Gemma (@gemcwade) is a northern born mum of two who runs her own cooking school aimed at teaching busy working mums and dads how to incorporate quick, healthy home cooked meals into their schedules. She’s a Brit (now living in Cheshire) but has spent years in California teaching super busy tech mums at Apple, Google & Facebook.
Growing up in Manchester, Gemma cooked with her mother from a young age and recalls being influenced early on by her great grandmother and grandmothers style of cooking, which was “always delicious” and created “with little money but lots of love.” Gemma still uses some of her grandmother’s recipes today.
Now with two young children herself, Gemma knows first hand what it’s like to try to get a healthy meal on the table when you’ve got a million things to juggle. While living in Silicon Valley, California, Gemma turned her love of cooking into a career and launched ‘You Say Tomato’; cooking classes with the aim of teaching busy parents how to cook. Within 10 minutes her first class had sold out, as did subsequent classes, with word spreading through Silicon Valley of ‘the English girl who can cook.’ Moving back to the UK in 2015 with her husband and two sons, Gemma launched ‘You Say Tomato’ for busy Brits and has since been invited to cook on stage at various UK food events such as CarFest (BBC Children in Need) & The Great British Food Festival. She continues to work with her clients in California, traveling back twice a year to host classes.
We caught up with Gemma to find out about how her Northern roots have influenced her culinary journey from Manchester all the way to the West Coast and back again.
What do you remember most about food growing up in Manchester?
The food of Manchester made me. It gave me the grounding for all I cook now. I never really saw the food we ate as an outsider would. It was just food, always there and the same things that had been cooked for years. The simple recipes made by my family didn’t come from recipe books. They came from using what they had – in our case beautiful produce from the farms around Lancashire. In a time before it became fashionable to know about the terrior or field to fork, the food we ate came from the market where my grandma would have a chat with the butcher and the baker.
As a baby I was given the sticky bones from the shin beef stew to gnaw on in my high chair to keep me busy at mealtimes – no ipads then. There was lots of slow cooked meat with homemade gravy, a mark of the quality of which was if it would be sticky enough to make my dad’s moustache go stiff.
Pudding would usually be a pie, my favourite was the bilberry plate pie, filled with a jar of Polish Krakus bilberries in syrup (which she called winberries). The juice staining the pastry bright purple. The pie would be heavy with sugar because my wartime-raised grandparents couldn’t cope with food that was in their word ‘tarty’ (sour). My grandma used to give me an orange with a hole cut in top and a sugar lump shoved in. I’d suck the juice through the sugar because heaven forbid I ate something that wasn’t sweet.
Accompanying my grandma on her shopping trips was a regular part of my school holidays. I’d be rewarded with an iced bun and a potted meat teacake. Writing this it sounds a bit like I was brought up in the 1950s. But I was a child of the 80s. As I got older my mum added new foods to our repertoire – Delia’s sundried tomato pasta, crispy pancakes, Angel Delight, and the fancy puddings and starters she made for dinner parties.
The women in my family all worked, in factories and shops, so the recipes they made fit around the hours they were at home. Stews and soups could be started in the morning and left in the oven or slow cooker all day ensuring you’d return home to the smell of dinner. Even salads would be prepped and left on the side until teatime. Not something I’d recommend.
What things have most influenced your culinary education?
I started my last year at university, just as Jamie Oliver started The Naked Chef. He was my guide as I raided the local Indian grocers in Leeds for bunches of coriander, packets of spices, hands of ginger and cans of coconut milk. Food I’d never eaten before but which I fell in love with and cooked in our disgusting shared kitchen for my housemates.
These meals brought our little gang together in the same way the meals we’d eaten in our family homes did. I fell in love with the feeling of feeding people, and without knowing it, used loads of the tricks I’d observed as a child for stretching a budget and making things taste good – even though the ingredients and setting were so foreign.
