|Ken Hom with his dan dan noodles|
Coincidentally, when Amanda kindly offered me a place on their first Saturday Kitchen Experience class, it was the one Ken was teaching. He's only in the country twice a year, so it's a rare old business to be able to meet him. He's a practised anecdote-teller and, like all celebrities who have polite public personas, he threw in a few swears to let us know that he's human. As he talked he cooked dan dan noodles, made with ginger, garlic, spring onions, chilli and sesame paste, and garnished with deep-fried pork mince (absolutely delicious, as you might expect) and toasted, ground lip-tingling Sichuan pepper. Then we had a go, while he circulated, offering advice, tasting things and drinking wine.
I'm a bit of a cookery school obsessive thanks to three months at Ballymaloe, and Cactus Kitchens is pretty smart. It's part of a tasteful church conversion and the stations are well appointed, with sharp Michel Roux Jr Global knives (he's an investor and runs classes) and lots of kit, including induction hobs.Trying to find the right bits and pieces quickly in an unfamiliar setup made me sympathise, briefly, with MasterChef contestants who find themselves in a strange kitchen without the comfort of their own wooden spoons. It is, though, very easy to get used to kitchen luxury.
Some people will be here just to be in the same room as the chefs, but some will want to learn the more technical aspects of a dish. With this in mind, no matter how much it makes the lovely room look like Darlington Tech, they need to put a mirror (or, more likely here, a monitor) above the teacher's station so you can see what's going on in the pans.
When all the dan dans were done, we ate them, and then went downstairs for a sip'n'sign before Ken went off. He's a lovely bloke and he had plenty of time for everyone - it's all about access here, and you certainly get that. After that, it was the omelette challenge, where pairs of students emulate the show's eggy cook-off on the real set, with the real pans. I thought I wouldn't be competitive: I was. I didn't win, but I think I'm more bothered about overcooking my noodles in front of Ken.