INTERVIEW: Stella West-Harling

Ashburton Cookery School celebrated its 20th Anniversary last year by picking up a plethora of awards including “Best British Cookery School”. In many ways the school is unrecognisable from its humble beginnings, but founder Stella West-Harling shows that everything the school stands for today can be traced back to its roots.

Stella West-Harling has had a long career in the food industry and has always been passionate about its social impact. Before starting Ashburton Cookery School, she ran one of the country’s first organic restaurants. “When I started out, the organic movement was regarded as cranky and a bit alternative,” remembers Stella, “most people were just concerned whether their chest freezers were fully stocked with ready meals.” Luckily, there were a few people fighting the gradual deterioration in our relationship with food, people such as Sonia Stevenson at The Horn of Plenty, Raymond Blanc, Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel and, of course, Stella.

Her biggest inspiration was her mother-in-law. A GP, homeopathic doctor and driving force in the Healthy Living Foundation, she stressed the importance of good eating and the effect it can have on physical and mental health. “She made me realise that food has an exaggerated impact on our emotional well being. Think how people behave when they taste something they don’t like, or when they are presented with a bland plate of food – the reaction tends to be completely disproportionate to the reality of the situation. And, of course, a great meal with great company creates an equally positive effect.”

After eight years at the restaurant Stella moved on to event catering before being invited to get involved in a business venture in South Devon. Whilst that may not have materialised it did bring a gastronomic evangelist to the area - and she liked what she found.

Stella chose to base herself in the small Dartmoor town of Ashburton. “It’s amazing when you compare it to the vibrant stannery town we see today” she says. “As a result of the worst recession since the war, the high street was little more than a series of boarded up shops.” Despite these first impressions, she could see that there were many like-minded people in the area and she loved the proximity of the town to the fantastic producers of Devon.

As well as working in some of the more progressive local restaurants, Stella started to run personal development and professional writing courses at her home in 79 East Street. Whilst successful, it was the food that seemed to generate most of the feedback and Stella soon came to the conclusion that a small cookery school would provide a great platform for her healthy eating gospel. “I had a clear vision that if I got this right I could make a real difference. I wanted to set-up an amazing cookery school - the best." She started by running classes for small groups and soon found herself full to capacity, even without advertising.

By 2003, demand had outgrown the building and Stella decided to risk her own financial future by buying the house opposite and converting the garage into a dedicated teaching facility. As the school continued to grow, she realised that it could not remain a one-woman operation. As well as teaching, she was also sourcing produce, managing course administration and fixing the plumbing. She approached a head hunter to find a new Chef and employed the first person she interviewed. That was Chef Director Darrin Hosegrove. He swears the interview lasted 6 hours, during which they discussed how a cookery school could contribute to society whilst remaining commercially viable. It obviously worked because Darrin went straight home and told his wife that he had given up his job as Head of Development at Sainsbury’s to take on a cookery school, which at the time had no roof, two gas rings, an Aga and a large kitchen table!  

In 2008, Stella was invited to get involved with the School Food Trust, providing a private sector alternative to the training of school cooks. She applied for a grant to build a state of the art regional training facility on the outskirts of town. Soon after being awarded the loan, the economy collapsed and the funding was withdrawn. Once again, Stella was faced with a major investment decision in the midst of a global recession. But the self-confessed risk taker couldn’t resist. She put up everything she had and, after some creative negotiation, took the scariest decision of her life. The result was some of the best cookery school facilities in the country.

As well as supporting the Schools Food Trust training programme, the new facilities opened a world of other possibilities for the school, including the Ashburton Chefs Academy. “Every one of our graduates leaves indoctrinated with the importance of quality ingredients. With these, you can produce amazing dishes with very little effort and I know that every student who leaves us will go out and spread that message. The students are a walking advert for the quality of teaching at the school, with many now working in Michelin starred kitchens such as Le Gavroche and Gidleigh Park.”

Scale has also enabled the school to increase its support for the local community. Take the Bank Youth Project, a centre providing facilities to the young people of Ashburton. Without the support of ACS there is a very real possibility that the centre would close. Or the Ashburton Food Festival, now in its 3rd year and fast becoming the highlight of the community calendar. Or the course Stella created for the Princes Trust to motivate disadvantaged youths. Or the work she has done with Social Services to teach families how to use food as a focal point for rebuilding broken relationships. Or the Dartmoor school meals and community kitchen hub that Stella is creating as state funding for these services has been cut…as she says “cooking is like love - it should be entered into with abandon or not all”.

In March 2011, Stella was recognised as one of the UK’s leading female food entrepreneurs alongside Delia Smith, Prue Leith, Nigella Lawson and Ruth Rogers. Last year the school won three major industry awards, including Best British Cookery School, which she admits to being "one of the proudest moment of my life".

So what does the future hold for this one-woman dynamo? Well, the ongoing joke that “Stella is retiring, again” looks like it has some legs yet. She recently opened a café in a Dartmoor National Trust property (Parke, in Bovey Tracey). She is working with the British Cookery School Awards team and industry leaders such as Richard Bertinet and Nick Nairn to create the Independent Cookery School Association. There are plans to extend the ACS dining facilities to provide more learning opportunities for students and allow local people to taste the amazing food they produce. This expansion will also allow the school to double the size of the Chefs Academy, which will address the ever-growing waiting list for the course. And there are plans for a specialist patisserie course, which Stella believes will open the school to whole new group of passionate cooks.

Whatever happens, Stella believes that the key to the future success of the school is remaining true to the values that have made it successful so far. “We have a fantastic team, every one of which is passionate about what we do, we strive to be the best we can be and we give our students the experience of a lifetime. Above all we aim to inspire – cookery teaching is far more than a recipe and a list of ingredients, it’s about giving people a way of life and fire in their belly.”