Professional cookery courses: are they worth their salt?
Can crash courses in everything food-related set you up for a career of culinary greatness?
Laoise Dempsey attended Cooks Academy in Dublin 2. She now runs Doran Vinum, a pop-up wine bar in LaptopLab on George’s Street.
Anyone with a vague interest in food has probably discussed what cafe or restaurant they would like to run if they had the chance. But when it comes to taking the plunge into the food business, where do you start?
One route that has become hugely popular and effective is the professional cookery course, designed to provide a crash course in everything food-related and help set you on your path to culinary greatness. Most don’t come cheap, but are they worth it? Here, we look at three of the most popular ones, and speak to students about what they learned and what came next.
Cooks Academy, Dublin 2
Cooks Academy offers a full-time eight-week certificate in professional cookery. It costs €5,450, combining hands-on practical work with guest lectures. cooksacademy.com
Laoise Dempsey (25) was studying at the National College of Art and Design when a part-time job in a Korean restaurant got her thinking about food in a new way. “Each one of my colleagues took such pleasure in introducing me to different flavours of Korea, and what it represented to them. It was the first time I recognised food as an art form,” she says.
A homemade packed lunch prompted her to switch from studying art to food. “It was inevitable when the biggest commendation I received from my design tutor was for my packed lunch of chickpea curry with homemade kimchi.”
Another four years of full-time education did not appeal, so Dempsey left NCAD to start the Cooks Academy eight-week course. She loved the hands-on work. “You tap into different areas such as cheese making with Corleggy Cheeses, and wine tasting,” she says. This knowledge was invaluable when she went on to set up Doran Vinum, a pop-up wine bar in LaptopLab on George’s Street, which she runs with her housemate. She now also works full-time in the kitchen of the Pepperpot Cafe in Powerscourt Town Centre, and hosts food tours with Fab Food Trails.
Mark O’Brien was working front of house in restaurants while documenting his love of cooking on his blog Come Dine With Mark. “I thought my ultimate goal was to be either a food writer or a restaurant manager,” he says. Cooks Academy offered him the chance to do the certificate in practical cooking, if he would document his experience for their website.
“I cooked a lot at home so I knew how to roast a chicken or make Bolognese, but I had no idea how to set up a section for service, or the names for cuts, or the French mother sauces. A course like this was exactly what I needed to get me up to speed and fast.”
He started working in kitchens in Dublin. “I thought maybe I’d cook for a few years then go back to the writing or front of house. The further I got into the course and my first kitchen job, the more I realised that I was in this for the long haul.”
O'Brien is now based in London where he works with Robin Gill as sous chef at the Dairy in Clapham. “If you are considering a move into professional cooking, [a course] will give you many of the tools to get started,” he says.
Dublin Cookery School, Blackrock, Co Dublin
Dublin Cookery School’s flagship course is a 12-week professional certificate run by Lynda Booth. It costs €8,990, and includes guest lectures and work experience in some top restaurants including Chapter One and Forest Avenue. dublincookeryschool.ie
Long office days used to be standard for Sokha Song (35); but she was happiest at the end of them, in the kitchen cooking dinner. “I’ve always found cooking really relaxing,” she says.
Song decided on a career change, and this led her to the Dublin Cookery School. “I really knew Asian food because that’s my background, that’s what I was making a lot of. But we covered so many cuisines on the course.”
Song’s classmates were a mix of people like her who had already quit office jobs, others who weren’t happy in their careers, and some who were just curious about turning a hobby into something more. “You can always go back to what you were doing before,” she says, “but at least you have a chance to experience this.”
Since receiving her certificate, Song has relocated to Inis Mór, where she plans to start a supper club before opening a B&B in 2021. “I hope to do the breakfast when we open, and then introduce evening meals.”
Eamonn Harrigan (55) had a successful career as an accountant in the construction industry, but always yearned to do more around food. “I had a long standing interest in cooking. It’s in my family; my granddad was a cook and I’ve nephews who are cooks. It’s always something I wanted to know more about,” he says.
On Lynda Booth’s course, Harrigan gained confidence in his cooking skills, and discovered that he enjoyed baking and sweet foods more than savoury. He didn’t have a particular goal in mind when signing up, but came out of the course with a business partner and a food start-up called Goody Two Chews.
Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co Cork
Run by Darina Allen, the Ballymaloe 12-week course has been a chapter in the story of many well-known Irish chefs and food producers. Part of the appeal is the location on a picturesque organic farm in Cork, and the calibre of tutors and visiting teachers. It costs €12,695. cookingisfun.ie
Like many Ballymaloe graduates, Carolanne Rush (33) still gushes about her love for the school and their ethos after doing the course six years ago “It was the best idea I ever had,” she says. Teaching had been her original career plan, but while working in the Middle East, she started a blog as a way to detail her discoveries, and food became her focus.
“I’d go to cookery classes and to the markets at the weekend, and work on recipes that were based on local food.” After a year of saving, she moved home to go to Ballymaloe. Lectures from restaurant consultant Bláthnaid Bergin stood out for her. “We did a session on setting up an Irish country farmers' market. Bláthnaid worked with us on business, and how to price your products, so it’s not just about being in the kitchen, but every part of the food business.”
Rush went on to set up her own market stall in South Africa and then Sligo. “I couldn’t believe it when people in Sligo were queuing for my salads,” she says. Now, she runs two plant-based restaurants in Sligo – Sweet Beat and Sweet As. “Not only did Ballymaloe change the way I cook, but it gave me the confidence to go beyond blogging and believe that I can make food that people will buy. You can have a great idea, but you need people to want to buy it. [The course] sets you up.”
Tom Gleeson (34) ended up in Ballymaloe after graduating from Trinity. “I did pretty badly academically there, and with the recession my options were kind of limited. I felt rudderless.” He embarked on the course at Ballymaloe without any expectations. “Plenty of people go there with an idea to have a restaurant or get into the hospitality business, but I was there with very managed expectations that maybe there was a 10 per cent chance that something would come of it. At the very worst I would learn how to make nice dinners for the rest of my life.”
After graduating from the course, Gleeson ended up establishing the now very successful Bunsen Burger brand. Would he recommend Ballymaloe? “You live on an organic farm in Cork for three months which is like a holiday camp of sorts, and the people are all really nice. I would highly recommend it. I’m actually getting married in Ballymaloe, so I’ve very fond memories of it and I’ve been back to the cookery school plenty of times.”