Class action

Hugh Whitehouse from Lilianfels admits cooking classes are not big earners, but good for promotion.

Hugh Whitehouse from Lilianfels admits cooking classes are not big earners, but good for promotion.

A dash of theatre and serve of marketing are vital cooking class ingredients, with restaurants now opening their kitchens to keep business bubbling.

Between Nigella, Jamie, those two surfie chefs from Western Australia and My Restaurant Rules, the theatre and drama of cooking has been brought into the living rooms of millions.

The latest design trend for restaurants over the past decade has also changed, with an increasing number of eateries—from street cafes to fine dining establishments—now opening up their kitchens to the gaze of customers.

This has made the bustling back-of-house sexy and paved the way for more restaurants to offer cooking classes—a handy little earner that also raises the profile of regional produce and promotes the restaurant itself.

One restaurateur who has taken it further is Helen Brierty, who founded and operates Spirit House restaurant in Yandina on the Sunshine Coast.

She is not a qualified chef and ascribes her success to building restaurants from scratch by finding the right staff for key positions and then trusting them to get on with it by themselves.

Promoting the Thai-influenced restaurant was a challenge due to its relatively isolated location.

“All my emphasis has been on marketing—hence the cooking school, which started as a marketing initiative and has now become the ‘driver’ of the whole business, giving us an edge compared to other restaurants,” she says.

“We feature produce grown in our own kitchen garden when seasonally available. As our classes are all based on Asian
cuisine, many people are not familiar with some of the fresh ingredients like galangal, or kaffir lime leaves.”

A household name from his television series, Stefano de Pieri from Stefano’s at the Mildura Grand Hotel, helps maintain his profile and that of his restaurant by running cooking classes when time and schedules permit. The cooking classes also help to promote his recipe books and the philosophy behind his food.

For Hugh Whitehouse, executive chef at the luxury Lilianfels Blue Mountains Resort and Spa, his cooking school program expands his experience in the area, having previously offered classes at Milsons, a Sydney restaurant where he was chef for a number of years.

Philip Johnson has cooked for 25 years and owned acclaimed Brisbane restaurant, e’cco Bistro, for the past ten. He started the classes to promote the restaurant and demonstrate his food style and techniques as part of his marketing program.

“Now most of the classes I do are at the requests of cooking schools and there is a fee involved. Depending on the school’s program of events, I usually do around six classes a year—locally, nationally and in New Zealand.”

The cooking classes have a number of benefits, including promoting the restaurant, generating more money to put back into the business, and creating market interest for Philip’s three cookbooks. Many of the participants come to the school because they already own the cookbooks and want to see Philip cooking his own recipes in his own kitchen.

“People who attend the classes are often already customers of ours, or conversely, they want to experience the restaurant first hand once they’ve attended a class. I always like to use local produce as much as possible in the classes because that’s what we do in the restaurant and I believe we have some of the freshest and best produce available right at our fingertips.”

With cooking classes set to become a permanent revenue raiser for many restaurants, there needs to be an ongoing commitment of resources and time.

Helen Brierty at Spirit House has introduced a class for a maximum of 16 students five days a week in a separate “hands-on” kitchen and a dedicated dining area. The lessons have different themes and have become so popular that some are fully booked up to five months in advance.

Most restaurateurs find their cooking classes are not significant money-spinners, partly because each class needs to be fairly small and the cost not much more than a pick of the best dishes from the menu.

At Spirit House, the cooking classes are $95 per person, which includes all ingredients, recipes and lunch with wine.

Hugh Whitehouse emphasises the need for small classes, with his sessions at Milsons catering for a maximum of six participants, once every six weeks.

At Lilianfels, his culinary classes are priced from $1815 per participant, with special rates for couples where only one partner wants to take the classes. They include three nights’ accommodation at Lilianfels, daily breakfast, two four-hour cooking classes (including lunch), one three course dinner in Tre Sorelle with matching wines, a five course degustation dinner with matching wine in Darley’s, plus cocktails and canapés on arrival and a visit to a goat farm in Lithgow, where students can turn their hands to making goats’ cheese.

Admitting the courses themselves are not big earners, Hugh says the main value lies in their promotional possibilities.

“I was getting requests from people who had attended my classes in Sydney and it brings an added interest to the guest experience. We run the classes during the quieter months and so far we have only had excellent feedback. These are not just cooking demonstrations—they are a real
hands-on experience for each person participating.”

Philip Johnson says cooking classes can be profitable, but warns that the demonstrator taking the class needs to have a certain level of expertise before this can happen. The cost of the classes should cover all the expenses involved in providing the class, plus an extra fee for the demonstrator.

“It’s not something you do every week so you’re certainly not going to make a living out of it, though I find them profitable. I’m quite selective now of the classes I do and I’m careful not to overexpose myself and e’cco in Brisbane. I’ll do one or two a year in Brisbane and the rest interstate or overseas,” Philip says.

For Stefano in Mildura there are no minimums or maximums with regard to class size, but he tries not to go past 30 participants in order to keep it more personal. At the moment he is offering cooking classes as part of an accommodation package and also opens up spare places to local residents, who pay $30 for the two-hour class and tasting. He says the classes generate definite marketing benefits for the hotel, as well as his range of Stefano de Pieri products—particularly as he is often regarded as “the face” of the Mildura Grand Hotel and his restaurant is always booked out well in advance. Stefano says the cooking classes themselves are not particularly profitable, but provide a valuable marketing opportunity for the restaurant and his other ventures.

Stefano’s Mildura Grand restaurant has been operating for 15 years, but more recent additions to his business interests include the Avoca Riverfront Café and 27 Deakin Good Food Store.

At Lilianfels, Hugh stipulates a maximum of eight participants in each class, with his sessions conducted in the heritage-listed Darley’s—a former NSW Chief Justices’ residence. Where possible, local produce is used, including mushrooms, snails, cheeses and beef, though the prevailing drought has impacted on Hugh’s ability to source more produce locally.

Helen Brierty warns that if cookery classes are to succeed in the long term, there has to be ongoing investment and constant marketing. “It’s expensive to get a cookery school off the ground. We have high costs and need a full time office manager to handle bookings, administration, class content and program development.”

She says the key to success is the “teaching chef” who has to be able to teach and entertain the group as well as be a good chef.

“We have had some high profile chefs give master classes who have been an absolute disaster because they couldn’t teach.”

The business also needs a back-up teaching chef in case of sickness or holiday, as classes are booked and paid for in advance.

“It’s not as simple as most chefs like to think,” she says. ν

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