We were recently lucky enough to welcome a new addition to our team at the cookery school — our new chef, Cat Rochefort.

Cat is originally from Reigate and grew up around Sussex and Surrey, but she has strong connections to France. Since studying French at university in Leeds, she’s moved between France and the UK several times, developing her knowledge of regional produce and learning from different chefs along the way.

‘Cat is so friendly and welcoming, and I love that she’s eager to get stuck in’, said Lizzie. ‘We’re a young team, and we’re all looking forward to building up the business together’.

We sat down with Cat to find out a little more about her journey to becoming a chef and how she’s ended up joining us at the cookery school…

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Although Surrey and Sussex have always felt like home, I’ve also lived in three different areas of France. It was during my university year abroad there that I first fell in love with good-quality produce and cooking.

I lived in Belfort in the Franche-Comté region, which has a strong cheese heritage. My husband is French, and we lived in Lyon after I graduated — a place that happens to be the world’s gastronomic capital and near to Beaujolais, a substantial wine-producing region.

Then, I lived in London and worked for the BBC Good Food shows, which involved meeting chefs and food producers and organising big food and drinks events, which I loved. After that, I lived in Toulouse in France, where I was finally inspired to become a chef.

I attended Leiths in London, one of the country’s leading culinary schools, for my training and now live in Hove in Sussex, which boasts all kinds of fantastic food — from fresh seafood to amazing lamb from Saddlescombe.

What brought you to the Abinger Cookery School?

I’ve driven past it loads of times as we come walking in this area a lot, so I’ve always been familiar with it. When I saw the role advertised through Leiths’ career service and looked it up properly, I was so excited to find somewhere like this deep in the Surrey Hills near where I live.

I quite enjoy the commute from Hove to Abinger; I’d rather travel to the countryside than commute into a city! Plus, all the courses sounded right up my street — I love grilling and barbecuing, so when I saw the school’s Weber Grill Academy, I was sold!

Do you specialise in any particular cuisine?

I received classic French and European training from Leiths based on traditional French skills like sauce-making and preparing different types of meats and other modern techniques that covered anything from vegan cooking to French patisserie and classic British desserts. Although I gained a broad range of skills in my training, I’d say my expertise lies mainly in French cuisine as I’ve spent so much time there and know so much about different regional produce.

After taking a three-week trip there and falling in love with the country and its cuisine, I also have a particular interest in Japanese food. I’ve been working with a Japanese chef for the past year, and she’s taught me loads about Japanese food, which has helped channel my interest into usable skills. I’m also passionate about fire cooking, having worked with Hunter Gather Cook and The Salt Box, and I spend a lot of time cooking feasts for our family and friends with our fire pit on the beach!

If you had to pick your favourite ingredient/dish, what would it be?

Cheese! When I lived in France, I became totally obsessed with cheese and spent a lot of time (and money) trying different types. I also did work experience in a cheese shop, which was great (and dangerous!).

I love using it as an ingredient or as part of alpine, ‘mountain style’ dishes like raclette with potatoes, charcuterie and a hunk of French bread — so good! It’s the kind of food that’s made to be shared around a big table with friends and family, which I love.

Do you remember what sparked your love of food? And what do you love most about cooking?

What sparked my love of food was probably the French markets. I found them so inspiring; they opened my eyes to a different way of thinking about food. Going to a market is a totally different experience from going to the supermarket. When I started to learn French, I noticed that people would tell me how to cook the things I bought and gave me tips for getting the best out of every ingredient, which I thought was so cool.

One of the main things that attracted me to working for the cookery school is that I love sharing my passion for cooking with other people. For me, it’s not a solitary thing; when I cook at home, I’ll usually be next to my husband in the kitchen or get everyone involved in the process. I adore the conviviality of cooking — I’d prefer to bring people in to share the experience than spend hours preparing something impressive just to get a pat on the back!

Who’s your favourite chef and what’s your favourite cooking programme?

I admire a chef called Genevieve Taylor. She’s one of few women flying the flag for female fire cooks in the UK. Genevieve has published cookbooks and started a cookery school in her garden. She’s also worked a lot with Weber!

As for TV shows… it has to be Bake Off! It’s such a warm, comforting show and everyone on it is just so lovely.

If you could invite any three people (living or dead) to a dinner party, who would they be?

This is a hard one! The first person I thought of was David Attenborough. He’s such a legend and has seen so much of the world, so I’d love to pick his brain about everything he’s seen over his long life. I’d ask him all about the climate crisis — and find out what his favourite animal is, of course!

The second would be Roger Phillips, who sadly passed away recently. Roger was a famous mycologist (someone who studies the science of fungi) who wrote two seminal books about mushrooms and foraging in the eighties. I’ve gotten into foraging over the last couple of years, and he knows so much about wild plants.

Last but not least, I’d pick my grandma. Who else would you want at your dinner party than someone you’re related to and haven’t seen for years? My grandma passed away when I was about 13, so I never got to ask her loads of questions that I’d love to ask her now.

Who do you admire?

Again, I look up to a lot of fire cooks. Niklas Ekstedt and Lennox Hastie are both successful in the field, with restaurants in London and Australia. I also admire the two guys I work with at Hunter Gather Cook: Nick Weston and Chris Taylor. They’re both so talented, fun and encouraging and have taught me a lot during the time I’ve spent with them.

Do you have any hobbies outside of cooking?

I’m pretty outdoorsy, so I enjoy spending time exploring the countryside by hiking, camping and foraging with my husband in the South Downs. I love sea swimming, and I try to get in the water at least once a week — even throughout the winter! I also enjoy food photography in my spare time, which I post on my Instagram page (@cats_toulouse_kitchen) and blog.

What are you most looking forward to about working at the school?

I can’t wait to meet all the customers and share all the knowledge I’ve collected on my journey to become a chef. I love chatting and learning from other people through interaction, so I’m excited to get involved.

Our team is thrilled to have an enthusiastic young chef on board as we move into a new year. We can’t wait to see what courses Cat will create for the school with her wealth of experience — keep an eye on our cookery courses page and socials to be the first to hear about newly available classes!