Ghillie Basan reveals all from kitchen confidence to discovering culinary cultures.
We speak to fellow alumna Ghillie Basan who, after spending her childhood in East Africa and teenage years at a boarding school in Scotland, studied the equivalent of the Diplôme de Cuisine during her gap year in 1979.
Having worked as a journalist, teacher and food and travel writer, Ghillie has written over 40 cookery books which have been nominated for the Glenfiddich, the Guild of Food Writers award and has appeared in the ‘Best of the Best’ and ‘Top 50’ list, whilst also being shortlisted for ‘Pasta Journalist of the Year’.
Ghillie is a regular contributor to Radio Scotland and acts as a consultant for chefs and spice brands, whilst running cookery workshops from her remote home in the Scottish Highlands, which she describes as a ‘food safari’.
So how did her time at Le Cordon Bleu London influence her next steps? We speak to our fellow alumna to find out more.
How do you think Le Cordon Bleu helped you to develop your career?
I can honestly say that Le Cordon Bleu gave me confidence in the kitchen and equipped me with a set of key techniques and terminology that can be applied to cookery styles all over the world. In my experience, Le Cordon Bleu is the most internationally recognised and respected cookery training and I could always find work when I needed to. While attending university in Edinburgh, I used the skills I had acquired for corporate lunches, private dinner parties, and shooting lodges to earn money for travelling and I relied on the diploma to supplement my income as a journalist when I lived in the Middle East and America so that I could travel and research different culinary cultures.
What was your favourite part of Le Cordon Bleu training?
I think my favourite part of the training was learning all the simple but valuable little tips and tricks that become second nature when you start using them, such as; the way to hold a sharp chopping knife to get the maximum effect, making incisions in an onion before chopping, the magic of a smooth roux; the importance of chilling the pastry dough, whisking the egg whites and sugar in copper bowl for light, fluffy meringues; and how to rectify a curdled mess!
I also enjoyed learning how to prep ingredients and be organised in the kitchen so that every three-course meal came together in a seemingly effortless manner – it wasn’t always that way whilst training. I remember one of the Teaching Chefs being rather amused by some of my efforts but I like to think that you do learn from disasters!
Le Cordon Bleu gave me confidence in the kitchen and equipped me with a set of key techniques and terminology that can be applied to cookery styles all over the world.
What does confidence in the kitchen mean to you?
To me, confidence in the kitchen means being able to turn my hand to anything. Even when faced with challenging conditions or ingredients, that kind of confidence enables you to keep calm and rely on creativity.
My first big culinary challenge occurred while I was doing my diploma. An American family friend who worked for ABC News in London enjoyed entertaining late at night and would often call me over to her penthouse to cook for her guests, usually a collection of reporters, actors and politicians. Everything was always arranged at the last minute and I would be presented with a list of dishes, sometimes ones I had never done before. One time, I arrived to find eight unplucked pheasants sitting in her sink and I had never plucked a pheasant before, let alone cook one. Feeling a bit out of my depth, I quickly rang my mother who had no idea how to pluck but a vague idea of how to cook one, so I ended up literally covering the tiny kitchen with feathers as I pulled them off in clumps. There was no worktop space and very few utensils, so I laid everything on trays on the floor and stepped back and forth over the three-course dinner at different stages and sloshed everything in loads of wine. I can't remember what I did for the starter, but I roasted the pheasant ‘à la Veronique’, as we had just done chicken that way on the course, and I made a Galette Noisette Normande for pudding as there were apples and hazelnuts in the kitchen and it looked impressive for dessert.
Somehow, it all worked and everyone was delighted, popping their heads round the kitchen door to ask for the recipes, including the main guest, King Hussein of Jordan!
That's the kind of confidence Le Cordon Bleu gave me!
How do you think your rugged and outdoor upbringing influenced the way you appreciate ingredients, write recipes and experiment with cuisine from different cultures?
As a child I lived in East Africa and learned a lot about tribal dishes and traditional ways of cooking fruit as a vegetable and flavouring sweet things with sharp spices. I learnt to catch the termites that flew in the rain and cook them in garlic and butter, to grill chunks of snake over the bush fire, and I learnt to dry the pawpaw seeds in the hot sun to be ground like black pepper over our food.
My childhood in East Africa influenced my decision to study Social Anthropology at university and to travel widely and write about the culinary traditions of different cultures. It has also influenced where I live as I feel at home in wild places, so I try to combine my anthropological approach to food with my remote lifestyle by writing books and running workshops to share the traditions with others. I guide people through the tastes of different cultures, making spice pastes and preserves, tagines and mezze, telling the stories behind the food and putting them into context.
My knowledge has come from years of travel and staying in remote villages, pounding grains and seeds in large mortar and pestles, digging pits in the ground to slow-roast meat, churning butter in a goat skin, and learning languages to communicate. I think I would have struggled to bring any of this knowledge back into the kitchen, to create recipes and to share with others, if I hadn’t gained the confidence at Le Cordon Bleu in the first place.