In the first of 3 exclusive DGWGO monthly blogs from Nick Morris the owner of the brand new Station House Cookery School in Kirkcudbright, we hear the story of how he was a teacher in the Ukraine for 20 years and has now ended up throwing his heart and soul and his family in at the deep end by building the South of Scotland’s first cookery school from scratch.
Nick writes “April 2016. I was on a campsite in Norfolk teaching my 6 year old daughter how to fly a kite when the call came in. It was my solicitor in Scotland, ‘Can I speak to the proud new owner of Station House, Kircudbright please?’
This was the news I had been waiting for, the sale had gone through and I was the owner of a stunning 19th Century Railway Station in Scotland with plans in place to turn it into Dumfries and Galloway’s first dedicated cookery school. A fairly unusual situation to be in and it begs the question, ‘How did I get myself here?’
It all started back in the early 1980s when I started work weekends washing dishes in my hometown of Norwich. Loving the work, I continued in the profession until my mid twenties getting as much experience as I could. I worked in kitchens, as a waiter and a lot of bar work. I’d always intended to carve out a career in hospitality but decided to take a year out and do something a little different first. Post University, I qualified as an English Language teacher and headed out in 1995 for what should have been a 9 month stint teaching English in Ukraine.
One thing led to another and 9 months turned in 20 years. Ukraine as we know it now was a new country then, communism had only just collapsed and I was witnessing the rebirth of a nation. Not something you get to be a part of too many times. There was only one English Language school in a country of 50 million people. A huge gap in the market which was spotted by the person who is still my current business partner. An extremely entrepreneurial spirit, he joined forces with a local business man and started what was to become the extremely successful chain of English Language Schools and Literature Import Business ‘The London School of English’.
I was there on day 1 as a teacher, the opportunity to be at the start of a business in a country like Ukraine in the mid nineties was too good to miss. Inspired by my business partner, within two years I was borrowing money from anyone I could to buy in to the school. I became a partner and manager at the school, a role that would last until October 2015 when I left Ukraine, 20 years to the day after I had first landed there. During that time we went through three rounds of hyper inflation, two revolutions and one military invasion. I got to witness first hand how to start a business and guide it through some extremely difficult situations. All the time taking my teaching qualifications up to NVQ level 7 as I loved being in the classroom. Teaching had become a real passion. I was lucky enough to have a real mentor in my business partner and I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for his support and guidance over more than two decades.
In early 2009 my wife and I got the news that we were expecting a baby. Much as I loved Ukraine I knew I wanted to raise a family in UK. The need for an exit plan arose and I immediately started plans to return to hospitality and open my own restaurant back in UK when my daughter was school age. It gave me a good six or seven years’ planning time. The problem was that I absolutely adored teaching and managing schools and didn’t want to give that up. That’s when the embryonic idea of opening a cookery began to take shape. It would combine my 20 years’ experience managing schools with my love of food, hospitality and teaching. It seemed like the perfect plan.
I then had 5 years to carefully plan the cookery school. And to make sure I was making the right decision and not having a major mid-life crisis. I retrained at the internationally renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. It was an amazing experience. Run by Darina Allen, it’s set in a 100 acre organic dairy farm where they grow all their own fruit and vegetables, make their own yoghurts, cheeses and breads for the school. Their ethos to food was exactly my own and it was an inspiration for me to see that you can create a business within the food and drink industry which is ethical and supportive of the local community and producers. Making everything in house and keeping alive those forgotten skills. I watched and learned as much as I could, becoming more sure every day that this was what I wanted to do. I started to write a food blog ‘theredbookcook.blogspot’ which was designed to hone my writing skills as a teacher of cookery. Many of those entries have formed the backbone of the factsheets for cookery classes at Station House today.
On my return to UK in October 2015 I bought a campervan which was to be my home on the search for the location for the cookery school. Accompanied by my highly vocal Ukrainian street rescue dog Leia, I hit the road.
So, what was I looking for? I needed a spot with strong tourism, a solid food and drink infrastructure, a weekend destination from two or three major cities and no other cookery schools in the area. Not to mention a nice place for my daughter to grow up. Simple.
The quest began down in Cornwall and I zigzagged my way through England and up to Scotland investigating every tourist location and walking through the door of hundreds of estate agents. Just south of Edinburgh I asked a campsite owner where people from Edinburgh go for a weekend away if they want to stay in Scotland. Dumfries and Galloway was the swift reply, so off we went. I’d been told that the Artists’ Town of Kirkcudbright was a top tourist destination, so on a very wet and cold Saturday night I pulled up in the central square at the exact moment the van’s engine exploded in a very comprehensive cloud of smoke engulfing half the town. I went into the first local pub I could find for some liquid restoration and to ask if there was a local mechanic on call. It appeared not. I was cold, damp and stuck.
The mechanics arrived the next day. After looking under the bonnet I was told that I’d be in Kirkcudbright for a good ten days. Make yourself comfortable. The Kirkcudbright Bay hotel in the centre were really decent and found an attic room for me and Leia, suitably out of the way so she couldn’t do too much damage to the other guests. To this day I’m very grateful to them. Thank you Neil and Sharon!
Marooned in Kirkcudbright, I started to look around. Beautiful town, welcoming people a couple of decent pubs. I spent time in all the local Estate Agents telling them what kind of property I needed for the cookery school but there wasn’t anything suitable. After a week I was pretty despondent and wanted to get further north to try my luck in The Highlands. Then on the Sunday I saw there was a local Producers’ Market happening. I got there early and spent the whole day talking to the most fantastic array of producers passionate about their produce. There was a clear network of support for small businesses at community level. Local people were supporting local producers here. That was certainly not the case in a lot of areas I had tried in UK. I began to get the picture that Dumfries and Galloway really was the perfect location for a cookery school. Just no appropriate property!
I collected my van a couple of days later and prepared to head off the following morning. At 4pm I got a call from one of the local Estate Agents. ‘Not quite what you’re looking for Nick, but a lovely property has come on the market today. Fancy a quick look?’
The moment I walked through the doors of the old Station House I knew it was perfect. Enough space for a Demonstration Room for 40 people, Students Kitchens for 18 and a small café to support. It truly was serendipity, if the agent had called the next morning I would have been gone. Surveys were carried out, permission obtained and an offer put in and accepted.
Then that call from my solicitor as I was teaching my daughter to fly her kite on a windy Norfolk campsite… “
If you would like to win a £99 towards a cookery lesson at the New Station House Cookery School then click HERE to enter our exclusive DGWGO competition.
For more information and to book cleasses at the Cookery School check out their website HERE.