Emma Crowhurst: ‘Learning to cook is an investment in yourself’ 

Chef Emma Crowhurst

Emma Crowhurst - Credit: Contributed

I’ve known Emma Crowhurst for many years now – first meeting the chef in person at a cookery class in the mists of time, where I learnt how to perfect the plumpest loaf of bread, and most melt-in-the-mouth tagine. 

I also learnt nothing in the kitchen should be wasted. As tempted as I am to leave the final trails of cake batter in the bowl when I’m making a cake, a little voice in my head (Emma’s) to this day, tells me to pull a spatula out of the drawer and scrape out every single morsel. 

They say you never forget a good teacher, and Emma is one of the best - as her CV can attest. She used to be the head of Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London’s Kensington – but we’ll get to that later. 

Bubbly, giggly, and with fire in her belly, Emma is a force to be reckoned with and has built a fine reputation in Suffolk for her cookery courses, demonstrations and private catering – which has seen her create fabulous menus for guests in some of the most distinguished houses in the county. 

“It’s wonderful,” says the chef, of her roaming catering business. “I’m up for anything – and you have to be ready for anything. I find the people are usually wonderful and so pleased to have someone looking after them.” 

Emma Crowhurst teaching at Two Magpies

Emma Crowhurst teaching at Two Magpies - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Have there been any stand out events? 

“Cooking at one of the Martello towers at Bawdsey was pretty amazing. Unfortunately it was dreadful weather and the three nights these women had come to England to enjoy this amazing place they had no decent sunsets!” 

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Until Easter 2021, Emma had also been teaching cooking at St Joseph’s College in Ipswich – a position she was made redundant from as the school wound down its food technology curriculum. 

Fortuitously, fate stepped in, with Emma now heading up an exciting series of cooking and bakery classes at Two Magpies Bakery’s flagship store and bakery in Darsham. 

“I’ve known Rebecca [Bishop, owner of Two Magpies) through a mutual friend for some years now. I bumped into her at Latitude and she was telling me how busy she was, I had capacity for more teaching...and she snapped my hand off! 

“So we’ve got about eight new classes coming this year. Macarons and meringues. Gift ideas like fudge and marshmallows, jams and pickles. Seasonal suppers. Cake decorating. And I’ll take on some of the existing classes too, like doughnuts and sourdough pizzas. It’s really exciting!” 

Emma says there’s a class for everyone, no matter their skill set. 

“I think, with these courses, you get out of it whatever you want,” she says. “So if you are a bit more experienced you are able to come out with a more high-quality product that will be all your own work. I can show you how to achieve something close to perfection. 

“In one of the classes we’ll be making a chocolate fudge cake with a chocolate mirror glaze. In the shop this kind of cake sells for about £60 to £80, retail! So you’ll learn how to make that, alongside other techniques, and get the tuition, food, and drink during the day...then you take home your goodies at the end.  

“I think, like any other cookery class, it’s a real investment in yourself. It’s a luxury. Everyone on our courses is always very well looked after and they’ll learn a lot.” 

Having worked as a pastry chef for many years earlier in her career, desserts, cakes and pastry are close to Emma’s heart, and remain some of her favourite skills and techniques to share. “We’re going to be doing a pies and pastries class, and I’ll be showing everyone how to make raised pies, which I love! 

“In the seasonal suppers class we’ll do tarte tatin – an old favourite of mine. It’s almost like meeting an old friend, bringing out these recipes I’ve cooked and taught time and time again. There’s a comfort in following processes that are so familiar. If I had to pick a favourite class though...I don’t know if I can. I am looking forward to all of them. 

“I am worried I might get fat!” Emma laughs, adding that she’s a new dog owner, so hopefully hours of walking her four-legged friend will stop the pounds piling on from sampling goodies in-class. 

Teaching is a career Emma has come back to time and time again. And teaching cooking in particular is something she thinks should be on the curriculum of every single school. 

“When my kids were at school, they’d have three terms of cooking over three years – and they never brought home anything they’d want to cook again. And that part is is important.” 

Emma adds: “I absolutely believe the only way to beat the obesity crisis in this country, or to help tackle it, is for people to learn to cook from scratch. Until the government will acknowledge the importance of food education in this country and chuck money at it, the crisis is never going to get better. 

“We have a whole generation now who don’t have a clue how to cook.” 

If she had her way, what would the educational landscape look like? 

