Jamie McGurk recently participated in our professional Cook’s Certificate course. Here, he explains his experience over the six-week course.
It’s fair to say elaborate and expansive cooking at university is a rare and laborious feat. During my studies, my dinners were usually simple chicken and rice, followed by a couple of Deliveroo meals and some oven chips in between. Whether it’s down to the laziness of a second-year student, the filth of a five-man kitchen or the alarming lack of inspiration, cooking quickly and easily was always a given.
So, when my academic term ended and I found myself with two months in between study and travel, I saw an opportunity to upgrade my skills with the Cook’s Certificate course. With six weeks of full-time classes, it was the perfect time to move beyond university cooking into something more refined, with skills I hoped I could use for the rest of my life.
Cookery School has two very well-equipped kitchens at its disposal, with the larger one being my home for the next six weeks. With six ovens and eight hobs, the kitchen has an efficient yet personal feel. The class is large enough so that you don’t feel overwhelmed with pressure to perform but small enough to allow the teachers to give you one-to-one advice on how to improve.
Our first day was spent making sure everyone was on the same level when it came to knife skills, with time to develop and practice. From there, we dived straight into the cooking, starting with soups and stews. Whilst they may sound simple, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort that goes into each dish.
Day Three focused purely on how to create a proper gastro-pub roast dinner. Ranging from legs of lamb through to lemon-roasted chicken, it’s fair to say almost every possible combination was explored. It wasn’t just the proteins – we also learnt to make onion gravy, glazed vegetables, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings, and smashed and full roasted potatoes.
The first week flew by and even though the hours were no more than a standard 9-5 job, the sheer amount of knowledge and practical skills made for quite an adjustment! However, it was clear to see that even after only one week, the effort and thought put into every day by the team was incredible. They would go above and beyond to make sure that we were learning and cooking from the moment we arrived until the moment we left. An example of this is that we never washed up – there was always someone on hand to clean up so we could maximise our cooking time.
At the end of each day, every student would sit down and complete a theory form. These were essentially mini tests (five questions) that covered the techniques we’d learnt that day. I found this really helpful in helping to hammer in those skills you’ve learnt throughout the day. We also had a practical assessment each week. We would be given a brief for a three-course meal and given three hours to cook it. Three hours seemed to turn into about 30 minutes, so pre-planning and time management was a major factor in how successful your meal turned out. It felt like great preparation for a professional kitchen!
Getting into the groove
The next week really started to pick up, with the cooking becoming more advanced. We started to dive into specialist cooking techniques, including butchery and baking. Every day was as good as the last, but the meat and poultry really stood out the most for me. Seeing our teacher carve half a lamb into the individual cuts as if dicing an onion was fascinating. He paired this with information on sourcing produce and using it as sustainably as possible. It was one of my highlights, as once I mastered the technique, I could see myself using these skills for the rest of my life.
Pastries was also another highlight for me. Learning how to make puff pastry from scratch and then shaping it into croissants, tarts and the like was incredible. Puff pastry has a reputation for being incredibly arduous. However, our teacher showed us that with a little attention to detail and patience, it was easy to do!
The weeks were flying by and every day I was learning more and more about the different cuisines around the world and what makes them so special. In one week, we learnt about the intricacies of Mexican, Spanish, Thai and Indian cuisines. The Mexican, in particular, was a real surprise! Using traditional Mexican ingredients, we managed to make some of the best food I have ever had. We used tomatillos and every kind of chilli you can imagine to create some really fascinating flavour blends. We then went on to make our own tortillas by hand to eat alongside the 12 or so dishes we made that day.
At the finishing line
Before I knew it, we had arrived at our sixth and final week. After six weeks of intense cooking, it was amazing to see how far everyone in the class had come. Some had graduated from having barely any knife skills to developing into a budding chef. Others were now confident with presentation, planning and time management, such important skills for moving into a professional kitchen. Upon completion, we received three separate qualifications: Hygiene, Wine and Spirits and Sustainability, as well as an OCN-certified cookery qualification.
The final two days consisted of a final assessment and cook. The final cook was our chance to really express the ideas and techniques we had learnt about since starting the course. We were tasked with developing a three to five-course meal for everyone who had been closely involved in running the course. I felt this was the least we could do for the people who looked after us day in, day out!
My group settled on a five-course menu. Everything on the menu was made from scratch, bar the burrata.
Roasted asparagus wrapped in pancetta, served with burrata
Hand-made spinach, lobster and ricotta ravioli, accompanied by a lobster bisque sauce
Lemon-marinated hake with polenta, a caper butter sauce and topped with a courgette flower
Portuguese madeira cake
Cream filled cannoli dusted with icing sugar
I would definitely recommend the Cook’s Certificate to anyone looking to dramatically improve their cooking skills. I have learnt an incredible amount and can’t wait to use my new-found skills both at home and at work. No more chicken and rice for me!