One of Tante Marie’s successful alumni, Harry Eastwood explains to Mark Kebble how the culinary academy shaped her career and why it’s set the standard for 60 years
Oh how I wish I went to university with Harry Eastwood. ‘I was always pretty passionate about dinner parties,’ she recalls of her time at St Andrews. ‘One of my friends – and I have to add she is still a good friend – was a dreadful cook, so when we had dinner parties each of us had to make a course as I didn’t want to be associated with her badly made food!’ Remembering many nights of beans on toast personally, I’d have happily thrown that together to be able to enjoy a Harry Eastwood creation.
Today Eastwood is a well known TV personality and acclaimed cookbook author, but despite being interested in cooking since she was a child – ‘I remember writing my first “recipe” when I was five, which was two slices of bread, slices of banana and jam’ – she actually studied English and Philosophy at the acclaimed university, only deciding a career in cooking was for her when she left. ‘I just knew I wanted to work in food and with words.’
With decision made, it was all about finding the right cookery school. ‘The most important thing for me was finding a school that was traditional, but slightly off the beaten track,’ she says. ‘I lived in London and was looking for schools there, but a lot of people I knew got shipped off to cookery school by their parents. I wanted to find a school where the people there had chosen that school themselves. The second important thing was when I visited Tante Marie I loved the vibe there – it felt like home from my very first visit.’
It’s not a surprise that it ticked all the right boxes. Founded in 1954 and located in Woking (where it will remain when moving to a new state-of-the-art premises next year), Tante Marie is the UK’s oldest independent culinary training establishment. The internationally-acclaimed Tante Marie Cordon Bleu Diploma remains at the heart of the professional qualifications offered by the Academy. ‘My time there was really happy,’ Eastwood looks back. ‘It was very hard work, mind you.
‘The teaching staff were great. That’s where my passion not only for food was stimulated, but cooking too. The teachers there are some of the most interesting foodie types I have come across and were a huge factor in my career. The school shaped my passion for understanding how to cook and why ingredients do what they do. Ingredients, to me, become people. Listen to ingredients and learn how to treat them.’
With a successful education behind her, Eastwood admits there were still hurdles to overcome to make a career out of cooking. ‘It’s a tough environment,’ she says. ‘In my experience, though, of working in that world is that it’s full of opportunity for cooks willing to learn. The three most important qualities are enthusiasm, persistence – I had to cold call about 40 people when I was first looking for food stylist opportunities, so you have to face rejection – and open-mindedness. A career in food can mean many different things, but prepare to graft – I washed up dishes for five years before writing a single article and feature.’
Eastwood typifies getting out what you put in. Today she is a bona-fide TV star – which all started with a co-presenting role on Cook Yourself Thin – the author of three cookbooks (soon to be four) and the go-to cook for anyone looking for tips on healthy eating. She is as much in front of our screens as she is behind a computer, so does she miss being busy in the kitchen? ‘I absolutely love writing, it’s what I was doing at university,’ she considers, taking us back to where we started. ‘I am in the process of finishing my fourth solo book, so the computer is never far from the kitchen. In fact, it’s often in the kitchen, so flecked with chocolate mousse or something!’