“It would be from primary school upwards, with a morning of food every week. Something like Jamie Oliver and Jeanette Orrey did, where they cooked for the rest of the school. Within that you would have all of the knife skills, handling of ingredients, budgeting, nutrition, working as a team, kitchen safety, food safety.  

“I like his idea that every kid should leave school knowing how to make 10 dishes that are cheap, nutritious and delicious. I mean, it isn’t rocket science. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but some schools don’t have any cooking at all. And some have a lesson every week, but the teachers are under supported and don’t have time to a great job.” 

Emma Crowhurst on stage at Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival

Emma Crowhurst on stage at Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival - Credit: Contributed

Emma says she also feels the hospitality industry isn’t as valued in this country is it is, for example, in France, where working front or back of house as a youngster is almost a rite of passage. 

“Hospitality doesn’t seem to be valued as much here as a career. When I was at school I remember my careers teacher saying ‘you’re rubbish at academic work, why don’t you go into hospitality?’ 

“Little did she know I already had my eye on it.” 

Born in Crawley, Sussex, Emma was working in restaurants in the Gatwick area from the age of around 14, and could always be found busily conjuring up something delicious at home, from cakes and bakes for friends to even making her step sister’s wedding cake. 

She took her first proper job in catering at West Hampstead’s Capability Brown, before taking on a role at Leith’s restaurant as a commis chef, where she could spend time honing her skills in every part of the kitchen. 

“While I was there the pastry chef was in a bad accident and I got stuck on pastry for a couple of years, so I specialised in it a bit.” 
Back then, Leith’s restaurant was famous for its pastry trolley. Imagine a great, 80s-style banquet of colour, sugar and cream. Hazelnut meringue cakes, chocolate roulades, lemon meringue pies. Emma responsible for ensuring everything was perfect. 

A spell at another French restaurant, La Carapace in Hampstead village followed, with Emma recalling getting up at the crack of dawn for a spot of wild swimming in the local pond before getting her whites on. “It was really cool,” she says of that time. 

Cake decorating class Two Magpies Bakery

Learn to decorate cakes like a pro at one of Emma's classes - Credit: Contributed

In a turn of events that was by any admission, very random, the chef was then asked to make food for a video being made by one of the stars of Neighbours (she can’t remember who). “I was showing her lots of techniques front of camera and was told I should get into teaching.” 

And the rest is history. Emma applied for a job as a junior teacher at Leith’s, viewed at the time more as a finishing school (it was listed in the Sloane Handbook), working her way up to head teacher by the time she left in 1999. 

During her spell there Emma’s students included Jemma Kidd, Davina Windsor, Good Housekeeping editor Jane Curran...award-winning food writer Diana Henry. 

She even taught the Emmanuels in a night class around the time Charles and Diana got married. And she famously told off Roosevelt’s grandson while he was on her watch. “He’d come in with his jeans slung low. I was always pulling up his trousers,” Emma laughs. 

TV work hadn’t really occurred to Emma after her foray into video, but while she was at Leith’s the chef was drawn into not one, not two, but three programmes. 

Chef School was a cross between a fly on the wall documentary and a cookery programme, following students in the beginner’s term. 

“They’d shoot a demonstration from the morning, with whoever was doing it, and then go to the students cooking in class. So the camera would be constantly following us around. It was pretty well received at the time. Good afternoon telly.” 

Then there was a series called Leith’s Tricks of the Trade. 

“All the teachers tried out in a screen test to appear alongside Prue,” says Emma, “and the idea was each teacher would do one or two programmes. In the end, they gave them all to me. Perhaps I was a bit more telly-friendly? A lot of the girls were quite plummy whereas I’m very natural. I’m exactly the same on TV as real life.” 
Across 10, 15-minute programmes, Emma would demonstrate anything from chocolate work to meringue making, chatting about the techniques, while Prue faced up the programme. 

Emma’s pastry skills were to come in very hand indeed when Leith’s was called to bring a chef in for a sugar work challenge on the BBC’s Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth. As the only person in the kitchen with the knowhow, Emma was sent off to the studio to help contestants make sugar baskets. 

It was, she says, a learning curve. 

“I had one of my colleagues come to do the home economist role for me and in the dress rehearsal she didn’t cook the sugar enough, so as I was putting it over the ladle it wasn’t setting! 

“They bought in 100 doughnuts to set so if the sugar didn’t work, they’d have a doughnut eating contest instead. 

“In the show you can see I’m nervous while I’m talking because the sugar is sitting there cooling down – and if it cooled down too much, we wouldn’t be able to use it.” 

