How to get kids cooking - and beat flab

She's cooked on TV and now she's sharing her secrets with us here, in print. Emma Crowhurst tells Steven Russell why we should all be able to cope in the kitchen, and how we could combat childhood obesity if we put our minds to it

Steven Russell

She's cooked on TV and now she's sharing her secrets with us here, in print. Emma Crowhurst tells Steven Russell why we should all be able to cope in the kitchen, and how we could combat childhood obesity if we put our minds to it

RAISE a glass, please, and welcome Emma Crowhurst - ealife's new (and local) cookery expert. We're in exceptionally safe hands, as many chefs would doubtless swap their keenest Sabatier knives for a CV like hers. Impressive enough to be offered a job by Marco Pierre White. Head teacher at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, where her charges included royalty, actors and the sons and daughters of celebrities such as Terry Wogan and Jeffrey Archer. Presenting BBC2's Food and Drink programme alongside Oz Clarke and Antony Worrall Thompson. A back-to-basics book to help men get started in the kitchen. Appearances on Ready Steady Cook. Even a little verbal sparring with Anne Robinson on Celebrity Chef Weakest Link. This is someone who can stand the heat.

Emma's buzzing with ideas that over the coming months she'll share in ealife, the magazine inside Saturday's EADT. Look out for quick dishes - the kind of meal one could come home and cook for the family when pushed for time. Watch for themed recipes, such as gluten-free food. There will be ideas for activities with the kids, and much more - including the chance to “Ask Emma” about matters culinary.

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One of her aims is to highlight the seasonality of food: what's available in Suffolk and Essex, and nationwide, at different times of the year, and what the main imports might be.

She uses seasonal fare as much as possible. Take a recent dinner party, where Emma made a sauce with tomatoes taken from the garden, dried in the oven, put through the Moulinex and served with roasted garlic. There was goats' cheese in filo pastry, with salad leaves grown just outside the door. Bramley apples from the garden made a tarte tatin, and there was Bramley ice-cream, too. The main course was bone-stuffed chicken from the freezer that needed using up.

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Good food, properly cooked, is a passion she loves to share. Put a magic wand in Emma's hand instead of an egg-whisk and she'd love to get Britain viewing fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, and other nourishing fare in the same way as a country like France. For we seem to have lost our way over the years.

Take education. There was a time when cookery was squeezed within the curriculum as the emphasis swung towards subjects thought more useful in life. Once as second-nature as breathing, proper cooking became unfashionable for legions of children.

For the 44-year-old, the issue's like a red rag to a bull.

“I don't know why anybody was surprised that we've had such difficulty with obesity. What do you expect!” she tuts. “It's our generation that had it taken away, really, so there's basically now at least two generations of people who can't cook.

“If you're not learning how to do it, and your parents aren't teaching you, what are you going to do? Are you going to be buying foods which are processed? Probably.”

Going into primary schools to help with cookery activities from time to time, “you can see a lot of children have never done any at home - don't know how to deal with an egg. And that's very sad. It's very important: a life skill.

“The more generations that are 'away' from learning to cook, the more social implications there are than just the nutritional value and the learning that goes with it; it's part of what is destroying the family,” she explains, alluding to fewer communal meals eaten around a table.

The picture in senior schools is reasonably optimistic (though she baulks whenever culinary skills are lumped under a “design and technology” heading - “Let's just cook!” she pleads). Trouble is, it's the five- to 11-year-olds we need to be targeting.

Flourishing that wand, Emma would equip primary schools with working kitchens the children could use, the resources to make appetising dishes, and the staffing to make it happen.

“Food is so little valued, too. Most schools don't even have a dining room big enough to seat everyone. You can see kids eating packed lunches on classroom floors and desks. It's chaotic.

“But it's all very well for me to go on about healthy eating and home cooking. I have the time and the training and more important the interest and love of food, if no one has taught you to cook, what can you do? I 'd like to see more cooking in school to gradually change the way cooking, eating and food are viewed so it becomes part of our everyday lives.”

And there are rays of hope.

Emma's done some work with an organisation called Let's Get Cooking, bankrolled to the tune of �20million by the BIG Lottery Fund and aiming to set up a national network of 5,000 clubs for children. It's running in parts of East Anglia and is due to extend to Suffolk next year.

