You are standing in the middle of a wildflower field in Devon, smoke billowing from a glowing fire in front of you. Sitting beside it on a couple of artfully placed logs is Gill Meller, teacher and long-time collaborator at River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s cookery school, restaurant and home. Meller is showing you how to cook beef rump on an open fire.
“It’s such a beautiful way to cook meat,” he says. You’re close enough to feel the heat and smell the sweet and smoky scent of the sizzling meat – and yet you can’t. Because this new River Cottage cookery class is entirely virtual, part of a 12-course diploma – which launches this week – designed to be undertaken entirely online from the comfort of your own home.
“We first started talking about it a couple of years ago,” Fearnley-Whittingstall tells me in breaks between filming his own lessons for the course, on vegetables. “We were so busy at the time, I just couldn’t see when we would make it happen. It was the pandemic, and lockdown, that nudged us into it," he admits, "and gave us the time to think about how it could work.”
The biggest challenge was working out how to create a course that could propel not just confident amateurs but aspiring chefs to the next level – and to offer something above and beyond the cookery videos that already exist on the River Cottage and across the internet at large.
A partnership with Learning with Experts, an online educational platform that enables teachers to interact with students ‘in real time’, convinced Fearnley-Whittingstall that he could “offer something with greater depth and cohesion than a summary of pre-existing clips and recipes”, delivered by a crop of teachers (among them forager John Wright and fermenting expert Rachel de Thample) that he says "are some of the best we have ever had.”
For £1200 students get 48 hours of lessons, regular assignments, personalised coaching, and a Fearnley-Whittingstall-signed certificate marking their completion of the River Cottage Cooking Diploma. Chefs who want to advance their skills further are recommended this 'expert option'; the cheffing-curious can also undertake a cheaper, £320 course (the 'peer option') which encourages group learning in an online class of up to 20.
When the diploma launches on October 15, River Cottage will join a growing number of cookery schools that have expanded their online offering in the months since lockdown hit. Some have entire courses which are digital; others, like the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu whose London HQ is in Bloomsbury, believe that streamed content and digital platforms can only ever enhance the experience of learning in “a unique training facility, where expert chefs provide advice, mentorship and hands-on practical skills training in a professional environment,” and cannot fully replace an on-site programme.
“This same experience cannot be achieved online," says Elaine McCarthy, a programme development manager at Le Cordon Bleu, just as time spent cooking in "a professional kitchen environment during a dinner service” cannot be replicated virtually. McCarthy does not dismiss the advantages of digital learning; all of the school’s courses involve an online learning platform, which allows students to explore in-depth instructional videos for techniques, skills and theoretical knowledge. Yet, she believes, “the most effective culinary training is within a professional teaching kitchen, being taught by the highest level of experienced teaching chefs.”
Le Cordon Bleu was founded in Paris 1895; its London arm opened 36 years later. Its philosophy is steeped in the classical French tradition, prioritising skills and rigorous technique above all. “As a French person, I couldn’t imagine studying in a non-French school,” says current student Hortense Vène. “Online classes didn’t even come to my mind. You can learn a lot of things online but you will never learn correct seasoning and sauces, for example. Smelling, tasting, adjusting the flavours with a chef by your side is priceless and cannot be achieved behind a computer screen.”
The interaction between student and teacher is "something YouTube videos cannot offer", argues Le Cordon Bleu graduate Alwyn Lee, but personalised instruction is something that platforms like Learning With Experts aim to offer through marked assignments; Gill Meller might not be by your side as you sear your lamb neck, but by looking at photos and comments you have shared he will provide you with tailored feedback. “Students can chat to each other about assignments, and send the tutors pictures of what they’ve made with notes deconstructing their thinking," says Fearnley-Whittingstall. "We can tell a lot from that, and feed back accordingly. It is proper teaching,” he stresses, “not just a video guide.”
Leiths School of Food and Wine has been running an online, interactive version of their Chefs Skills course since September, designed to enable chefs and competent home cooks develop their patisserie, tackle soufflés and master more complex sauces. Students send in notes and photos during the course (“which has really made me improve my plating technique, and my ability to take photos of my food, which is important these days!” says one student), but can only pass after a two-day on-site assessment in London.
“We have always believed that it is only by really mastering the basics and understanding the technique and the science behind [cooking] that you can be creative,” says Leiths' managing director Camilla Schneideman. Schneideman does believe that this can be achieved online, and that what her remote students might lose by not working physically in Leiths' kitchens and with its equipment, they gain in accessibility. At £1695, the Chefs Skills course is not only significantly cheaper than its school-based equivalent (which costs £3440), it can be done anywhere, by anyone. “There’s no need to move to London, and have the living costs of being here. A lot of people can’t afford to give up their nine-to-five,” she says.
One of Schneideman's students is on maternity leave and completes the online classes "while her baby sleeps"; others live abroad, or – since April – are shielding.
Since the pandemic, the nation's interest in cooking has soared. People are signing up to courses (Leiths has seen a significant uptake since lockdown began), but also teaching themselves, via books and the internet. Indeed, if my Instagram feed proved anything during lockdown, it was how competent my friends could become at cooking given a good enough Wi-Fi connection.
The path to professional cheffing no longer requires formal training; Heston Blumenthal, The Sportsman's Stephen Harris, Six by Nico's Nico Simeone and Brad Carter all attribute their Michelin-star success to being self-taught. “There is value to [a cookery course], it gives you discipline, and a vision, but I learn by being practical,” says Carter, whose restaurant, Carters of Moseley, won its star in 2013. "If I am going to make pasta, I want to learn everything about the flour, the grain, the eggs. I’ll read everything there is, and visit producers,” says Carter. Technique counts for little without an understanding and respect for ingredients, he argues, which are values the River Cottage diploma also seeks to instil in its students.
“These days all the leading head chefs are serious about the quality of their ingredients,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. From local bistros to fine-dining restaurants, the aim increasingly is “not to dazzle with skills, but to delight with the taste of produce that has been well chosen, and treated in an interesting, but thoughtful way.” Age-old practices like fermenting and curing are usurping molecular gastronomy and nouvelle techniques as the preferred – and most sustainable – way to honour ingredients. River Cottage is in no small way responsible for this shift (“those restaurants [which are prioritising sustainability and seasonality] are catching up with us,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. “Provenance has always been at our heart”) and its online curriculum reflects what have now become cult trends: foraging, fermentation, cooking with fire, smoking, cooking from fin to gill and nose to tail.
You may not master a madeira jus or get your pâté sucrée down pat – but do you need to? As sustainability and food security become ever more pressing issues, the relevance of the River Cottage diploma is hard to ignore. Fearnley-Whittingstall is conscious of its limitations; students don’t benefit from handling River Cottage’s exceptional ingredients, and “we haven’t addressed the issue of how to comport yourself in a restaurant kitchen,” he admits – something Le Cordon Bleu and Leiths value highly.
Yet in a year when travel is curtailed, food is so valued, and virtual teaching is a vital resource, its launch this week feels more timely than ever.