Men in the Kitchen

Men in the Kitchen workshop with Emma Crowhurst at the Cookhouse at the Suffolk Food Hall.

Men in the Kitchen workshop with Emma Crowhurst at the Cookhouse at the Suffolk Food Hall. - Credit: Archant

Thirteen good men and true gathered beneath the gaze of the Orwell Bridge to do some serious cooking. A baker’s dozen.

Men in the Kitchen workshop with Emma Crowhurst at the Cookhouse at the Suffolk Food Hall.

Men in the Kitchen workshop with Emma Crowhurst at the Cookhouse at the Suffolk Food Hall. - Credit: Archant

We had congregated at the Suffolk Food Hall in Wherstead near Ipswich, to learn some of the tricks of the culinary trade with well-known chef Emma Crowhurst. The day-long session had been billed as ‘Men in the Kitchen,’ one of the many cookery workshops and experiences Emma holds throughout the year.

Emma said she had got the idea for this particular event after she had been approached for cooking tips by a man who had become recently widowed, and was having to fend for himself in the kitchen for the first time. Fortunately, as far as I could gather, the participants on the course I attended were there out of passion, curiosity and enjoyment rather than necessity.

We were men of all ages – from 40-ish to 80 – the majority had been bought a voucher for the experience as a gift from their wives and partners. Others had decided to give it a go after hearing glowing reports. I was there with my dad, Ted, who had enjoyed himself immensely on one of Emma’s Christmas cookery courses a few years back – an experience that had kick-started somewhat of a renaissance for him in the kitchen. Since he attended, every time I have visited my parents there is some kind of exotic soup on the go and Dad never misses a chance to show me how to sharpen a knife “properly”.

So here we were: Men in the Kitchen; Lads in the Larder; Mates with Plates; Geezers near the Freezer (you get the idea).

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Men in aprons

There was no sense of awkwardness or embarrassment whatsoever as we assembled – TV programmes such as the Great British Bake Off and MasterChef have made us accustomed to seeing males wearing aprons. Emma’s warm welcome also put us at ease. She is a former a TV chef herself, having presented the BBC’s Food and Drink Programme with the likes of Antony Worrall Thompson and Oz Clarke before moving to Suffolk, and her clear and down-to-earth directions helped immensely throughout the day. The food we were going to prepare included tomato bread, Mediterranean fish stew, scallops, slow-cooked Gressingham duck with rhubarb and ginger relish, and chocolate and almond pudding with boozy chocolate sauce. Emma said she had chosen the dishes because they involved seasonal ingredients – offering a warming cheer with a hint of spring.

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The facilities at the Suffolk Food Hall’s purpose-built tuition kitchen are first class – we each had an induction stove and our own working area plus terrific views out across the River Orwell through the large glass partition windows. Emma was ably-assisted by a delightful young man called Joe, who literally worked like a galley slave, constantly washing up and keeping us all supplied with the necessary utensils, ingredients and cups of tea.

Although the general atmosphere was light-hearted and full of fun, this is no experience for slouches. We spent a busy day watching and listening to Emma, taking notes and then having a go ourselves, before moving onto the next stage. It offered a small insight into the pressurised world of haute cuisine – having a limited time to prepare one recipe whilst always being mindful of the other dishes that are underway at the same time.

Helpful techniques

Emma’s energy was amazing – while I managed to just about keep on top of my own food preparations she seemed to move effortlessly between us, adding a bit of advice here, kneading some bread dough there. She was always ready to answer questions and to pass on tips and interesting pieces of information. While we learnt to prepare five or so fairly impressive dishes – it was the additional pieces of know-how that I picked up that made the day.

I acquired techniques like how to slice food professionally as chefs do (middle finger always pressed up against the knife blade as you push the item through and under the blade with the other fingers) and to look for a mottled, bubbly effect on your dough to ensure it has the best chance of making a good loaf. These are things that really can only be picked up by being shown first hand.

We also learnt the difference between poaching and simmering and what French terms like ‘confit’ actually entail (cooking poultry slowly in its own fat) – I could already envision my dad aiming to confit as many types of bird as possible over the coming months.

I also liked the way Emma gave us ideas about how we could adapt our dishes – the Mediterranean fish stew, for example, can be made into Thai fish soup by adding kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and replacing the chopped tomatoes with coconut milk. It became clear that to be a successful chef or caterer you always have to be thinking ahead, working out how left over ingredientsA can be used in future dishes and making food in bulk so you can freeze it and use it later.

A good laugh

A well as being a cookery extravaganza, the day was also a good laugh and a pleasant experience. Generally, I find men need to be doing something to feel comfortable socialising – be it playing golf, drinking a pint or watching sport. Food preparation comes into that category and as the day went on a bit of banter developed. One thing I discovered is the kitchen is a great place for innuendo – grown men we may have been but some still struggled to contain the giggles at the mention of “crushed nuts”. When it was noted that the “rhubarb had gone floppy” – all bets were off.

There was also time for us to retire upstairs to a private dining room to enjoy our fish stew for lunch and to have a chat over a glass of wine. And by the end of the day there was a sense of camaraderie. Our last task was to try our hand at spinning sugar – a delicate operation that involves heating the sugar up until it becomes a caramelised syrup before dripping it on a cold metal surface to produce hardened sugary shapes. A nice moment was when everyone spontaneously broke out into a round of applause as one gentleman produced a lovely spiral of sugar that looked, and was, good enough to eat.

At the end of the day we packed our various finished food items into Tupperware boxes – eager to get home and show our other halves what we had produced, like proud school children rushing home with their end of term project. It had been a great day – enjoyable, entertaining and informative – and I’m looking forward to smelling the fish stew bubbling on my dad’s stove the next time I’m round there.

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