Wendy Sweetser meets a British couple who have teamed up with a French chef to run a thriving cookery school in gastronomic Gascony
When David Chance broke his back and neck in an industrial accident aged 30, it changed his life forever. Luckily the change was for the better as it gave him the opportunity to indulge a new passion, in a new place.
Following the accident, the British joiner, husband to Vikki, and father to Sam, now 24, and Courtney, 22, decided to retrain as a chef. He also wanted to live in sunnier climes. "I was warned that in later life I’d suffer with osteoporosis," explains David, "so in addition to needing a new, less demanding career, I had to think about eventually moving somewhere warmer to live."
Now, years after the accident, David has been able to combine his culinary skills with his passion for his new home in the gastronomic capital of the south west of France by opening a cookery school alongside local chef Bernard Corbi�re.
Plans for a permanent place in the sun began to take shape when the Chances bought a holiday home in Gers while the children were still young. Discounting other more commercial areas such as Provence, which they felt was too seasonal, they picked Gascony for its warm weather and because the region was – and still is – largely undiscovered by the Brits. As David puts it, "the English have heard of Gascony but unless they’re into food, most don’t know where it is. As a result it’s not touristy, local people are very hospitable and there is a year-round community."
Buying the holiday home was David and Vikki’s first step before they made the leap into living and working in France full-time. They deliberately waited until the children were grown up as the idea was to slow down and take life a bit easier once they’d made the move but, as David says, "the best-laid plans…."
Renovation requiredDavid and Vikki bought their present house in Gramont eight years ago and moved there permanently from the UK in 2007. They took Archie, their cocker spaniel, with them who settled in happily once his lustrous coat had been given a close crop to help him cope with the heat. Gramont is very small and with only 11 residents living in the actual village, they found all the houses belonged to two or three families.
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"Our property was owned by Bernard, the chef at Le Petit Feuillant auberge 100 metres up the road, and when he sold it to us both the main house and the barn required a massive amount of renovation," explains David. "It also had a sitting tenant who didn’t pay his rent but who explained to us with exquisite French-Canadian logic that he was using our rent to pay a deposit on another property. Having got his deposit together he moved out and we could then start on the renovations that took five years before we could properly move in. I did all the small finishing-off stuff but for the heavy-duty stonework we employed a local builder. To stop us getting into a lot of debt we sold our first holiday home and Vikki spent a couple of years commuting to work in the UK."
Vikki says that despite leaving friends, children and family behind they never doubted they were doing the right thing. "We felt we weren’t going so far away that we couldn’t get back to the UK if we needed to and people could visit us here."
As soon as they moved their lifestyle changed dramatically. Not only did they have a better quality of life but they also needed less money to live on. As Vikki puts it, "I don’t get time to go shopping which is just as well as there are no shops nearby so nipping down to M&S isn’t an option!"
Their original intention was to run a chambres d’h�tes with three en suite bedrooms, a suite and a self-contained g�te, and David cooking table d’h�te gourmet meals for resident guests. Bernard, however, had other ideas and before long the two chefs, who had by then become friends, decided to open their own cookery school with classes being split between David’s kitchen at home and Bernard’s restaurant kitchen.
David and Vikki were already registered as a micro-BIC business for French tax purposes that allowed them to rent out furnished accommodation in their home without paying VAT and, as David explains, giving guests cookery lessons in his kitchen and offering table d’h�te meals was only an extension of that so no extra permits or paperwork were required.
"When I worked as an outside caterer in the UK, in addition to insurance, I had to have food and hygiene certificates but in France I’d only require those if I changed the way I work," says David. "Recently Bernard suggested Vikki and I open a salon du th� (tea shop) but it would have altered our tax status and our accountant said it just wasn’t worth it. Unlike Bernard, who is the owner and resident chef of an established restaurant, we don’t have all the bureaucracy in place. One way we are looking to expand, however, is by offering wedding packages. Some of the guests could stay with us, we could arrange a service in the village church and the reception would be held in the local ch�teau with the auberge doing the catering.
