A cross between the Great British Bake Off and Saturday Morning Kitchen, the brand-new Cookery School at The Grand Hotel in York is something quite special. A vast open-plan kitchen holds 16 individual workspaces with a sharp, modern design that all centre around the large demonstration area at the front of the school. Andrew Dixon, the newly appointed head cookery tutor, enthusiastically tells me all about his exciting future plans with the cookery school, and gives me an exclusive look around the almost completed kitchens and teaching spaces.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Cookery School?
The Grand Cookery School is going to be one of the most modern, purpose-built Cookery Schools around. We are trying to cater for everyone from the novice cook and children, to the people who think that they are the next Gordon Ramsay. I am going to be putting a lot of focus into educating children, as for me personally, I think cooking is one of the most important life skills for a child to learn.
What does the Cookery School offer? And what should York expect?
What we are offering is three different types of classes. You have the day class which is 9:30-4pm and our guests will cook three courses entirely from scratch. Then we do a three-hour half day where you cook one main course from scratch, and I demonstrate and serve to you one other course. Then finally we have our evening class, in which our guests will again cook one course, and be focusing on everything from creating a fresh curry, to cooking the perfect steak.
What first inspired you to start cooking?
I almost joined the Navy after finishing school as my uncle used to be a really talented chef in the navy, and at the time, he owned a couple of restaurants in Newcastle. I used to jump on the bus and have my tea at the restaurant after finishing school, and I thought; I quite like this you know. I thought that I was going to follow my uncle and go into the Navy as I was always told that if you want to be a really good chef, then you should join the Navy as you get to see the world and learn how to cook at the same time.
Once I started looking into it though, I decided that it wasn’t for me as I liked my home comforts too much!
I’ve heard that you used to own a restaurant? Where were you based?
My wife and I owned a restaurant for 18 years down in a little village called Porlock Weir in Somerset. The restaurant was called ‘Andrew’s on the Weir’, I didn’t want to name it after me, but I got outvoted!
What style of food did you cook?
In the beginning it was fine dining, and we achieved three rosettes within ten months of opening; which was the same level as Hudson’s at the Grand. It was a restaurant with rooms, so we gained four stars for the hotel as well. When the recession hit, people were spending less so we had two choices to make; we either had to sell or change what we were doing.
Wow! 3 Rosettes? That’s quite an achievement.
It was at the time, but after ten years into Andrew’s on the Weir, I wrote to all the guide books and told them to stay away, and I handed all of my awards back.
What made you hand the awards back?
It wasn’t what people wanted anymore. Food goes in a full circle from fine dining to gastro pubs, and then to cafes. We wanted to move away from the fine dining. We knew that our customers were loyal and would carry on dining with us because of the quality we were producing, but it was the new custom we were trying to attract.
Food awards are very political, as it is more about who you know, and I am over awards. You speak to a lot of chefs and they get to a certain time in life where they realise they have been cooking for guidebooks for far too long. They need to concentrate on what people want, rather than what the criteria wants you to do. I had just had enough. There is more to life than cooking for guidebooks.
I think nowadays the most important thing is value for money. It doesn’t matter if you are in a 3 Michelin starred restaurant or the local pub; its value for money and quality. We could spend all this week going to Michelin starred places and I think that over half of them you would think ‘hmm’ was that really worth it? People don’t mind paying, but they don’t want to be ripped off.
A Michelin star doesn’t mean that you are actually any good. It’s a bit of a club, they say it’s not, but it is.
You mentioned earlier that when the recession hit you had to make the choice to either sell or adapt the business, what did you decide to do?
We loved where we were and was a really nice place to bring a family up, so we didn’t really want to sell. At around the same time, we got approached about opening a café with a delicatessen in another village on Exmoor. We would sell everything from homemade pies, to hampers. We were going to run the café until the end of the year, and then change Andrew’s on the Weir into another café and get a little group started.
After just two months of opening the café, we decided that we had to change our original restaurant sooner rather than later. In just 48 hours on a Monday and Tuesday which were our days off, we changed Andrew’s into an upmarket café that worked really well, and we stayed there for another seven years.
What is your favourite thing to cook? And what are you most looking forward to cooking at the Cookery School?
I love fish. I’ve spent 18 years by the sea where fishermen are coming in with the freshest fish and I just love it. I also have quite a big passion for foraging which is very in vogue at the moment. I’ve done a lot of foraging myself especially of wild mushrooms and I’m bringing that into the cookery school. I also love world cuisine and teaching people about authentic Indian and Asian cooking.
Have you got any guest chefs and cooks coming to teach at the School?
We’ve got two organised already. Sabrina Ghayour is coming to do a class with us and she will be focusing on middle eastern cookery. We’ve also got Alysia Vasey, who is a big name in some of the top restaurants in the UK. She runs Yorkshire foragers and supplies all the top guys with stuff that we have never even heard of! She will be bringing in her foraged produce and we will be making a menu from it.
What do you think is going to be the most challenging aspect when you first open the doors of the Cookery School?
I think it is sticking to our guns on our vision. Short term, our vision is to make cooking fun. You can cook like a pro if that’s the right word to use, but it can be fun at the same time. What you see on TV with people shouting and screaming, it’s not the real world. If you ask any top chef, kitchens are very calm and controlled; controlled chaos! Our goal is to create a place to have fun, try new things and meet new people.
Where is next on the list of places you want to eat in York and Yorkshire?
I think obviously Roots by Tommy Banks, and I’m hearing a lot of good things about Skosh which is just around the corner from us. Everyone needs to try The Star in at Harome at least once. To be honest, I haven’t been out anywhere yet as I’ve been too busy! But I ate at The Star Inn at Sancton the other week and that was phenomenal!
Where do you see yourself this time next year?
This time next year, we will be the talk of the town. We will practice what we preach in the cookery school, and we will be teaching people how to cook whilst making it fun.
Andrew Dixon, 4/1/19
The Cookery School will be open from March 2019.
York Talks would like to send a big thank you to Andrew Dixon for sharing his Food Story and giving us an exclusive peek at The Grand’s brand-new Cookery School.
If you would like to find out more about Andrew, tweet him @AndyDixon41 or check out The Grand’s website https://www.thegrandyork.co.uk/cookery-school/about/for more info on their Cookery School!
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