One part the Naked Chef, two parts Ready, Steady, Cook, Bovis Lend Lease’s away day at a cookery school might have been a recipe for disaster – but turned out dead pukka. Eleanor Harding put her apron on …
It’s candles-out time at St Mary’s Church but down in the basement, teachings of a more earthly kind are beginning. The chefs at the Underground Cookery School have the pastor’s permission to run classes out of the church kitchen and their disciples tonight are Bovis Lend Lease’s finance team for Central Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Nobody knew what we were coming here to do,” says Bill Quarterman, the team director who arranged the evening. “We said we were going out and that there would be booze involved, and everyone said fine.”
Tired of the usual go-karting company days out, Bovis has started sending its staff to these cookery sessions, a short walk from Liverpool Street station in the City of London. So far Bovis has sent four teams to the school. Up to 40 people can attend at one time and the classes are so popular that they are nearly fully-booked for September.
The groups are offered wine and canapés while they cook a three-course meal with the chefs, who have trained at top-class restaurants across Europe. They then sit down to eat the fruits of their labour. Tonight they’ll be making an onion and goat’s cheese tartlet as a starter, a main course of roast chicken with salsa verde and baked white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake for dessert.
The students arrive at 5pm, don aprons, and separate into two groups. “We usually split all the mates up and mix them around,” says Matt Kemp, class leader and professional chef. “That way when they get back to the office they’ll know each other a little better.”
Nobody is allowed to drink or smoke outside, lest passers-by form a bad impression of the congregation. On the wall hangs a reproduction of The Last Supper.
Group one is making pastry cases for the tartlets. This involves kneading the flour, butter, eggs and water into a dough and fitting it into moulds. Some are reluctant to get their hands dirty. “I don’t do cooking,” says one accountant, too shy to be named. “I have a wife.” He prods the pastry. “I am enjoying it though – I think I’ll try one or two things out on her.”
Parisian chef Patrick Even leads the kneading. “Get your fingers in there,” he commands. A few discard their forks and gingerly poke at the pastry. “Come on, give it a good massage,” he insists.
“Today it hasn’t been the best response I’ve had,” he confides. “Hopefully they will get more relaxed.”
Over in the kitchen, things are going a little better. The other group has just finished making the onion filling for the pastry tartlets. It tastes delicious. The group now needs to pour the mixture into the pastry cases and add goat’s cheese and egg before putting them in the oven for baking.
“I love cooking,” says Jesús Redrado, an accountant from Spain. He joined the team only two days ago. “They’ve been teaching us how to mix sugar with vinegar to decorate the plates – I’ll definitely be trying that at home. I’d much rather do this than paint-balling – it’s so much more fun.”
Matthew Free, a human resources director, agrees. “It’s quite an international team with a big age range,” he says. “Paint-balling appeals to a few but we all need to eat so this appeals to everyone.
We tend to wear masks at work but here you can make an idiot of yourself. It breaks down the hierarchy – even the boss is rubbish
Matthew Free, HR director
“We tend to wear masks at work but here you can make an idiot of yourself. It breaks down the hierarchy as we now know that even Bill is rubbish at something – and he’s the boss.” Bill looks up sheepishly from the bowl of mess he is wrestling with.
After much ado, the tartlets are put into the oven and it’s group change-over time. The pastry group now has to get to grips with eight chicken carcasses in the kitchen. The challenge is to remove the breasts and legs of the chicken to make fillets. Sounds easy, but some of the chickens don’t seem to be in the mood to be dismembered.
Andy Bonnick, the head chef, has a jovial style reminiscent of Jamie Oliver. “Come on darling, crack it,” he laughs. The accountants look baffled. Their training has not prepared them for this. Kanan Patel, a frazzled accounts clerk, tries to snap a leg off. “I’ve never done this before,” she says. ”My mum won’t let me cook chicken in the house – she’s a vegetarian.” But Andy is unfazed. “They’re doing good – I’m really impressed,” he says. “Everyone can be a good cook if they try – it’s all about having a great time.”
The chicken bits pile up on the plate and when the last piece is placed, everyone looks relieved. “They look great,” says Andy. “Except for that one. Who did that?” The accountant who lets his wife do all the cooking looks at his shoes. “I blame the tools,” he mutters.
Andy drizzles the fillets with olive oil and puts them in the oven for roasting. The other group has been chopping up the herbs, garlic and anchovies for the salsa verde, which will be added afterwards. They have also whipped up a tasty cheesecake from biscuits, cream cheese, chocolate and raspberries.
The alcohol is flowing freely now, as the evening’s work bubbles away in the kitchen. Perhaps aptly, Amy Winehouse blares from the stereo and the lights have been dimmed to give the basement the air of a stylish underground restaurant. The team begins to relax.
Class leader Matt announces with pride that it’s been another successful night. However, he admits that when Bovis sent its first team along – a group of “hard hats” from the Milton Gate site near Moorgate – he was worried.
“We didn’t think it was going to be easy,” he says. “They weren’t in the demographic I usually sell to but they really got into it. They especially excelled at the technical stuff, like making pastry.” Management teams like the one tonight, Matt says, usually do better at food presentation.
“It works for construction companies as well as any other,” he continues. “The worst case scenario is that someone who doesn’t like cooking will just have a drink and enjoy themselves. They might even get inspired.”
Although the team claims to be sociable, everyone admits it is rare for all of them to spend time together. Today is a special occasion, however, as Katrina Honey, the team’s secretary, has just been taken on as a trainee accountant. “Now I’m properly part of the team. This is kind of my initiation,” she says.
“We’ve got some new people here, and now we know each other a lot better,” says Matthew Free. “People who’d never normally talk to each other are working together.”
But David Walker, management accountant, knows the gang all too well. This will be one of his last evenings out with them. “I cook a good Sunday roast but I’ve never taken the time to do it like the chef,” he says as he sits down to eat. “I’m retiring soon so I might just give it a go after that.”
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