French Dining School in the “Garden of France”

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Tootlafrance talks to Niall O’Reilly (left). Along with Danish-born Poul Jensen (right), they run the French Dining School outside the little village of Kerrouet in Central Brittany

It was in 2007 that Niall and Poul moved from London to the small Breton commune of Kerrouet. Niall was working in the British National Theatre while Poul was working in the world of high-end cuisine in Mayfair. They both had had enough of the hectic and the overcrowded aspect of city life.

“I think that, basically, when you’ve done something for 14 years, you strive for a change as well,” says Niall. “I adore London and we both go back regularly but there comes a time when you’re approaching 50 and you feel like trying something different. We’re both from the countryside and it was a draw back towards a more rural environment.”

“It’s been a labour of love,” says Niall on transforming a 17th-century ruin into the French Dining School

“It’s been a labour of love,” says Niall on transforming a 17th-century ruin into the French Dining School

Brittany became their destination – firstly because they find that despite so many other nations adopting the mantel of great cuisine in the last 20 years, France remains a place that is unrivalled in terms of the variety of produce and the depth of tradition. Secondly, because Niall already had a property there:

“I had a ruin in Brittany – the ‘ruin’ that we’re standing in right now – which I had bought and which I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. The house was built in 1600 so it’s a very traditional-style stone house; as are a lot of properties in the area. It’s a very mediaeval area, which is one of the things that attracted us to the place.

Using mostly local tradesmen, they began work on turning the ruin into a dining school and opened for business in 2010.

“It’s been a labour of love,” says Niall. “It took a lot of time… It’s a bit difficult to open a business in another country and in another language. We couldn’t really speak French before we came; my French teacher in school was a disaster – partly because of my fault and partly because my brother terrorised her so I became a persona non grata by association!”

Poul – who trained as a French chef, waiter and sommelier in Denmark – could only speak “cooking French”; which had its own limitations in terms of vocabulary. The idea of a cooking school suited them and they targeted the English-speaking countries principally: USA, Australia and Ireland are amongst their main markets.

“We do all the instruction in English,” says Niall. “Our clients want to be immersed in a French place with French food but not have the difficulty of the language.

Having fun in the kitchen: some students smiling through the paces at Kerrouet House

Having fun in the kitchen: some students smiling through the paces at Kerrouet House

“We start on a Sunday evening with an introductory dinner and we start teaching on the Monday. They start at 10, then finish after lunch around 2. They have 3 or 4 hours free before starting at 6 in the evening again and finishing around 11… So by the end of the week, we’re shattered and I think that they’re shattered too!

“When people come, they’d tell friends about it and they’re tell their friends… so it’s a slow word-of-mouth process. But it has steadily grown: every year, we’ve been getting busier.”

They make good use of the American travel site Tripadvisor, getting their users to rate their experiences online to get the word out. It seems to have worked: So far, all the reviews are positive and they have been getting a lot of clients from the US and other countries.

Niall puts it down to the fact that Poul is not only a good chef but also a good teacher. It’s something he had never done before and he readily admits that he may not have had the patience to teach during his younger years, but he’s slotted into the role quite comfortably.

There is quite a variety too in the age of the clients they get, with people up to age 77 partaking in their courses.

Another of the reasons for the popularity of the school, Niall believes, is that many people don’t often get the chance to experience making food in the kitchen when they’re growing up, owing to the exigencies of the modern lifestyle.

“I was lucky: my mother was at home all the time. We were brought up making food in the kitchen.”

"If we were running a restaurant, we’d have to be open all the time..." Instruction in the kitchen was the optimum life-work balance for Niall and Poul.

Students at the French Dining School: “We start on a Sunday evening with an introductory dinner and we start teaching on the Monday…”

Enjoying the surrounding countryside is another aspect of the experience at Niall and Poul’s school. Many of their customers are coming from big cities and appreciate the peace and quiet of the area.

“The Mené is an absolute paradise for walking and cycling for various reasons: firstly, it’s a bit like Cavan in that there are lots of little hills and of course cycling as a sport is really serious here… it’s very safe and there’s great respect shown to cyclists by drivers.”

Cycle lanes are growing at quite a rate in France these days and there are currently over 2,000km of official cycle tracks in Brittany alone.

Surprisingly, they don’t grow much of their own. It’s a question of time: they’re short of it and the demands on produce are too big:

“We don’t even have the time to grow our own herbs,” says Niall. “We go through too many of them. We’re open to students right through until September/October. We try to grow as many as we can but we couldn’t possibly grow enough for the needs of the school – we’d need to employ a full-time gardener to do that.”

In any case, they are in the region that many refer to as the “garden of France”. There is an abundance of livestock, vegetables and seafood almost right on their doorstep – available through France’s second-largest food market in Rennes. They even have a snail farm just up the road.

What has been the best and the worst about their life in France so far?

Arriving as students and leaving as friends...

Arriving as students and leaving as friends…

“The worst has been not to be able to speak the language properly,” says Poul. “Of course, there are cultural differences but the people here have been very very helpful. They don’t deserve the reputation that they have for being arrogant – that’s for sure.”

“The best is just having access to this extraordinary country,” says Niall, “you can travel 1,000 miles east or 1,000 miles south… only a couple of months ago, we were down in Nice and on the way back, we came across this Gorge (the Gorge du Verdon) that I’d never even heard of before.”

All in all, they seem to have managed to forge a business that fits in with their lifestyle and gives them the optimum work/life balance:

“If we were running a restaurant, we’d have to be open all the time. It’s a high-risk business, statistically…

“And it’s a bit too mad as a business!” Poul interjects.

“We don’t want to work too much, you see. The nice thing about the cooking school is that you can set your own schedule. We take the winters off so that we can explore and even do a bit more research… being in charge of your own time is very important. If you’re in charge of what you’re doing, it doesn’t really feel like work. Also the students make it: they come as students and they leave as friends.”

To find out more about the French Dining School and for bookings, see www.frenchdiningschool.com.

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