely everyone, even the most nervous (me) quickly mastered a pasta roller and were passing perfectly thin dough through with confidence. We all admitted to be extremely proud of the outcome — I'm even posting pics of mine here, above and below. It's odd admitting to being proud of yourself to perfect strangers when, perhaps, we struggle to admit the same to those we are closest to.

You don't make everything from scratch. Aspects that are easy but monotonous are done for you and there are some corners quite rightly cut. You won't me removing membranes from ox cheek or filleting your own bream. If it's a job a butcher or a fishmonger can do, you won't be expected to (thank all the gods) and there are moments where the class will simply observe Georgia doing what Georgia does best and it will be taken as read that you'll be able to do a lesser version at home.

The benefit of this is they don't ask too much of you, but you are asked to do enough to feel a real sense of accomplishment. You're also asked to do all the things that Georgia feels are important you learn. There's no better way of locking something in than feeling the slight pressure of doing it yourself. Honestly, if I can do it you can and I've already replicated much of it at home, less than a fortnight on.

Once your prep is done and the food is cooking, Simpsons treat you to a little luxury. Of course they do. I wasn't counting but if exactly two glasses of excellent Champagne while you wait, then exactly four more while you eat (leave your car at home) sounds like a decent return for your fee, you'd be absolutely right.

You're also getting the food you helped make and, believe me, it was sublime. There was the usual "you just binned our food and made your own while we were drinking" quips, but you are truly served the food you made — except in the case of ravioli where understandably keeping tabs on who crafted what would be tricky. You also eat where you cooked, which is a wonderful touch when surrounded by other students feeling just as chuffed as you with the outcome.

What I found of particular use were the things we learned in a general conversation with Georgia. Sure there was the practical pointers and hands on experience, but I took on so much outside of that. During demonstrations, questions are encouraged at all points and even if you're shy chances are someone else will ask what you're wondering. No question is too stupid, which was particularly handy for me.

But outside of those things there was so much advice, too. While we all ate it was a constant stream of questions which Georgia answered with a refreshing and realistic honesty. Like... You know the old adage that if you're cooking with wine you should only ever cook with a wine you'd happily drink? Georgia doesn't really buy into it. Cook with any of the bloody stuff you have as long as it's still fresh, was her take. "Drink the £20 wine, don't chuck it in a casserole".

She also told us she would most regularly order fish when dining out because, well, it's fiddly and often harder to make delicious, so make the professionals do it — and that if she's buying fish at a supermarket she would usually (but not always) gravitate towards the frozen aisle. There was loads of stuff like this, stuff with an openness far beyond what I often believe is simply "the right thing" for chefs to say, not necessarily the honest thing. It was like asking a mate who just happens to be a chef the questions you've always wanted to ask. 

It was interesting, of course, to take a tour of the kitchen and to be introduced to the team (including Chef Owner Luke Tipping), something that's included in all classes, but the highest compliment I can pay them is that a pasta roller is now on my Christmas list. If you had told me that would be the case a fortnight ago, I would've told you to stop being so fusilli. More