Webbe's Cookery School - How to source fresh fish

PUBLISHED: 10:38 13 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:09 20 February 2013

Webbe's Cookery School - How to source fresh fish

Webbe's Cookery School - How to source fresh fish

Chef Paul Webbe invites our restaurant critic - Lulu Larkin to his Cookery School in East Sussex to learn how to source fish fresh from the beach, prepare it and cook a six-course lunch...

This month we turn the tables on our restaurant critic Lulu Larkin. Following her review of Rock-a-nore last month, (click to link to article) chef Paul Webbe invited her to his Cookery School to learn how to source fish fresh from the beach, prepare it and cook a six-course lunch. Was she a dab hand at filleting sole or did it leave her floundering? She takes us behind the scenes at the top Hastings restaurant that has no need to fish for compliments.

You only have to glance at the television schedules to see that our appetite for food programmes has become insatiable: there are culinary challenges, celebrity cook-offs and shows where contestants cry not because theyre peeling onions, but have been reduced to tears by a bullying chef bawling, If you cant stand the heat, clear off and take your Bamix blender with you! Im amazed that viewers arent told to get lost as well.

But its not all about armchair cooking and slapstick entertainment where someone gets hit over the head with a frying pan. Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay are among the trailblazers when it comes to sourcing the freshest possible, local ingredients and promoting sustainability. Even the saintly dont forget to tie your apron in a neat bow Delia has jumped into bed with molecular maestro, Heston Blumenthal in a healthy-eating initiative with Waitrose to encourage us to eat better and improve our culinary skills. So come on all you home cooks, lets be avin you!

My expertise in the kitchen leaves a lot to be desired, although my husband maintains Im a very good cook indeed. Well, he would say that, wouldnt he? Yes, I can knock up a stir-fry and do a mean Arnold Bennett omelette, but when it comes to pad Thai noodles with king prawns and scallops with julienned vegetables in a coriander and Shaohsing rice wine dressing, I leave it to M&S. But what I enjoy about eating out at good restaurants is the inspiration they offer to cook more adventurously. This might simply be the addition of an exotic herb or an unusual combination of textures, colours or flavours.

It happened last month when I reviewed Paul Webbes fish restaurant in Hastings. Every dish had something which raised it from the ordinary to the extraordinary. So when I asked Paul about these mystery ingredients and he invited me to his Source to Sauce Cookery School class to discover for myself, how could I refuse?

Arriving at 9am on a bracingly-cold spring morning, I was welcomed by Rock-a-nores general manager, Diana Cooper, with a warming mug of fresh coffee and introduced to the other six students who, like me, were rather apprehensive as to what was on the menu. We were all a bit wary of one another but the hot drinks soon melted the ice and we became a friendly, jolly crew braced for anything.

I was intrigued as to why everyone was there: Matt was a financial consultant, whod been given the course as a birthday present by his wife; Cecilia was a passionate cook who wanted to run her own B&B; sculptor Jan had already eaten at Rock-a-nore and was so impressed she wanted to learn more; Brigitte was a feng shui expert, later to demonstrate her colour co-ordinating skills to dramatic effect; and Rebecca, an artist whod heard about the course and just decided to give it a go brought along her son, Ramsey, who was there because my mums boyfriend couldnt make it. Well, at least he was honest.

Chef proprietor Paul Webbe came over to outline the mornings agenda: wed be selecting the fish from that mornings catch, coming back to clean and prepare it before cooking a six-course lunch for everyone and sitting down to enjoy it with a glass of wine. Well, no carping there.

First stop was the beach huts, the black nets on the Stade from where the clinker-built, overlapped and tarred fleet of fishing boats set off and return every day. Paul Hodge, fish market manager and Paul Joy, head of the Hastings Fishermens Protection Society, provided background on the local fishing industry and how Hastings had come to been named as near perfect a fishery as could be devised. It is only one of 40 fisheries with Marine Stewardship Council approval, which means that every single Dover sole, mackerel and herring that is landed has to be itemised and all yield and wastage written down. But the MSC logo in turn offers reassurance to restaurants and consumers that the quality of the fish meets the very highest standards from a sustainable source.

Then it was off to scallop-shucking shed, where Stuart and Billy clean them off their shells at the lightning rate of more than 1,000 every 20 minutes. A quick visit to the smokery to taste the salmon and then it was back for a warm drink and the main task of preparing lunch.
Our menu was: steamed scallops with Thai juices; crab pate with roquette; bouillabaisse and rouille; tempura of squid, courgette and aubergine; lemon sole with mussels, watercress and new potatoes followed by tiaramisu with vanilla mousse, crme brulee or a selection of five cheeses. Crikey!

Paul showed everyone their place around the work station inside the restaurant, handed us our aprons, allocated our various interchangeable tasks and before you could say ready, steady cook, Jan was bashing crab claws, Claudia and Brigitte were stirring and straining the soup, Matt was gutting a herring with the dexterity of a brain surgeon while mother and son team Rebecca and Ramsey were filleting a gurnard like a pair of seasoned old salts.

And this is where Im afraid I came adrift. Id been quite proud of my knife skills when negotiating a dover sole and cleaning a scallop but when Paul threw an enormous, slithery, slimy squid in my direction and asked me to disembowel it, I jumped ship amid hoots of derision and shouts of wimp from my fellow cooks. But Rebecca more than made up for my defection by bravely wallowing in the ink up to her elbows and relishing every moment.
I was happy to watch the preparations from the sidelines before sitting down with the others to enjoy the sumptuous meal they had created. When asked how everyone had enjoyed themselves, there was a chorus of positive enthusiasm. Matt felt it had given him more confidence, a bit like learning to ski and Jan enrolled on the spot for full-day course in Rye the following week.

We all agreed what a wonderful teacher Paul had been. The antithesis of the shouty chef, he is calm and patient, explaining and demonstrating what needs to be done with good humour. He pays full attention to each student so he or she not only makes the most of their abilities but has fun along the way and goes home feeling proud of their achievements.

Discover more about the courses

There are lots of courses available at both schools in Rye and Hastings and you can attend for just a morning (50) a day (85) or, if you want a recognisable certificate, its possible to enrol on a four-week residential programme. All information on the website below.

Ruth Sandys Edwards, Head of School, has just announced a five-day Gap, University and Beyond Cooking Foundation' in July for 16-18 and 18-25 year olds. So for the modest (599) cost of the course, think of what youd save on mobile phone calls, wiring money to Bangkok and nerve-shredding anxiety. And your darlings will be able to cook you a wonderful meal when they come home.

Webbes Restaurants: www.webbesrestaurants.co.uk
17 Tower Street, Rye, East Sussex, TN31 7AT
(01797 222226)

1 Rock-a-nore Road, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3DW
(01424 721650)

Webbes Cookery School (addresses as above):
Ruth Sandys Edwards (head of School) tel: 07747 654 680
e-mail: ruth@hackwoodfarm.plus.com

Latest from the Sussex Life