Chef of the Week: Jim Fisher of Exeter Cookery School

How long have you worked at Exeter Cookery School and what’s your role?
We launched Exeter Cookery School in July 2016. I am the Head Chef/Tutor and co-director with my wife, Lucy, who runs the back of house and administration.

What were you doing before that?
We owned and ran a very successful cookery school in the Dordogne, South West France, for many years before upping sticks to move back to our spiritual home to do it all over again in Exeter.

Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
My first cooking memories come from ‘helping’ my mum in the kitchen from the age of three. Nose-high to the kitchen worktop, we would make biscuits, pies, cakes and, my favourite to this day, syrup sponge pudding and custard. I’m mostly self-taught, but honed those skills working with Rick Stein, Alastair Little and Tony Tobin.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
Putting a smile on diners’ faces. As a cookery school tutor I get a tremendous satisfaction from seeing the realisation dawn on the faces of our students as they pull a completed dish from the oven or cut into that perfectly cooked meat or fish and begin to realise that they made that.

Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without
Butter. Salt. Double cream.

Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
My I.O. Shen 9-inch chef’s knife – it’s so versatile and keeps a great edge. It’s also got our logo “tattooed” on the blade. It’s so cool.

What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
I think we’ll see pickling and smoking become more popular. The use of real butter in place of those nasty butter-like spreads. Also, sourdough and bread making in general as people look for a return to real, healthy bread. We use five ingredients on our bread courses – a packet of sliced white supermarket bread can contain around 20 extra and unnecessary additives and chemicals.

What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
Incorrect seasoning. It’s our job as chefs to use every means at our disposal to bring out and enhance the flavour of our dishes and that includes the use of salt. Unfortunately, some chefs are bowing to misguided advice on salt use and even not seasoning their food at all.

What is your favourite time of year for food, and why? 
Spring, because this exciting season heralds the arrival of wild garlic and asparagus.

Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
Pan-fried fillet of sea bass with buttered spinach, chargrilled fennel and ratte potatoes with a Pernod butter sauce. Many years ago it won me the £5,000 first prize in a cooking competition judged by Rick Stein and it’s one of the dishes I teach our students to cook on our fish filleting and cookery course.

How do you come up with new dishes?
When I’m on my bike slogging up one of the steep hills where we live I distract myself by thinking up new dishes and flavour combinations. Before I know it, I’m at the top.

Who was your greatest influence? 
Apart from my mum, it has to be Rick Stein – from watching his TV programmes in the 90s, through meeting him on Masterchef, to briefly working with him at his restaurant and cookery school. His passion for all food and the pleasure he gets from cooking for others is totally inspiring and energising.

Tell us three chefs you admire
Rick Stein, Michael Wignall and Hervé This – he’s a French food scientist, not a chef, with a real passion for cooking. I’ve learnt so much about the science and chemistry of cooking from reading his books.

What is your favourite cookbook?
The Dairy Book of Home Cookery. Just about every home cook I’ve met, including some chefs, have a copy on their bookshelves. Mine’s a 1971 edition – it’s tatty, the cover has scorch marks on it, and some of the pages are permanently stuck together with cake mix or some such, but it’s my go-to bible for basic recipes.

Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
Michael Wignall – having left Gidleigh Park, where he won two Michelin stars as head chef, I’m really keen to see what he does next. When I find out I’ll be one of the first to book a table.

What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
Sadly, we haven’t been to any new restaurant openings last year, but we are really looking forward to the launch of Mitch Tonks’ new Rockfish restaurant, which is due to open across from Exeter Cookery School on Piazza Terracina later this year. It will be the latest in a long line of exciting developments to Exeter Quayside.