It’s almost as if he can’t help it. When John Campbell opened the Woodspeen restaurant in Speen last year, he said that all he wanted to do was to provide the “simple, delicious food” learned at the knee of his nan in Merseyside.
But then, before you know it, the chef, who won two Michelin stars during his tenure at The Vineyard in Stockcross – not to mention one before at the Lords of the Manor at Bourton-on -the-Water, and one after at Coworth Park, Ascot – has just gone and done it again.
Not that he seems all that bothered about the latest star, though, for when I congratulated him on the achievement as we settled down to our coffee and biscuits (homemade, naturally – for recipe, see below), before embarking on our Seasonal Dinner Party cookery class at the school across the road from the restaurant, he played it down, saying that, although he was obviously pleased at the accolade, “cooking isn’t all about winning stars and awards”.
No, it’s more to do with feeding people the food they like. And also, in his particular case, teaching others how to. If anything, he seems much more focussed on his cookery school and half-acre kitchen garden outside, than on any culinary constellations. The school is housed in a former farm building more than 100 years old, but you would never have guessed it, given its 10 state-of-the art workstations and an uber cool demonstration area and chef’s table for up to 12 guests, which even he has described as a “dream. I love developing and motivating people and it’s the perfect outlet.”
But could he develop and motivate us six students, who ranged from very unconfident to keen home cooks? On the menu for the day was pumpkin soup and chicken and truffle fritter to start, followed by braised rosemary lamb neck fillet, smoked mash potato and buttered kale, finished with a salted caramel and hazelnut parfait, with chocolate ganache, caramelised banana and passion fruit coulis. These were certainly the facilities that would be a dream to cook on at home – each station was fully equipped with its own induction hob and fridge and all equipment to hand – but It might all have seemed rather daunting, even a bit intimidating in light of the latest star, had Campbell not been such a friendly, down-to-earth kind of guy (well, he is LIverpudlian, after all).
You soon forget that he’s a famous chef at the top of his game and settle comfortably into learning the tenets of his trade. “Dinner parties are always a challenge,” he started by warning us. Even for chefs. “It’s all about flavour and taste, and the trick is to keep it simple. Get the timings right and prepare well in advance so you can keep sociable. After all, dinner parties are 80 per cent about the company and 20 per about the food, so you don’t want to spend all your time in the kitchen.”
Well, that was a relief. So, after a short talk and demonstration and suitably attired in Woodspeen aprons (one of which we got to keep to show off with at home later) and teatowels tied cheffily to our waists, we set about making the pumpkin soup (all fruits from the kitchen garden, naturellement). This was easy peasy (boil pumpkin, dice with salt and butter until soft, add parmesan cheese and truffle oil, blitz and pass). We also started off the lamb braise, made chicken fritters from ingredients found in the fridge (er, not quite so easy) and whipped the eggs and heated the sugar syrup for the parfait’s pate a bombe (help).
Fortunately John and John Hicks, his sous chef for the day from BaxterStorey, the chefs’ training academy for which Campbell is a consultant, were at our elbows all along, soothing any frayed nerves until they were calm as a set custard. Indeed, making custard for the ganache was one of biggest challenges of the day and while John demonstrated the techniques involved, a white brigade of chefs filed silently into the kitchen and, hey presto, had mashed our potatoes and strained and reduced the stock for our lamb, before we had even realised they were there.
And it’s not just his onions that Campbell knows when it comes to cooking. He’s also highly knowledgeable about the science behind it, the physics, chemistry and biology, and while he imparts a little of his knowledge to us with the help of his whiteboard, you realise why he’s known in the industry as much for his training – he is the co-author of Practical Cookery and Advanced Practical Cookery (with Prof David Foskett and Victor Cesarani), plus his own recipe book Formulas for Flavours – as for his talent. So, how did we fare, so to speak? Well, far from being frightening the course (from 9am to about 4.30pm) turned out to be fun as well as fruitful.
The soup, which we had for lunch, we all found to be delicious – even though we said so ourselves – while the rest of our efforts were put into plastic boxes by the kitchen pixies to re-heat at home. They made for the most superior ‘takeway’ that my family is ever likely to enjoy. A parfait end to a perfect day. But could I recreate it again from scratch my own? Armed with a notebook full of tips and advice on doing everything from selecting meat cuts to smoking cream, I might not be winning stars for my food any time soon, but I certainly feel that my ambition will be reaching a little higher into the sky the next time I have friends round. And I should have lots of time at the table to tell them why.
Chocolate chip cookies
Ingredients 100g brown sugar
125g unsalted butter
11/2 tsp vanilla essence
225g self-raising flour
200g chocolate chips (any kind)
Pinch of salt
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Mix in the egg and vanilla essence.
Fold in the flour, salt and chocolate chips.
Place balls of mix on to a lined baking tray and bake at 180°C for 14 minutes until golden brown.