South East Asian Cookery with Chef Fiona Were

Continuing our series of global cuisine cookery courses, (drum roll…) we’ve now launched a new South East Asian cookery course!

During this full-day course, students will learn how to make deliciously aromatic dishes such as Vietnamese summer rolls and exotic salads, as well as complexly-flavoured curry pastes. Importantly, you’ll also learn how to cook perfect sticky rice every time!  Student’s will leave with the skills and confidence to create dishes from a part of the world renowned for its exotic spices, which combine to create exciting intense flavours.

The course is run by Fiona Were who grew up in New Zealand, a country whose modern cuisine is heavily influenced by south east Asia. A freelance professional chef and foodie, she has a real passion for fusing different flavours and styles of cooking, and shares our passion for local, seasonal and ethical produce.

We asked Fiona about growing up in New Zealand, what she loves about Cornwall, what it’s like working as a freelance chef, and more. Find out below what she had to say!

Can you feel your taste buds tingling with all this talk of aromatic, spicy, fresh and vibrant flavours? Then this course is for you!

Fiona, tell us what inspired you to pursue a career in cooking?

I’ve been cooking for as long as I can remember. I used to help my mother with baking and preparing meals from a very early age. Mum used to often say that we have to eat everyday of our lives, so we should eat well! I think that has stuck with me.

I remember a holiday when we stayed at Fox Glacier and ate at a small café owned and operated by a chap called PJ. The story goes that I went up to him and told him that he was a good cook and that I wanted to grow up to be like him one day. I think I was five; certainly no older. I recall the culinary inspiration was tomato soup? Could have been fish and chips too, as we ate there a couple of times. I am sure PJ was suitably flattered to have been complimented by such a young, budding gourmand!

I used to regularly make breads, including sour dough, Danish pastries, cakes, biscuits and graduated to family meals. I always had my head in a recipe book and used to love reading mum’s old cookery books.  Food has always been incredibly important and once I made the decision to become a chef (which was only meant to be temporary I might add), I was hungry for knowledge and success. After toiling away in various kitchens for more years than I care to admit to, I decided to make the break and work for myself. I now run my own business, Chef Fiona NZ, where I focus predominantly on bespoke dining experiences for discerning clients.

You were born and brought up in New Zealand but have travelled extensively and have now lived in the UK for a number of years. Was it hard leaving New Zealand? And what do you miss about home now that you have settled in the UK?

It was hard leaving NZ in some ways, but it was the right time. I had met my partner Iain, who is from the UK and we wanted to be together. I believe life is what you make of it, wherever you are. I love the West Country and it feels very much like home. I do miss the diversity of food and culture that was readily available to experience in New Zealand. Feijoas  (a fruit often referred to as ‘pineaaple guava’), are something that I really miss, and also being able to eat amazing sushi any day of the week without having to take out a loan to do so! The wine in New Zealand is phenomenal too, with vineyards everywhere. Eating out is more relaxed and accessible, probably partly due to the climate, which is a little better than Cornwall. It really does not rain as much and the summers are definitely warmer.

You have worked for some well-known establishments holding top positions including Training and Development Chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall. Do you miss working in big commercial kitchens?

Honestly, I am happy that I have removed myself from the high-pressured environment of commercial kitchens. Being a head chef involves a job that is more about paperwork and management than focussing on the food. The stress and pressure can be very isolating. I interact with so many different people now, which I really enjoy. Being freelance enables me to cook top quality food for appreciative clients and not have the headache of unrealistic budgets, unreliable staff and long hours. I can take holidays and time off when I want to instead of looking forward to a couple of weeks off in January. I have different pressures being self-employed, I still have to be pro-active and motivated but if anything goes wrong, then the only person I can blame is myself. This wouldn’t work for everyone, but it suits me well. It’s about getting some kind of work/life balance; I’m not quite there with that yet, but working on it.

You are now a freelance chef running your own business. Do you enjoy the freedom this gives you with regard to the menus and styles of food you can offer your clients?

