Home on the range

Take one large house, add a fam­ily, and you too can teach cook­ery, says Christo­pher Mid­dle­ton

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Town & Country -

It’s the kind of house that in most Bri­tish mar­ket towns would be the of­fices of a well-to-do so­lic­i­tor or a firm of char­tered ac­coun­tants. A hand­some Queen Anne frontage, two el­e­gantly thin pil­lars astride the front porch, and a lo­ca­tion just a stone’s throw from the pretty main square of Winslow, in Buck­ing­hamshire. Pre­cisely the sort of up­mar­ket premises that would suit a firm of soberly dressed pro­fes­sion­als.

All the more sur­pris­ing, then, that No 9 Sheep Street is home not only to a fam­ily with two small chil­dren, but also to a cook­ery school, where the equip­ment isn’t dusty old fil­ing cab­i­nets and pho­to­copiers, but bright-red food mix­ers and an Aga. Plus there’s a swim­ming pool out the back.

It’s the home – and head­quar­ters – of Stephen and Joanna Bul­mer, par­ents to Oliver (5) and Emily (3), and pro­pri­etors of the newly opened Brook Hall Cook­ery School (Stephen pre­vi­ously ran the Ray­mond Blanc Cook­ery School at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, in Ox­ford­shire).

“We had a mar­vel­lous time at Le Manoir, but af­ter five or six years we started ask­ing, ‘Where do we go from here?’” says Joanna, a for­mer mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive with ad­ver­tis­ing agency Ogilvy and Mather. “Also, I was leav­ing home each morn­ing at 6.30 to get to work, and not get­ting back un­til seven at night, which is no way to bring up small chil­dren. So we were look­ing for a way to bring our work­ing and fam­ily lives closer to­gether.”

The house in Winslow was the an­swer. “Be­cause we’ve bought it to run a busi­ness, we’ve been able to af­ford a much big­ger place than if it was just go­ing to be a home,” says Joanna. “Also, it was quite keenly priced, I have to say. With a busy road out the front (the A413) and only a small gar­den out the back, it’s not the sort of place fam­i­lies mov­ing out of Lon­don want to buy. On top of which, it’s in the les­s­ex­pen­sive part of the county; if this had been in South Bucks it would have gone for mil­lions.”

But al­though they saved money buy­ing the house, the Bul­mers have spent many thou­sands con­vert­ing it. “The first thing that caught my eye was the cel­lar,” says Stephen. “It was just brick and earth, but I knew it would be per­fect for my teach­ing kitchen.” So it has proved to be, the mud and cob­webs hav­ing made way for a low-ceilinged but im­mac­u­lately clean war­ren of cook­ery sta­tions and food stor­age cham­bers. This is where the pupils go to put Stephen’s teach­ings into prac­tice; the main demon­stra­tion kitchen, mean­while, is on the ground floor, com­plete with cam­era and high-def­i­ni­tion video screen, so stu­dents can see Stephen’s chop­ping and dic­ing in close-up.

The per­fect set-up for pay­ing guests, then. But what do the chil­dren think about shar­ing their house with a pro­ces­sion of strangers?

“We do al­low Emily and Oliver to mix with the guests over morn­ing cof­fee,” says Joanna. “Af­ter all, part of the at­trac­tion of the school is that it’s lo­cated in a real, lived-in house. But once the classes start, there’s a strict rule that the chil­dren have to leave. At the same time, we don’t want them to feel shoved out of the way, so we’ve given them the en­tire top of the house for bed­rooms and play­rooms.”

Sure enough, the sec­ond floor is like a ju­nior pen­t­house, packed with toys and ex­posed wooden beams. Stephen and Joanna’s bed­room is on the floor be­low, next to the three guest rooms (when the school takes in pupils overnight, the Bul­mers use the chil­dren’s bath­room up­stairs).

“Ob­vi­ously, you lose a bit of pri­vacy when you’re run­ning a busi­ness in your own home, but com­pared to hav­ing your own restau­rant (the Bul­mers ran Ate­lier, in Beak Street, W1, for four years), the in­tru­sion into your life is min­i­mal,” says Joanna.

Speak­ing of which, there’s no short­age of of­fi­cial bod­ies who have a say on home-run busi­nesses. The Bul­mers have had nu­mer­ous con­sul­ta­tions with en­vi­ron­men­tal health of­fi­cers (num­ber of wash­basins per per­son), with fire of­fi­cers (flame-re­tar­dant doors) and with the lo­cal plan­ning author­ity (change of use from res­i­den­tial to com­mer­cial). Not only are they for­bid­den de­liv­er­ies on Wed­nes­days (Winslow’s mar­ket day), but they have to of­fer a free pick-up ser­vice to pupils trav­el­ling by train (both Ayles­bury and Mil­ton Keynes sta­tions are 10 miles away).

As an es­tab­lished chef, Stephen has been able to at­tract spon­sor­ship in kind from firms such as Neff (kitchens) and Ken­wood (food mix­ers). But you don’t have to have worked in Miche­lin-starred kitchens to open a cook­ery school. Just a few years ago, for ex­am­ple, mother-ofthree Jen­nifer Hicks was in pub­lish­ing; now she runs a cook­ery school from her house in Maida Vale.

“I had al­ways felt I was quite good at be­ing a mother, and won­dered what as­pect of par­ent­ing I could put to use in a com­mer­cial way,” she says. “Then it came to me; I could teach peo­ple how to cook.”

Jen­nifer has de­vel­oped a course that runs over five week­day evenings, and which is mainly at­tended by 20and 30-some­things who have bought places of their own, but found they don’t know how to cook. And al­though the course calls on 20 years of Jen­nifer’s en­ter­tain­ing ex­per­tise, it has made few de­mands in terms of ex­tra out­lay.

“I had tow­els, I had loos, I had a big kitchen and a big kitchen ta­ble,” she says. “All I needed was a few ex­tra chop­ping boards.”

By con­trast, fel­low mother (of four) Mary Forde has dipped rather deeper into her apron pocket, con­vert­ing the garage of her large Vic­to­rian house in Put­ney into the Av­enue Cook­ery School.

“About four years ago, we wanted to loosen up some cash, and raised the pos­si­bil­ity of sell­ing the house,” she says. “But the chil­dren, who range in age from 11 to 25, all said they hated the idea of hav­ing to move out.

“I’ve al­ways had lit­tle side­line projects; for years I’ve looked af­ter the Cam­bridge crew in the run-up to the Boat Race. I also ran a project in which we im­proved the nu­tri­tional lev­els of lunches at the school where I was a gov­er­nor. In a way, the cook­ery school is a com­bi­na­tion of both those things.”

Mary, too, be­lieves her school’s do­mes­tic set­ting adds to its ap­peal.

“If any­thing, it makes the at­mos­phere more re­laxed. Peo­ple rather en­joy it when you’re in mid­flow and you’re in­ter­rupted by a lit­tle child in py­ja­mas ask­ing for hot milk. If we were to hire a pur­pose­built cook­ery stu­dio, we’d lose all that am­bi­ence. On top of which, if we were hav­ing to pay rent we’d make no money at all.”

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