John Campbell at Woodspeen Cookery School

PUBLISHED: 15:59 03 December 2015 | UPDATED: 15:59 03 December 2015

Getting the kit right: there are tips along the way, right down to how to attach a tea towel to your apron

Getting the kit right: there are tips along the way, right down to how to attach a tea towel to your apron

Maureen McLean

We’ve been trying to keep up with chef John Campbell, but the man’s an expert you just love to watch, Jan Raycroft finds

There is a question I forgot to ask John Campbell while watching him in action at Woodspeen Cookery School, just across the road from his restaurant of the same name near Newbury.

Now it’s too late, and not something you might phone to quickly ask, such as checking a fact about ingredients. It’s this: “So John, are you a good dancer?”

That’s because the man glides, swiftly swerving and swirling around his kitchen, never a step wrong as he gently guides us keen amateurs peering with a mix of hope and fascination at the contents of the pots achieved while following his instructions.

Suddenly he’s at one of the cooking stations, offering reassurance and encouragement, and then, spin… and he’s across the room. This light-footedness and gentle but masterful approach is calmly dished out throughout the day, along with smiles, but never a fixed grin.

Now surely this charming Liverpudlian, used to telly cameras on Saturday Kitchen and Masterchef, could sashay his way to the final of Strictly Come Dancing. But if I asked him how he feels about that he’d no doubt deftly Paso doble back to the restaurant pass. So we’ll return to the cookery class, held in a delightfully transformed former old farm building which is now kitted out with state-of-the-art kitchen equipment.

On the day we attended the six ‘students’, a merry bunch of five ladies and one chap, were having the time of their lives preparing a seasonal dinner party menu featuring the likes of an extraordinary pumpkin soup, chicken fritter, confit of chicken leg, a stunning braised lamb dish, and salted caramel and hazelnut parfait with chocolate ganache.

The chap is Steve Donnelly from Reading, who loves cooking and whose usual Friday night treat is a curry with wife Donna. One of the ladies, Anne Alderson, first met John when he was at The Vineyard and was fulfilling a dream to finally cook with him.

In between floating round the airy room, John explains: “I like to keep the classes small – we never have more than six because that way you can give people proper attention and make sure they are delighted with the results.”

All the time he’s throwing out tips about how to get the most from gelatine, which cuts of lamb are best, and reassuring a student who forgot to add grated Parmesan to the soup, “Its just a little error, easily sorted,” he whispers.

All this is a long way from some of the histrionics you sometimes see in those ‘behind the scenes’ documentaries on the working lives of flighty celebrity chefs.

So another unasked question is of John’s staff. Is a man with two Michelin stars, a golden CV that includes The Vineyard, and a holder of Catey’s Chef of the Year award, always so chirpy? Where and when does he do his ‘head-banging’ or mad meat cleaver impersonations?

You know, I think he’s always like that. Smiling staff appear with ready prepared ingredients or pop in and do the washing up for the students (such luxury!). And, when I return from the bountiful kitchen garden adjoining the school, with at last a question that does sound like a bit of investigative journalism, he never misses a beat while continuing to guide his students to success.

“So what’s happening with some of those tomatoes?” I demand. “The plants are near enough dead and the tomatoes are just rotting on them.” John replies: “It’s a shame, they just never ripened enough before they came to an end. They’re finished…”

He finally appears sad, like someone who has been unfairly cross-examined about the fate of their late goldfish.

When I get home a look at my own tomato plants reveals they have suffered exactly the same overnight fate so late in the season, when you hang on in hope. And I never praised him for the fact that the runner beans were still going strong and that other crops packed with seasonal flavour were being picked by staff for the restaurant across the way.

Fancy attending a class, a cookery demonstration if you’d rather watch, or even The Chef’s Table, where up to 10 guests can enjoy a tasting menu using the finest ingredients of the day? Classes in everything from festive dinner parties to steak nights and bread making run this year up until 17 December, see and pick your favourite ‘dance’ with John!

About The Woodspeen

John opened The Woodspeen in October last year, completing another of his dreams. Previously it was a run down country pub, The Five Bells, but he could see the potential and took on a massive project.

Today, with its airy restaurant and delightful bar area it’s a place to enjoy a delicious meal overlooking beautiful countryside. Head chef Peter Eaton joined John from The Vineyard and oversees a menu where the suppliers include Vicars Game from Ashampstead, a business John has used for some 13 years.

The well-stocked bar includes two new ales developed especially for The Woodspeen by The Two Cocks Brewery at Enbourn. One, The Curly Rascal’, is named after Curly Coburn, a loveable Newbury rogue and butcher who ran the pub in the 1920s.

The other, ‘The Lord Rivett’ bitter has a far more recent ‘pedigree’, being named after Ray Rivett, who came out of retirement to oversee the construction work at The Woodspeen.

In September The Woodspeen was awarded a Michelin Star in the latest awards. The lunch and pre-theatre menu comes in at two courses for £19 (three for £25).


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