Cooking has always seemed like magic to me, a little bit of this, a few drops of that and hey presto, you’re left with an exciting new creation.
People’s ability to transform a few simple ingredients into a mouth-watering dish never ceases to amaze me and now it seems there are more tools than ever to assist chefs with their wizardry.
“I could make you a fried egg out of coconut and mango and you’d never know the difference,” says Bury St Edmunds wizard John Jackaman and, as a Master Chef of Great Britain, I’m sure he could.
The 44-year-old has just opened a state-of-the-art development kitchen and cook school on the Rougham Industrial Estate where imagination and innovation are nurtured and seeing really is believing.
Using spherification, liquid nitrogen and dry ice, chefs at Infusions Culinary Experience (ICE) Cook School are able to dramatically change the structures of food and create impressive special effects - vapour, bubbling mist and smoking cold - which have the high-tech kitchen more closely resembling a science lab at times.
“It’s about taking an ingredient and getting you to eat it in a way you’ve not eaten it before,” says John.
“It’s Toys R Us for chefs,” he adds, unable to curtail his excitement at having all the latest gadgets at his disposal.
Opening the kitchen has long been a passion of his, and it shows.
The space has been designed for hobby and professional chefs alike, with both domestic and large industrial ovens incorporated into the custom design.
A Wizard of Oz picture hangs on the wall at the entrance, a reminder that imagination and fun are important ingreients in any kitchen, while a large eagle on the far wall gives a proud nod to the history of the airbase, the United States Air Force having used it during World War Two.
“This lets people know what dishes we’re doing,” says John, pointing to notes written on oven doors in chalk pen, and, as we walk further inside, I notice a large plaque displaying phrases like ‘the sharing of knowledge’ which I’m told represent the company’s values.
Staff in the offices are able to see into the kitchen without causing a distraction, another personal touch explains John, as the colourful glass visible from the kitchen mimics that on the ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel, where he and wife, Lou, got hitched 25 years ago.
The cook school’s first courses include introduction to bbq, canapes to impress and chocolate to die for while, as a rare treat, the kitchen will be opening once every three months to stage an exclusive dining experience.
Eight people, consisting of just six paying guests, will be able to enjoy a five-course meal, with three of Infusions’ most talented chefs and two visiting East Anglia chefs preparing a course each.
September’s dinner is already full but December seats are currently available for what award-winning chef Paul Boorman says will be ‘the ultimate Christmas dinner’.
The airfield theme continues out of the kitchen, with pilots and pin-ups on the doors of the public toilets and a B-17 Flying Fortress tail used to show when meeting rooms are occupied or vacant, with two currently available for hire and another soon to be added - ideal considering the on-site catering facilities.
Next door is the ICE Cook Shop, which opened on Monday to complement the cook school.
Looking around it is like a voyage of self-discovery with nature-inspired Argentinian porcelain, quirky coffee machines, good quality barbecues and flour from Pakenham Mill among the items that caught my eye.
“The shop is a glimpse into the industry - you can see all the equipment and ingredients chefs are using, and we’re making it really accessible for people,” says John.
“The philosophy behind the shop and the cook school is it’s relaxed and not starchy but fortified with deep passion and knowledge,” he adds, the puns not lost on him.
The shop has embraced its warehouse setting, tastefully incorporating rustic furniture and an industrial design, along with personal touches like the side and registration plate of John and Lou’s first work van which is displayed on the front of the shop counter.
“It’s always important to remember where you’ve come from,” says John.
The father-of-five worked as a chef for 16 years, including at The Ritz and The Dorchester, in London, and The Swan and The Angel, in Lavenham, before deciding to start his own business.
Having just beat cancer, he and wife Lou decided it was the right time to take a risk and in 2002 they launched Infusions Ltd, a specialist dry stores food company which sources items like nuts, beans, pulses, flour and dried fruit from around the world.
“Basically anything found in a pantry – if it’s not fresh fruit, meat and fish, we’ve got it,” said John, who admits they had ‘a steep and quite uncomfortable learning curve’ to begin with.
After six months, they decided to take their products on the road and they fitted a sprinter van with shelves to allow chefs to see and touch the ingredients on offer.
It was a risk that paid off.
The company now employs 22 people, supplies every Michelin star restaurant in the UK and sells to just about every restaurant, bar, hotel and college in East Anglia.
Next they launched website company Infusions 4 Chefs (I4C), which now occupies its own building opposite the cook school and is what John credits as the ‘lynch point’ of their success.
I4c got the licence for the el Bulli Textura range, developed by world renowned chef Ferran Adria, and other respected producers started paying attention, from Restaurant Mugaritz, ranked fourth best in the world, to Castillo de Canena olive oil which the couple sell to Marks and Spencer.
“Good food, good customer service and good price – if you can stay true to those core values, there’s really no limit to how far you can go,” says John, whose staff are all shareholders in Infusions Ltd and I4c, enabling them to receive a share of the profits.
His plans for the future include opening a ‘Friends meets Cheers type’ cafe on-site and developing the Infusions scholarship scheme, a paid 12-month internship which is open to a three year graduate or above each year.
“They don’t have to be the best chef, just super enthusiastic, super keen and a really nice person that we feel is already going to do well in life and we can give them a step up,” said John, who believes every company has a ‘social responsibility to give back’.
To find out more about the new cook school, visit www.icecookschool.co.uk
For I4C, visit www.infusions4chefs.co.uk