Back To School
Food at 52 on Central Street is a cookery school with a difference. Katy Salter went to find out more…
Food at 52 is not your average cookery school. For a start there’s a piano in the lobby where students are encouraged, wine glass in hand, to tinkle the ivories after class. You don’t get that at Le Cordon Bleu. Nor do you get the accompanying steel guitar and harmonica, the suit of armour, stained glass windows depicting local tower blocks, or vintage plane models dangling from the ceiling. And that’s just the reception.
The decor makes sense when you learn that Food at 52’s owner John Benbow used to be a film-set designer and furniture maker. A keen cook, he began running cooking lessons from his kitchen in 2007. Word soon spread about the classes at Benbow’s “wacky Georgian townhouse” in Great Percy Street, and after the recession hit he decided to focus on his new business full-time. But eventually he “outgrew working from home. I have an 11-year-old and a nine-year-old,” he explains,
and found a new property in the area, on Central Street. And that’s the next thing you need to know about Food at 52 – it’s actually at no.96. “When we moved, it was intentional to keep the name, as well as the look and feel of our home cookery school, but in a professional space,” says Benbow.
The cookery school is full of souvenirs from Benbow’s travels – Moroccan tagines, Vietnamese war posters, Thai cooking gadgets and Indian pots. Many of the classes focus on these popular cuisines, including the Southern Indian class I’m taking today. Our group of seven stands around a long wooden table, purpose built by Benbow. The table is festooned with bowls of shredded coconut, curry leaves, black mustard seeds and asafoetida – “the quintessential flavours of southern India,” according to our teacher Sage Russell. Sage is a Colorado-native who quit his job as an architect to travel the world “learning everything I could about different cuisines.” He started working at Food at 52 as an apprentice and now leads many of the classes. His enthusiasm never flags during the five-hour class, answering countless questions and showing us extra tricks such as how to perfectly chop onions, remove garlic cores and de-vein prawns. The menu for the day is ambitious – Keralan prawn curry, dals, chutneys and various side dishes, but we split into two teams and Sage and his fellow teacher, Australian Jessica Smith, are on hand with lots of tips and encouragement.
“We want people to feel like they’re here for a dinner party,” says Sage of the informal atmosphere at Food at 52. Indeed, we’re having a jolly time today – there’s lots of laughing and joking, and gentle competition between the two teams. My fellow pupils include friends Daphne and Sam, who are returning to the school after taking the Vietnamese class, and Rich and Mike who work in the city – Rich enjoyed the Thai class so much he brought a gift certificate for Mike’s birthday. The repeat visits speak volumes about Food at 52: cookery classes aren’t cheap anywhere in London, and today’s course costs £135. It’s a competitive market, but Food at 52’s friendly, informal approach has won it an army of fans (just take a look at the TripAdvisor reviews). It’s also pleasingly hands-on. I’ve taken classes where every ingredient is prepped and chopped for you beforehand in order to rattle through the recipes, meaning when you get home it’s a lot harder and more time-consuming to recreate yourself. But here, we’re dicing every onion and slicing every mango – and it’s a lot more satisfying that way.
Those mangos are going into a moru kachiathu, a cooling lassi-style yogurt dish with plantains, which will temper some of the heat from the other dishes. These include a fiery aubergine chutney, snake bean thoran – a dry side dish of green beans with a toasted spice and coconut base, and the prawn curry which is seriously fresh and piquant thanks to the tamarind water (never buy the concentrated stuff, advises Sage) and lemon juice. One of the most delicious dishes is spinach vadai, small savoury donuts which are a popular street snack in southern India, sold wrapped in newspaper. Today we’re eating them around the communal table with the fresh mango chutney. The dicing, toasting, blending and simmering is all done, and we get to eat the fruits of our labours. Not that anyone’s starved during prep, thanks to the jar of biscotti from the previous day’s Italian class. But now we feast, with a few bottles of ice-cold Sauvignon to go with the food. We all leave with full stomachs, big smiles, and slightly rosy cheeks from the wine. Food at 52 is a cookery school where fun is almost as important as kitchen skills.
Also in the area…
There’s a wealth of culinary expertise hiding down local by-ways and back streets. Here’s two more schools in the area where you can brush up on your skills…
Central Street Cookery School
A new culinary school based in the revamped St Luke’s Centre. Central Street is charity-run, and aims to offer affordable classes that bring locals together. It also runs free community based projects such as ‘Garibaldi and Gelato’, a look into Clerkenwell’s Italian heritage where you help make a cookery book and videos. Fun, on-trend classes include street food and burger-making.
Underground Cookery School
Specialising in hen dos, corporate team-building and private events, Underground Cookery School is based on City Road. That doesn’t mean lessons are strictly confined to the building – for its Underground Cookery Challenge, students are divided into teams and given a list of ingredients which they then have to source from local traders and markets, then cook against the clock.