Yes, I love it. It’s paramount that my clients are going to have the food that they want on their special occasion. It’s fantastic that I am not stuck cooking the same dishes all the time. The work I do is both varied and interesting. I have always had daily changing menus wherever I have been in charge of a kitchen, but when diners are faced with a menu in a restaurant situation, they may not be able to find anything on the menu that they want to eat. I have a dialogue with all of my clients right from the start to get to know them and fully understand their requirements and tastes. It’s not about what I can cook as such, but to ensure they have the best possible experience eating the dishes they have chosen, cooked in my style.

You are a champion of high quality, local, seasonal produce. Do you feel this ethos is important not only to yourself but to your clients?

Absolutely. Quality is vital and this is reflected in the plates of food I serve. One of my core values is to source the best quality ingredients I can for my clients. I am not prepared to budge on this at all. I have been faced with this challenge while working for others; to cut corners and this is not what I am about. The standard of food that I cook has to be consistently top notch for my discerning clients and they really do appreciate the attention to detail that goes into this.

Foreign cuisine has been a big part of the UK food scene for a long time. What do you think has helped make Asian food become so popular?

Fashions come and go with anything. I think that different foods and cultures all take turns with being popular. Cheaper travel to countries further afield have certainly made food from Asia more accessible. Chefs travelling abroad and then bringing their experiences back with them is part of this too. I think foodies are always keen to try something new or different and when there are unexplored flavours and ingredients to experience, it’s exciting.  Supermarkets and specialist grocers have a wider range of ingredients available now, so the home cook can dabble with the cuisine of different cultures with relative ease. Also the shift to the convenience of ready meals gives the chance to perhaps try something seemingly exotic at an affordable price, without the need to invest the time to make it from scratch.

What is your favourite Asian dish to cook?

I really enjoy cooking Ramen at the moment. I love the soya eggs that go with it and taking the time to get the broth just right. Making a really good Thai curry is also a personal favourite.

Are there still any ingredients that you find it hard to source in the UK for this style of cooking?

Trying to source more seasonally-affected fresh items such as pomelos and some greens can be hard to find sometimes but generally, a vast majority of the ingredients are reasonably easy to come by now.

Do you think people are becoming more adventurous when it comes to cooking at home? And do you think that cookery schools such as Philleigh Way are helping to provide home cooks with the confidence to become more inventive with their cooking?

Definitely! Confidence is a huge part of having the courage to try something new. Cookery schools like Philleigh Way provide a supportive environment to learn and a resource for home cooks to expand their own cooking repertoire.

What do you love about Cornwall?

I love our home. We live semi-rural which means we are able to keep chickens and grow apples to make cider. I can forage for wild ingredients easily and enjoy time in the garden when the weather allows.

What is your favourite Cornish food product?

Cornish Duck. Roger and Tanya Olver breed super-delicious free range duck and the quality is second to none. I have used their products for such a long time now and have never been disappointed.

What is your favourite Cornish drink?

To be honest I am more of a cider and single malt drinker but I am rather partial to the odd pint of Skinners Heligan Honey.

Favourite place to eat out?

Olivers in Falmouth is always superb. Love to have lunch there!

Favourite place to visit in Cornwall?

I spend such a lot of time on the road with my work, driving all over Cornwall, so to get time at home to relax and enjoy the garden has to be one of my favourite things.

Why do you enjoy working with Philleigh Way?

It’s such a fantastic venue. The team are amazing! A very supportive and enthusiastic bunch, we share the same foodie ethos. It’s great to be involved with such likeminded people.

What’s the best bit about the new South East Asian cookery courses?

It’s going to be amazing to be able to showcase the food from this part of the world which is a little closer to my homeland. I am looking forward to sharing the simplicity of recreating some classic South East Asian dishes with such exciting flavours.

As well as the new South East Asian cookery course, Fiona will be hosting an indoor Supper Club at the cookery school on Friday 23rd June where she will be treating you to a delicious taster menu of South East Asian cuisine. Tickets are limited so we advise booking quickly.