Catering for all tastesClasses at the cookery school are very hands-on with students learning to prepare, cook – and, of course, taste – local dishes. They might spend the morning baking pithiviers and tartes aux pommes with David or visiting the farmers’ market at Fleurance before taking a short walk up the road to Le Petit Feuillant auberge for one of Bernard’s five course lunches of traditional Gascon cuisine. The afternoon could be spent making cassoulet with Bernard or visiting the local honey museum, nearby Ch�teau de Gramont or an Armagnac distillery before the students join David, Vikki and any non-cooking guests for a dinner of the dishes they’ve prepared.
David and Bernard offer week and weekend courses, teaching kitchen basics such as filleting fish, knife skills, making pastry and preparing sauces alongside cooking that evening’s lunch or dinner with the accent on using fresh local produce.
"We limit class sizes to six and have people of all ages coming from around the world," says David. "This year a 90-year-old man from the UK has enrolled and, while we don’t normally take children, we have agreed to let an eight-year-old come with his dad."
As classes are small David and Bernard can accommodate guests with a wide range of skills such as the retired man who had never been in a kitchen before who cooked alongside a lady who had been on a three-month residential course. And, unlike many cookery schools in France where chefs speak only French and rely on students to learn by watching them work, classes are held in English.
While David and Bernard now speak each other’s languages well, David admits learning French didn’t come easily.
"Vikki was good at French at school and kept it up when we came to France for holidays but languages were never my thing," says David. "I was hopeless but Vikki told me I couldn’t always hide behind her so I went to college in England and made a real effort to learn before we came out. Learning the language didn’t come naturally but it was something I knew I had to do."
French wasn’t the only new challenge David faced as during the two years Vikki commuted between France and the UK he often looked after guests by himself.
"One day I texted Vikki rather frantically saying 'what’s the secret of ironing sheets and not taking forever’?" laughs David. "Vikki’s response was one word: practice."
David and Vikki still have a house in the UK where they spend a couple of months during the winter when business in France tends to be quiet.
"While we’re back in England we continue with our catering business and also visit kitchen shops to introduce ourselves with a view to drumming up publicity for the school," says David. "Last winter when we were away we had some French people booked to stay in the chambres d’h�tes so our daughter Courtney and her partner Warren came out and ran the place for us. As they speak no French at all, Vikki had to welcome our rather startled guests by talking to them on Skype – thank goodness for modern technology!"
One unforeseen downside to running a cookery school that David discovered was the temptation to eat too much. "At the beginning I’d sit down to large lunches and dinners every day with guests as it seemed unfriendly not to," he says, "and I also didn’t want them thinking there was something wrong with the food they’d cooked. The result was that within a few months I’d put on a stone so now Vikki and I take it in turns to eat with guests."
Inevitably the cookery school lessons produce more food than David, Vikki and their guests can eat so they’ve devised a useful bartering system with their neighbours.
"We keep the lady down the road stocked up with apple tarts and in return she looks after our front garden," says David. "It’s typical of the way things work here. We feel very lucky as I’m sure there must be other places where we could have gone and not felt so welcome but in Gramont we really feel we’ve come home."
David’s tops tips for setting up a business in France
Be prepared to work. Anyone thinking they can do what Vikki and I have done and have lots of time to relax will be in for a shockApart from financial considerations, there are a lot of downsides to employing staff in France. It was always our intention to do as much as possible in-houseWhen choosing your location, have a checklist of what you want to achieve and also consider the social aspect. Because we integrated so well we get a lot of support from neighboursPay attention to detail. We know that guests notice things like soft, fluffy towels and crisp white bed sheets and we’re always as flexible as we possibly can be over meeting individual requestsUse local suppliers. We buy all our fruit and vegetables from local farmers and for meat and fish we go to a butcher and fishmonger in the nearest main town