Twenty minutes with…. Jim & Lucy: Exeter Cookery School
Wander down towards Exeter’s quayside and if you time it correctly, you just might find yourself lost in the aromatic scent of roast lamb & garlic, with maybe a hint of thyme, winding its way from the doors of one of the quay’s most historic buildings.
The award-winning Exeter Cookery School in the heart of Exeter’s quay has, in less than two years, established itself as one of the finest in the region; whether you want to immerse yourself in the art of baking, fish preparation or classic French cuisine, the husband and wife team behind ECS, offer something to satisfy even the most discerning customer.
I headed quayside, one beautifully glorious Spring evening, to meet & chat with the award-winning cookery school owners; Jim & Lucy Fisher.
Guys thank you so much for taking this time out for me today; it’s always a pleasure to pop into this stunning building. Let’s jump straight in and talk books. Jim, what is the book, or books, that you’ve given most and why?
One of my favourite books at the moment is Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s almost like the Bible of modern cookery and it contains not only the recipes that he does at The Fat Duck but also lots of insight into the chemistry and science behind the food and cooking.
It’s something I’ve always been interested in and that I talk a lot about on our courses. It’s not deep science or boring; but explains why we have to sear meat and brown it, for instance. The answer is because it puts flavour on the meat through a complex series of reactions. It’s like the Bible for chefs really and I would give that to every chef I meet.
Lucy what purchase of £100, or less, has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months?
It sounds really basic, but it’s a water bottle; a pink water bottle that reminds me that I need to drink water. I know when I’m thirsty, but if I have to stop, find a glass, go to the tap and get a drink of water then I’ll leave it another 10 minutes, and then another 10 minutes, but if my bottle of water is right in front of me, it works. It’s also another important step in our efforts to reduce our output of single use plastics.
How has a failure, or an apparent failure, set you up for future success?
Although not exactly a failure by us, our biggest setback came right at the start of our journey with ECS. When we took this building on, we actually took on the whole ground floor, which effectively doubles this space. The plan was that we would lease next door to a suitable business, like a bakery or a cafe, and then use that income to supplement our own in the first few years, when money was tight. We found who we thought was a suitable tenant; a well-known bakery from the South West, to move in. Within 6 months, they’d gone bust owing lots of money.
So we were left, not only without a tenant but having to fork out fees to find a new one. That was a major setback, which put us back about a year and £20,000. However, whilst it’s money we’ll never get back, it did turn out to be a good thing.
The thing is, it’s always about how you tackle problems; it’s not the problem, it’s how you tackle the problem. It taught us many lessons, in particular not to be so, initially, trusting.
From a positive point of view, it actually gave us something to really knuckle down on. It could have been our downfall but instead, it made us rise to the challenge ahead. We now have a lovely new, award-winning baker as our tenant; Emma’s Bread. We’ve come out the other side slightly battered, but all the wiser for it. In many ways ours is now a stronger business, because we’ve had to hone our act.
Jim, if you could have a gigantic advertising board with a message to thousands of people what would your message be and why?
At the moment all the focus is on the business. This is our Swan Song if you like; our last fling. We’re both at an age where this will be our last thing before we retire, so we’re throwing everything at it. The message would have to be something along the lines of promoting the business.
Lucy, what is one of the most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made either in money, time or energy?
Our caravan when we went to France. We didn’t know where we were going to live; we wanted to open a cookery school, but we didn’t know where it would be, so we sold our house and bought a caravan to search for the right place to set up. We zigzagged all over the place, being nomadic for a couple of months, with our daughter who was then eight and ended up in the Dordogne. We bought a completely dilapidated, inhabitable farmhouse with acres of land and if we had not had the caravan, we would have had to rent somewhere or be in a B&B or a tent or something.
So the caravan actually helped us set up the business in France and we lived in it for 16 months. It was an adventure, I guess, but there were times when it didn’t feel like an adventure. We had no TV, the shower was an outdoor building with no roof but on the plus side, we spent more quality time with our daughter and got back to enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
Jim, what’s an unusual habit you have?
I’m not sure it’s a habit, but I have a pretty surreal sense of humour; I go off on these weird tangents. Even to me, it’s weird. Luckily Lucy finds it humorous, which is just as well I guess.
Laughter is important and sometimes we forget to laugh; we can take ourselves too seriously. So I’ve got a finger missing; I had it amputated a while back. It’s called Stumpy and it gives me loads of scope for boyish amusement.
Jim, in the last 5 years what new belief, habit or behaviour has most improved your life?
For me it’s cycling. When we came back to Devon, from France, I took up cycling. I’d tried on and off over the years but when I moved back to the UK at 53, it was the wrong age to start letting it all go; I needed to do something to keep healthy. So I bought a really good mountain bike; it keeps me fit and keeps the weight off.
Something I never really understood before, but get completely now, is when people talked about how great they felt after a run or a cycle. It’s true! You feel so good afterward. Cycling really takes me out of myself. To get through all the tough uphill sections of my ride, I think about new recipes and courses and before I know it I’m at the top of the hill.
Jim, what advice would you give to a smart driven College student about to enter the real world?
I’d tell them to accept that the world is tough and that there are hardships. I’d tell them that nothing is unfair in this world. Things happen; it’s not unfair but it’s how you deal with it that matters. So get on with it, make your mark and make a difference.
What are bad recommendations that you hear in your working world? Is there anything in your industry that you strongly feel isn’t working?
In the food industry, especially in restaurant cooking and in food provision and manufacturing, it fills my heart with dread and sorrow that people can still buy a chicken that’s been housed in a cage the size of a fishbowl from birth to death. They buy it because it’s cheap; it’s the only reason. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for the chicken. It’s not good for the environment. There’s nothing good about it. The same applies to pigs who are kept on concrete all their lives. It’s dreadful.
Both personally and as a cookery school, we only ever surround and align ourselves with top-end suppliers like Pipers Farm, Fishes, Gibson’s Plaice and Emma’s Bread; the kind of people who really care about their produce. They care about providing the best produce; it might be more expensive than elsewhere, but that’s the price of real food.
We’ve lost track of how much food should actually cost. Spend £10 on a free-range, humanely reared chicken; just have it less often. You will benefit from it physically and emotionally. I’m very passionate about that and that’s what we teach here; we don’t just teach cookery and technique.
When you feel overwhelmed or you’ve temporarily lost your focus what do you do?
Cycling helps and of course cooking, but intellectually I just take a step back. Getting angry, or panicking doesn’t work. You just have to take a step back and relax a little. Some things you have to push and fight for yes, but other times, just relax a little.
Lucy, in the last 5 years what have you become better at saying no to?
Doing more than I think we should. We are a finite resource and we can get so shattered sometimes. But if we get too tired, the product suffers and people won’t get the professional experience that they currently do. We have to stay on the ball. When you’re young, you’re indestructible; there’s nothing you can’t do. If something happens to you, you just bounce. The older you get though, the more cautious you tend to become.
You can catch up with Jim & Lucy @cookinexeter or head over to www.exetercookeryschool.co.uk to find out more.
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Olly Woodburn
*Questions are adapted from Tim Ferris’ Tribe of Mentors series