Meeting Rosalind Rathouse, my first impression was that I had been misled by her PR people.
An apartheid-hardened South African who runs a cookery school where dysfunctional teams of politicians and bankers are whipped into shape with her no-nonsense approach to team-building, I was told. On paper, she sounded scary.
So imagine my surprise arriving at Little Portland Street, when a motherly, genial woman greeted me with coffee and a smile.
But misled I was not. She certainly takes no prisoners.
“You learn not to use your voice when you’re a teacher,” she says, chuckling over sublime buttery-yellow scrambled eggs with chives. “If you shout, you’ve lost. You learn to do things like freeze people out.”
Rathouse demonstrates a slow, stoic, side-eyed stare that makes one feel like a naughty six-year-old, before breaking into laughter.
Perhaps, you, dear City worker, have witnessed her gaze. From private banks to diplomats, none of whom she will name for confidentiality reasons, thousands – not all dysfunctional, it must be said – have passed through the doors of the aptly named Cookery School over 15 years of it being open.
She does name Desmond Tutu’s African Leadership Institute as a regular client. The next generation of African diplomats are brought to the UK for training, to ensure future leaders don’t replicate the very worst of the past. The pilot, 12 years ago, sounds memorable
“We put them in the kitchen and we gave them a task. They were very angry that day. They didn’t like the accommodation they had, so they were a bit stroppy. ‘What are we doing here?’ they kept saying, and then ‘we’re not cooking anymore, that’s enough. We’re not being told what we have to do’.”
Rathouse marched them out to the street to an audience in the buildings above. A group of highly-educated future diplomats bickering like children. One pipes up: “we’re not doing this”.
“I said ‘are you the spokesperson for the group? I haven’t seen you being elected. No democracy here. Who do you think you are, bloody Mugabe?’ They all burst out laughing and we went back in.”
Central to the high success rate of Cookery School is building bespoke lessons with an organisational psychologist, and recording the process from start to finish for review.
“Reflection is highly important,” says Rathouse, in her barely-anglicised South African timbre. “Otherwise you’re just talking about it. You need the evidence. Cookery School becomes a microcosm of the real world. If you think of the teams, and all the personalities within them, analysing the way they interact with one another allows us to work on the right areas.”
With the Tutu cohort, the embarrassment of watching themselves braying like insolent children was pivotal.
“They saw the film and they were absolutely horrified. It was a turning point. They saw themselves in a situation of mob rule. And they couldn’t believe that as leaders and diplomats. But it allowed them to go on and discuss how these situations arise, what to do when you have mob rule. That’s why we record it.”
The tasks set are customised, unique to the students of that day. Rathouse insists that no two days have ever been the same, which only makes the job more fun.
“We have so many different permutations of it,” she says. “Sometimes they’re totally dysfunctional, they’ve got a problem. And they need sorting out. So they’ll work with the organisational psychologist who will identify what they need, and then they will come and chat to me. Sometimes when they’re really being terrible I say ‘my god I’m pleased I’m not a client at this bank!’.”
She gives the example of a group of lawyers sent to Cookery School.
The team had a natural leader, whom the rest were excessively dependent on, running everything past her, seemingly incapable of making their own decisions.
“So we gave them a complex task to do. But we gave her a very complex task. We told her that she had to make chocolates to eat with coffee, but we expect her to make chocolate rochers, chocolate discs, and chocolate truffles. Which meant that she had to learn make a ganache, and she had to learn to temper – if you don’t temper properly your chocolate doesn’t work.
“She was taken away, and she was so involved in the task that if they came over she would send them away – ‘I’m busy!’. We made her unavailable, and it was really interesting, because they started making decisions without her. And they could see the lesson from that.”
Rathouse’s interview was probably the longest I’ve ever done, but didn’t really feel like an interview at all. For nearly two absorbing hours we sat, drinking silky black coffee with a sepia crema.
One thing we discussed at length, that is perhaps overshadowed by her team-building expertise, is the ecological credentials of Cookery School. It is in fact, the most sustainable of its trade in the UK.
“Everything we cook is organic: we use only organic meat, all that fish is local. We don’t use plastic at all. All the energy we use is regenerated and about 90 per cent of the stuff is recycled. You’ve got to leave the world a better place than you found it.”
The world needs more Rosalind Rathouses.
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.