Home on the range
Take one large house, add a family, and you too can teach cookery, says Christopher Middleton
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.”