What about the plethora of TV shows? Have they helped promote good nutrition? Hard to say, Emma reckons. People are buying more processed and ready-meals than ever, and yet there are more cookery programmes than ever, too. “So the question is: has it turned into a viewing-only thing, like people who watch sport and never do it?”

Some of the shows have focused more on serious cooking (Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein, Nigel Slater, say) while others appear to have more of an eye on entertainment value, she feels - programmes hosted by the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and The Hairy Bikers. “After Ready Steady Cook, would you go off and cook the things that were on there?”

Although she's got Nigella cookbooks on her shelves, and particularly uses some bakery recipes, Emma says she can't hack the programmes. Nor is she partial to the usual format of Jamie's shows: all that trying-to-be-too-clever-and-jerky with the camera angles, and whizzing around on bikes. “All that padding is unnecessary. But I could just sit and listen to Rick Stein's voice, talking, and that is enough.”

She thinks the regular Masterchef series is “a bit unreal”, but is a great fan of Masterchef: The Professionals. It evokes deep empathy as the pros are asked to produce something from scratch with no notice.

“I think the only way to get into people's lives is to educate the children, so they go home and say 'Mum, I don't want to eat that anymore. I want to cook, and I'll show you how to do this.' By the time children leave school, they should have a list of 10 things they should be able to cook. Fish pie, roast dinner, pancakes; a cake, maybe. And prepare salad things.

“I think something as basic as eating has been taken for granted so much, and actually there's a lot more involved in the science of eating. You are what you eat - I know that's a hackneyed phrase, but it's true.

“In France, eating has never lost its value; and kids working as waiters, bar staff, kitchen staff are not looked down on. Working in the service industry in this country is seen as being at the bottom. When I was working as a chef, it never had the kudos it did in France.”

Anyone inspired to take their first tentative culinary steps could do no better than open Emma's book Men in the Kitchen, which starts with the very basics and leads readers on to appetising and do-able meals.

Of course, you don't have to be a male to benefit, but the chances are many men missed out on cookery skills when they were young.

“I think mothers who teach their sons to cook will produce a son who will make a better husband. I have the odd friend who has a husband who never cooks and I just think 'Well, the mother has done a disservice.”

For the record, Emma's partner is “quite a good cook, actually”, and takes care of mealtimes at least twice a week.

Alistair's family moved to Harwich when he was six, his father a ships' pilot, and he went to Ipswich School before moving away from the town. He and Emma met in the capital and left London in 2002 for a house on the edge of Ipswich.

The mother-of-two was neither born within the sound of Bow Bells nor originally from East Anglia, but that didn't stop one journalist getting locations and accents muddled. (Happens to us all . . .) She actually hails from Sussex - Gatwick way - but, in an article written while she was working at Leiths, Emma was described as “The Cockney Suffolk sparrow”.

“This must have been 10 years before we moved, and I'd forgotten,” she laughs. “But how funny we should later come here.”

SHE might have left school with a solitary O-level to her name - an “A” in cookery, naturally - but food was always a passion for Emma Crowhurst. In fact, she concedes she was at times in danger of going off the rails as a youngster, but her interest helped keep her on the right path. She had waitressing jobs at weekends and catering college was like coming home. Whereas school had been something of a struggle, here she excelled - student of the year, no less.

The West Hampstead restaurant Capability Brown was her first stop. Emma rented a room from the head chef's girlfriend's mother - next to the actress Una Stubbs's house - and each day rode the number 71 bus the four or five miles to work from Holland Park. Life could be very lonely for a newcomer to London - she'd listen to The Jam's song Strange Town, which echoed her mood - “but it was a small restaurant and the people I worked with were my family. They got me through it”.

It's a common feeling in restaurants, she says. “Because you're working so hard and such unsociable hours, you are with that team pretty much all the time. You get days off when your other friends might not be off, so your colleagues become your extended family.

“I always felt that the reason kitchens can be quite hard places was because chefs don't get much time off, so they do their 'playing' at work. One person will become the butt of a joke - hopefully only for a day - but in the old days you'd have people who were victimised all the time . . . if you were gay, black or a woman, or had a lisp . . . anything different.”