Thankfully it was a success and Emma was invited back to make sausages which, as you can imagine, or if you remember the show, was hilarious. 

“Of course Gary Bushell from The Sun wrote in the paper the following week what a huge gaff I’d made saying it was ‘always better by hand’ and how rude I was.  

“Finally, I was asked back on the Christmas edition with Jim Davidson to make a yule log.” But the best part of that experience was being able to dance on stage with Roy Wood and Wizard. 

Emma left Leith’s and was invited to try out for the BBC’s Food and Drink Programme, to appear alongside Anthony Worrall Thompson and Oz Clarke. 

“I was pregnant with Tilly [her first daughter with husband Alistair] and I didn’t tell them,” she admits. “I had my audition at Anthony’s house and I had to eat blue cheese, liver...all the things you’re not meant to have when you’re pregnant.” 

Emma blew them away – and told them of her ‘family situation’ once she’d got the job, which she did for two years, also having daughter Bobby along the way. 

“I’d get chauffeur driven with Tilly and my mum in the car, and I’d go off and breastfeed in between filming,” Emma recalls, saying the family had relocated by then to Suffolk to be closer to her mum, who’d moved there from Crawley, and to Alistair’s parents in Harwich. 

“I had a home economist cooking everything for me. They’re not real, these TV shows. It’s completely Mickey Mouse! One part was I had to go out and help someone who couldn’t cook. I’d go out to their house and show them what to do. It was really good fun. 

“I did it for about two years...three series. I think there was a time when I was on TV every week of the year!” 

Having wrapped for The Food Programme, Emma was interviewed for Suffolk Magazine by Mark David of The Cooking Experience, with the chef ultimately offering her a job teaching at his school, meaning she could build her career in the county, while her children spent quality time with their grandparents. 

Emma went on to have a weekly food column in the EADT, to offer cookery classes at venues such as Suffolk Food Hall, and set up her private catering business. 

At home, everyone loves to cook, she says, adding that as a family they rather enjoyed being locked down together – taking turns in the kitchen. “Tilly is a vegan and a really good cook. And Bobby has just gone to uni for her second year. They’re always sending me pictures of what they’re making. 

“In lockdown I’d make sourdough pizzas. We had loads of lovely vegan stuff from Tilly and my husband would cook. He’s a bit experimental. Him and Ottolenghi [she crosses her fingers] are like this,” Emma giggles. 

“He’ll get out the Observer every Sunday and cook what Ottolenghi’s got to offer. It’s adorable.” 

Emma enjoys other people cooking for her, saying it always tastes better, but if she’s entertaining at home, adds she’ll always keep it as light touch as possible. 

“When I’m catering a dinner party it’s so much more complicated. Behind the scenes I’m dedicated to everything from sourcing great ingredients through to presentation. So when I’m at home it has to be simple. I’ll maybe get some great fish in. Or make lamb shanks in advance. Everything will be sorted in advance so I can enjoy time with my guests. I’m a very seasonal cook so I’ll use Suffolk’s fabulous ingredients and do as little as possible to them. I never feel embarrassed about serving something simple. I have nothing to prove.” 

And good food doesn’t have to be complicated. 

“My favourite meal over Christmas was a plate of cheese, homemade oatcakes, apples and grapes.” 

Outside of the kitchen, Emma and Alistair love to dine around East Anglia, citing The Unruly Pig, Bildeston Crown, Ipswich’s Woolpack and Greyhound, and The Crown, The Globe and The Victoria in Wells-next-the-Sea as favourites (often visited in their campervan). 

Emma’s delighted Suffolk’s become such a destination for food and eating out since she first moved here. 

“Through my column and Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival I’ve met so many fab food producers. We all have a responsibility to support them and it’s just brilliant we have so much to shout about here.” 

Find out more about Emma’s private catering at emmacrowhurst.co.uk and book onto one of her 2022 cookery classes at Two Magpies Bakery at twomagpiesbakery.co.uk 

I’m reading: The Country Girls trilogy with my book club. We’ve just read another brilliant book called The Tin Man. 

I’m watching: The Outlaws on BBC iPlayer. It’s Stephen Merchant’s programme about people who’ve committed a crime and are doing community service. It’s based in Bristol and it’s a black comedy. Hilarious. He has Richard E Grant and Christopher Walken in this programme. I would defy anyone not to love it. 

I’m listening to: Fortunately  - a podcast talking about the menopause and other things. It’s great. And I listen to Radio 6 on weekend mornings. 

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