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A Starter for 10 with Michael Vanheste

Posted Mar 30, 2015
Last week we visited our friends at Northcote to find out a little more about its hugely popular Cookery School.  Northcote Cookery School offers a variety of courses, from skills & techniques; entertaining; themed classes; and premium master classes, with a choice of half days and full days. The courses are delivered by Head Tutor – Michael Vanheste, with master classes available on selected dates from Nigel Haworth and Lisa Goodwin-Allen.

Situated in the heart of the Northcote Kitchen, four stations can accommodate up to a maximum of eight students. This really is a unique and intimate experience, a great chance for home cooks to learn new skills and dishes. There is also the opportunity to watch through the glass front, so you can observe all the theatre of a Michelin star Kitchen.The courses are perfect for people new to cooking, aspiring chefs and enthusiastic home cooks. To find out more about the Cookery School check out

During our visit we put Michael through his paces with ‘A Starter for 10’. We wanted to find out more about the man behind one of the UK’s top cookery schools. Read on to discover who Michael looks up to, his funniest kitchen incident and more! He also dishes out a bit of advice for all you aspiring chefs...

Hi Michael, let’s start with - When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I’ve always had a passion for good food and cooking.  Born and bred in Belgium, I studied Tourism & Hospitality in my home town.  It wasn’t until I settled in England that I got into Cheffing, at age 24 which is quite late really.  The main reason for me to get into cookery was because I missed the food from home. So, I decided to quit a boring office job, enrol at college and learn how to cook professionally. My tutors were very supportive and helped to find me different jobs and work placements.  Because I wanted to build up my skill levels rapidly I volunteered to work for free in some top quality restaurants, not just in the North but also down in London. My dream was always to work as a cookery school tutor and I saw an opportunity when, after college I started working at Bettys and then moved onto to being a Cookery School Chef at Bettys Cookery School in Harrogate where I stayed for about  4 years.  I then got recommended by a fellow Chef to Nigel Howarth. Nigel had plans to set up his own Cookery School at Northcote and the challenge was to start in January 2014 to set up the Cookery School by the 1st April.  We had just under 3 ½ months to set everything up. That, in a nutshell is how I became a chef.  

Michael Vanheste
Michael doing his thing at Northcote Cookery School

What a culinary journey! If you were able to cook for 4 people dead or alive who and why?

I’ve thought about that question and when people have asked me this before, I’ve always thought that it’s one of the most difficult questions to answer. I don’t think I’d like to cook for anyone who’s dead because they wouldn’t enjoy the food! There isn’t anyone famous in particular that I would like to cook for apart from anyone who wants to eat my food.  Mostly though, it would be friends and family as that’s who I really enjoy cooking for and then at least I get to join in!  

Who has been the biggest influence on your life and why?  
I take influence from quite a lot of angles and subject matter; I’m probably not a conventional chef. I’ve been very lucky to have had a very varied career background. As well as cookery, I also have experience in IT and I’m not too bad in the language department, being able to speak five different languages! I take it from all walks of life. My teachers have been a big influence and of course, my friends and family.  In terms of Cookery, the chefs I look up to are people like Mark Hicks, Rick Stein, and of course Nigel Howarth, obviously!   These are the types of chefs that allow the ingredients to speak for themselves.  Nothing too complicated, just decent properly cooked food using top quality, local fare.  

What are your interests away from the kitchen?

I’ve got 3 young children so they take up a lot of my time, which is great fun!  I love travelling and discovering different cultures and with that, food always has an involvement too.  Having grown up by the sea, I’ve always had a passion for sailing.  I’d love to do the “Clipper round the world race”, it’s so expensive though - but I’d love to be able to do that one day. I’d like to take a year out and just do it, it would be amazing!  Perhaps I might tag along and earn my keep in the galley…

Sounds amazing Michael, one day! Tell us something about yourself that not many people know?

I think I’m pretty much an open book, to be honest, but I suppose not a lot of people know that I’m not British. My mother tongue is Dutch but I also speak French, German, a little bit of English and Greek!  

Impressive, now you’re just showing off! Who in the food world do you most admire?
It’s got to be chefs that have a very natural ability to cook, who don’t mess about with too many ingredients. Nigel’s cuisine for instance, Mark Hix, Rick Stein and Lisa Goodwin-Allen as well. People that are really clever with their use of local, seasonal ingredients and bring the best out of them, they’re the people I look up too.  There’s a chef on Belgian TV called Jeroen Meus, he’s on my train of thought too, showing all his viewers how he revives all the classics that everybody loves. 

Best cooking tip for a novice getting into the business
If you want to get into the catering trade you need to be prepared to make a some sacrifices and be prepared to work a lot of hours for not a lot of money. Also to have some thick skin and show resilience and determination. You’ve got to be committed and you’ve got to want to do it. If those elements are not there then it’s probably not for you. If it’s your passion, then you are half way there!  

Great advice! What are your favourite cookbooks?
I have tonnes, I’ve got a very beautiful book by a lady called Anne- Sophie Pic who is a 3 Michelin star French chef and her main restaurant is called Maison Pic. I’ve recently picked up a series of cook books in Belgium that not so much give you recipes but look into the history of classic Belgian dishes too and what really defines a sense of taste of a nation. That is absolutely fascinating to me.  

Funniest kitchen incident

I do have one funny story I can tell you. I once did a demo with my former boss, we both had mics on, the head set mic. I took over to do my part of the demo and my boss went to the loo but forgot to switch his mic off.  Now, there was about 120 people watching the demonstration so between me trying to make a compote, they had to listen a rather jolly chef quite happily singing away in the toilet, it was difficult to try and keep a straight face but hilarious at the same time!  

Oh dear, very funny though! In the words of Anthony Bourdain what would be your death row meal?

There are so many dishes, I’ll need quite a few. “Gentse  Waterzooi” is always one of them. This is a Belgian stewed chicken dish originating in Flanders. Gent (Ghent) is one of the oldest cities in Belgium. Or “Moules Frites” or “Mosselen Met Frietjes” which is basically a steaming pot of freshly cooked mussels, proper chips cooked in dripping, a good measure of homemade mayonnaise and a fresh pint! That would do me I think.  

Thanks for your time Michael! You most certainly aren’t ‘your average chef’ but this makes you exceptional at what you do. If you would like to find out more about Michael, visit his ForCooks page here. Watch this space too, as we will be adding more content from Michael, including recipes and his must-have kit!    

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