At one stage Emma went to a restaurant run by a very well known chef - whom we won't name here! -and worked free for a couple of weeks to gain experience. Said chef ordered her not to touch anything, on pain of death, but one day there was a staff shortage and Emma prepared a plate: terrine of lobster and baby leeks.

The chef, who inspected all the food before it went to the table, twigged. He took hold of Emma's chef “whites” and picked her up, demanding the truth. She'd broken his rules, yes, but obviously with some skill, for at the end of the day he offered her a job!

At the end of the 1980s, after working in several restaurants, she joined Leiths School of Food and Wine. By the time she left in 1999 to have her first daughter she'd taught heaps of well-connected names. As well as the sons of Terry Wogan and Jeffrey Archer, there was Jemma Kidd (sister of model Jodie), Laura Patten (daughter of Chris Patten, the former Conservative Party chairman and Governor of Hong Kong), and a descendant of a former American president.

There was a member of the royal family, too. Lady Davina Windsor as was, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, “was a poppet and hard-working. She used to go waitressing. Apart from her accent being cut-glass, you'd never know. I used to call her LRF: Little Royal Family! She didn't mind!”

Then there was actor Richard Griffiths, lately known as the unkind guardian Mr Dursley in the Harry Potter films. Emma taught him cooking techniques at the time of his mid-1990s comedy series Pie in the Sky, in which he played a chef. “Lovely guy, but a real thesp!” she laughs. “Because I'm of the Withnail and I generation, he's pretty much a god. That was a real cult film.” Griffiths played the eccentric Uncle Monty, alongside Richard E Grant and Paul McGann.

Emma loved Leiths and, by the time she left, was head teacher. She smiles about how she and one other colleague were the only members of staff not upper-class. As we've mentioned, she's not exactly an East Ender, but . . . “Compared to the others, I was a full-blown pearly queen!” she roars.

“Initially I thought that was going to be a problem, but in the end my success was because I was different.” One thing the environment showed her, she says, was that money doesn't necessarily make you happy.

Her TV appearances were fun, though nerve-racking in places.

“When I hear the music for Ready Steady Cook I feel physically ill! It was just so scary! I was on there with people who had been on for years, and you'd have Antony (Worrall Thompson) doing about seven things and I think the most I ever did was three things. You're never going to be the victor!”

Appearing with one's peers was often daunting.

“When I went on Celebrity Chef Weakest Link, that was pretty nerve-racking, because you don't want to get a basic cookery question wrong!

“The boys ganged up on me! - Paul Rankin, Nick Nairn, Brian Turner and Antony Worrall Thompson. I think I went out in the fifth round - which was good.”

Emma was pregnant with her second daughter at the time and needed toilet breaks between rounds. Once, filming restarted before she returned. “Anne (Robinson) is quite scary! She said 'Where have you been?' She was really fierce - but of course didn't mean it.”

Emma met Alistair on a balmy summer's evening when she'd gone out for dinner in London's Primrose Hill and then on to a party that Alistair also attended.

Spookily, a friend came across a photograph of the pair of them - taken at a Free Nelson Mandela rally a decade or so earlier, marching next to each other. “I was a right tough little thing: flat-topped haircut and shaved head - and pixie boots!” she grins.

They had daughters Matilda (Tilly) in 1999 and Roberta (Bobby) in 2002.

What with motherhood, a Suffolk garden to tend, helping out at school from time to time, and all the other bits and bobs, the pace has hardly slowed since the move from Walthamstow. Emma's been creating recipes, teaching on courses at Fermyn Woods Hall in Northamptonshire, and running a catering enterprise from her kitchen. She counts a number of well-known business names among her clients.

She and her family might have foregone the convenience of London - with its proximity to the sights and theatres - but they're “unreservedly pleased” to have made their home in East Anglia and enjoy sharing its charms with friends who visit regularly.

Emma is available for private dining/catering, for businesses or at home, she also teaches cookery classes regularly at Fermyn Woods Hall

She can also arrange group cookery days in your own home, tailored to suit your requirements.

Her cookery book, Men In the Kitchen is available at the Suffolk Food Hall.

She can be contacted by email or by post Emma Crowhurst, C/O Ealife Magazine, Press House, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, Suffolk IP4 1AN

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