We chat to Exmoor caterer Claire Lynch about cooking for celebrities and millionaires
PUBLISHED: 11:45 20 March 2018 | UPDATED: 17:30 12 June 2018
Catherine Courtenay meets a chef whose passion for her craft is there for all to see
Throw together one sack of onions and a curry sauce, along with a group of toddlers and a dash of community spirit, and you have the beginnings of a rather unusual food business.
Binding the mix together is Claire Lynch, a mum with a love of cooking, who eight years ago set about organising a curry night to raise funds for her son’s pre-school in Wootton Courtenay, a village on the edge of Exmoor.
Cooking one her own recipe curries, her work not only helped ensure the school’s survival but also led to the founding of catering company, Claire’s Kitchen. To date, Claire, who has no formal training, has cooked for celebrities and millionaires and served gourmet meals on the world’s most famous train.
And it all began with that curry night.
“I’ve always loved cooking,” she says. “I’d come home from boarding school when I was about 12 or 13 and cook a starter and main course for my family no problem at all.”
Claire is in her Wootton Courtenay kitchen, chatting and cooking. Bright sunlight fills the space and through the windows I glimpse raised veg beds, a henhouse and a field which sweeps down and across to the foot of Dunkery Beacon.
“For years, every week, my husband Chris and I would concoct a curry on Friday nights. It took 15 years to come up with the perfect curry gravy.”
Claire so enjoyed the curry night fundraising experience that Chris suggested she did more pop up meals.
“I rang the village hall committee to ask if they wanted to come along to a Thai banquet; I’d serve them six courses and in return I wanted them to rate me, honestly.”
It was a huge success. She asked them to name her new business and Claire’s Kitchen was born.
Claire’s catering fame may be spreading across Exmoor, but there’s a deep bond with her local community and it’s this attachment which is so remarkable. She still cooks in the village hall, she can never say no to a fundraiser and takes ready meals around the village to those in need. She has a team of 30 locals who work for her, “from students and mums from school to 70-year-old grandmas”.
One of her key staff members, Becky Scullion-Welsh, is working around us as we talk. She started doing some housework for Claire, but within a few weeks had joined the cooking team. An extraordinary achievement as she says: “Because all I could cook before I came here was an egg in a microwave”.
Becky learnt by watching Claire cook.
“She’s very patient,” notes Becky.
“I’m not patient! I’m certainly not with the children!” Claire roars with laughter.
There’s a bond between Claire and Becky; as they work they laugh, and sometimes even become tearful with emotion, recalling various past jobs. I suspect it’s like this with all the team. An eclectic group of women of all ages, most living within walking distance, who get called on to help with prepping, cooking, laying tables and serving.
“I just send a text to see who’s available. No-one has to do anything they don’t want to do,” says Claire. “It’s like a family.”
She adds: “One guy who lives nearby says he loves it when we are prepping because he can hear the laughter!”
I’m eating a delicate crispy wonton with crab and a sweet chilli dressing, then a little plate of prawns and Asian salad, finally a warm pineapple upside down cake with star anise sauce.
Claire rustles up these divine treats as she tells me about memorable moments, from cooking for Robson Green when he was filming locally, to private catering for mansion owners on Exmoor (she was even asked once if she’d stay and cook for the whole Christmas weekend) to the challenge of cooking the gourmet supper on the Flying Scotsman, when the train came to the West Somerset Railway last year.
She’s buzzing with excitement; the thrill of what she’s achieved is, I suspect, as momentous today as the moment she started.
She loves cookery books, but her recipes generally come out of her head and don’t seem to be written down anywhere. Many are influenced by dishes and flavours from around the world. Most of the cooking is done on her kitchen Aga and she prides herself on doing everything from scratch.
People are a big part of the Claire’s Kitchen story. Nowhere is this more evident than when Claire and Becky talk about the frozen meal service; a treat for anyone, but for those who are ill, elderly or housebound, it can be a lifeline. Some customers have been physically transformed with the healthy food - and no doubt the delivery with a smile.
“I’m so lucky, I get so emotional about it,” says Claire.
“I feel blessed every day.”
See the website claires.kitchen for more details
Did you know…?
“Stick me in a field with fire and wood and I’d cook!” This philosophy partly led to Wild Exmoor, a collaboration with photographer Julia Amies-Green who films Claire cooking in stunning locations across the moor.
Chris is a dab hand at the veg growing and animal husbandry and by the end of this year, Claire aims to be totally self sufficient with her sourcing.
The couple make cider from their own apples, using a converted garden shredder and a press which was made out of pallets.
Claire’s writing a book about healthy eating and gout, a topic she’s been studying for four years, ever since Chris was diagnosed with the disease. She has used diet to help Chris successfully control his condition without the need for regular medication.
She hand-made 185 Melba toasts for the Flying Scotsman dinner!