happy woman looking at camera

Why I started Culinary Coaching

My culinary coaching business was inspired by my dear friend Geraldine McClelland, who died far too young. This first post is dedicated to her on the anniversary of her birthday.

Gerry and I shared hundreds and hundreds of meals together over our 30-year friendship. Very few were cooked by her. She was not just a reluctant cook, she was a frightened one. Working in television – and she once even produced BBC TV’s Food and Drink Programme -  she knew what good food was, and she enjoyed it too. But for most of her life she had no confidence that she could put anything on the table that people would want to eat. Cooking a meal for friends was Gerry’s worst nightmare.

Encouragement didn’t work, the reluctance was too deep-seated. She’d long ago condemned herself to a life of take-aways and ready meals.  In every other sphere of her life she was highly competent and determined, and she prided herself on learning new skills. But cooking was a complete blind spot.

Gerry pretended that she couldn’t be bothered, it was all too much work, but eventually admitted that she couldn’t bear the idea of being a failure.  Because I’d been cooking for so long I hadn’t realised that what I took for granted – enthusiasm, experience and interest – may not be the same for everyone. She was scornful of me, “You just don’t understand.” And it was true, I didn’t.

We always had a struggle (she was extremely feisty) and the exchange was always the same.

“I hate cooking and I can’t do it. And anyway, everyone will be judging me. Just go away and leave me alone.”

“Do you go to people’s houses for the food or for their company?”

“You know what the answer is.”

“So….???”

“Bugger off.”

However, from time to time, when presented with a plate of French paté and gherkins or a large piece of good cheese served with lovely grapes, Gerry would suddenly say, “I could do that.” That’s when the penny dropped for me. It didn’t matter whether Gerry actually cooked; all she needed to do was feed people with nice food, no matter where it came from.

So we concocted her first fool-proof dinner menu from dishes bought from her local Italian deli. No chance of failure or people not liking the food. The starter was always a platter of Parma ham, salami and olives.  The main course was good-quality filled pasta – she switched between red, white or green options.  Red was served with a roasted tomato sauce, green was the pesto sauce made daily, and white was melted butter with chopped sage. She’d always announce the colour at the front door when we arrived – “You’re getting the white pasta tonight!”

Pumpkin ravioli with sage and butter sauce

Pumpkin ravioli with sage and butter sauce

Her summer dessert was always a mixture of fresh berries, served with crème fraîche or double cream, while in winter she did what the French do without a qualm – bought a lovely tart from a specialist bakery. This was her standard menu for a quite a few years.

bowl of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries

Summer berries

Little by little, Gerry started to cook more. Cautiously, with lots of angst behind the scenes, but with more outward confidence.  She moved from shop-bought soups to simple ones made with a hand-held mixer, what she called her ‘sex aid’. The meat may have been marinated at the supermarket but she came to master her barbecue.  And once she saw how easy salad dressings were, her frugal self came to the fore – why pay good money for something you can make yourself?

Latterly I’d been training as an executive coach and thought I might be able to combine coaching techniques with cooking. Spending time with Gerry in the kitchen, I realised that she needed to learn at her own pace, choose dishes and skills that suited her needs and, above all, be encouraged and supported in her efforts. I never called it culinary coaching – that would have scared her off. Sometimes my encouragement verged on tough love but she gave as good as she got. And I always gauged exactly how far I could push her.

happy woman looking at camera

Geraldine McClelland, 1950-2011

Gerry’s greatest triumph was home-made mayonnaise. Again, it was one of those ‘I could do that’ moments when she was watching me in the kitchen. She prepared it with me – it worked.  She prepared it in front of me – it worked. And, most importantly, it worked when she did it for friends on her own. And for an inexperienced cook, mayonnaise can be really daunting. Her delight in getting it right was a joy – she almost took more pride in her mayonnaise than in all the television programmes she’d produced.

Reading this, especially if you like cooking, you may be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” All I can say is that to see my dear friend, in her 50s, move from an ingrained stance of fear and paralysis to one in which she could create a pleasurable meal for friends and family gave me pause for thought.

Were she still alive today, I don’t kid myself that she’d have become a domestic goddess. Cooking continued to be a chore for which she had little enthusiasm. But she no longer thought she was a failure in the kitchen.  I couldn’t have wished for more – except to still have her here.


Comments

  1. Lesley Orr

    Dear Clare,

    Your blog about Gerry was very moving, you really captured her personality and what a special person she was. If I had known that she managed to crack making mayonnaise I’d have asked her to teach me. My Italian grandfather was a chef, my mother learnt from him and I from her but I seem to have lost the knack for mayonnaise it always splits and I have given up trying.

    1. The Culinary Coach Post author

      DearLesley,

      If Gerry could make mayonnaise, so can you. Split mayonnaise can often be cured by whisking in a little hot water. And if it doesn’t, you use the split mayonnaise to start another batch. Happy to teach you how.

      Clare

  2. Laura McClelland

    I remember that green pesto from the Deli!

    How lovely that you were able to teach her and that she actually trusted you enough to fail in front of you. Now that’s love…

    Did you know that she made the bread sauce every year at Christmas? It was her ‘thing.’

    We don’t have it anymore.

    Thank you for your lovely words about her.

    Happy learning, teaching and sharing!

  3. Wendy Jones

    Clare – A beautifully written piece (just like your cooking). I didn’t really know Gerry but now feel that I did.
    Looking forward to the next blog.
    Wendy.

  4. Jane Stevens

    Lovely piece Clare. You’re really careful and patient, but persistent. I’ve learnt a lot from you, almost without noticing. But I noticed, I noticed. Thank you. Apart from trying to rescue those awful chestnuts – some things are beyond anyone’s skill!

  5. Nancy Cooper

    Gerry could slice, dice, puree, and whip up the most marvelous conversations and ideas. I always knew I needed to have my best ideas at hand, best presented when she was sharing a table with good food and friends. Wonderful tribute!

  6. Beverley Lamb

    Well done Claire, what a lovely tribute. What was one of Gerry’s favourite sayings “life is too short to peel tomatoes”? It maybe was in Gerry’s case. She was always really appreciative of good cooking. Always ready to help and a wonderful companion in the kitchen. How I incredibly we all miss her.

  7. TJRose

    This brought back such a fond memory of Gerry and I putting together the meal together in Lauzerte. One reluctant, angst-ridden “cook” assisting an equally hesitant one. But, you did it, Clare. You coaxed a respectable repast out of an inept pair of non-cookers. Such a great way to remember our dear friend.

  8. Clare McGinn

    I finally checked out your site and thought this was a moving and inspiring piece of writing. The media world can be competitive and judgemental and I understand why Gerry felt the way she did. I’ve been to dinners where it feels that the theatre of the food is more important than anything else. Thankfully she had you there to encourage her in your usual practical and encouraging way. Great blog and I really like this site. Way to go!

  9. Lisbeth Scheele Rådstoga

    Dear Clare.
    This was such an inspirering blog! Your description of Geraldine (who I never met), makes her stand out as both strong and vulnerable, something we all are in different areas. You described it so well it made me feel I almost met her. To help somebody overcoming a fear and ending up with wonderful food, must have been a great gift for both of you.
    Looking forward to your next post.
    All the best
    Lisbeth

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