Another big influence has been living in different areas of the UK and parts of the world. London gave me access to amazing new restaurants and was also a time that fancied up versions of the food my family made appeared on restaurant menus – shepherds pie and fish cakes at The Ivy, Eccles cakes and pigs cheeks at St. John. I’d spend days trawling Borough Market for ingredients and then come home and cook for hours, following recipes from Nigel and Nigella or the River Café and Moro cookbooks, favoring the exotic and new.
California taught me about brightness in food and allowed me to explore new flavours and ingredients. Travel had always inspired me but this time I was living in the foreign place, not just visiting. We had grapefruit, lemon and orange trees in the back yard of our rental bungalow and I started using them with abandon. I dipped my toe into clean eating and very swiftly pulled it out. Menus were lists of ingredients rather than descriptions and the source of the ingredients was always mentioned. Being foreign worked to my greedy and nosey advantage. So did the fact that so many restaurants there have seats for eating at the bar. I’d quiz chefs and bartenders about what went into our order and learned so much about what ingredients to use. My phone notes filling with lists of things to cook at home.
What bought you back to your Northern food roots?
Having spent most of my early adult years cooking food that took me as far away from home as possible – Thai curries, tagines and homemade pesto, it wasn’t until I moved to California with a one year old and another one on the way that I sought the comfort of home and started to cook the food I’d grown up with. Nothing transports you home like the smell of something familiar wafting out of an unfamiliar kitchen. I wanted my boys to know the tastes that I’d grown up with and I needed the cuddle that food could give me when my mum couldn’t. My English friends still tease me about the emails I sent those early weeks lamenting the fact that I couldn’t find proper cheese or sausages.
What was the biggest change to your cooking after having children?
My time in California coincided with the birth of my youngest son and my eldest son’s toddler years. That brought new challenges to what to cook. Early on I decided, on my mum’s advice, to only cook one meal a night and give them what we were eating – mashed with a fork or cut into bits their squidgy little fists could manage. We cooked with a bit less, but still some, spice and learned how to cook meals that would work for their early and our late dinner times, adding the extra heat or salady crunch that they weren’t keen on to our servings.
Life with older children and more hours at work is hectic in different ways, so the food I cook reflects that. Sometimes we only have a 30minute turnaround between school and swimming, or getting in and bedtime, so I’ve created recipes and tricks that mean we can still eat a real meal. We still stick to one meal for the whole family and my boys eat pretty much everything, most days at least.
How would you describe your food now?
People always ask me and I struggle to find a label. My food always has guts, a northern girl needs deep flavour and a bit of bulk. But those guts are brightened with finishing touches that don’t take much time but transform the meal into something that tastes balanced and interesting. I’ll always add some crunch to something soft, salt to something sweet and acidity to pretty much everything. Chefs know this, but most home cooks don’t. I know that because I see the ‘aha’ moment in my classes and get the messages when people cook recipes from my site.
More than what my food tastes like, I’m proud that my food is real food for real life. I know that my recipes work for people who never call themselves foodies but who need to get food on the table each night. They may not enjoy cooking but once they have some basic tricks shown to them, the time spent in the shop and the kitchen is rewarded with food that tastes better than anything they’ve made before. There is nothing like knowing that you’ll see someone in front of you in a class the next week to make sure you check and triple check the quantities and descriptions in the recipes you share.
What should people expect from your cooking classes?
Unlike most chef-led cooking classes, mine are designed around the reality of home cooking, having taught for so long, I have a good understanding of the areas that people are more nervous about. I teach in my kitchen in Wilmslow, all around the UK and in California. Whatever the venue, the classes are always packed with information, stories, laughter and delicious food. In 3 hours I’ll either make a full menu of cocktail, starter, main, sides and pud, or I’ll make 3 mains – all from scratch so my students see every detail including the crucial bits that are often overlooked elsewhere. Everyone that comes to a class has the chance to ask loads of questions and taste the food at every stage so that they get to grips with balancing flavours and textures. I serve small plates of everything I make throughout class so no one leaves hungry (that’s the northern girl in me).
Gemma’s website www.yousaytomatocooking.com hosts a whole range of delicious, speedy recipes, as well as offering online tutorials, tricks and tips into fitting family cooking around a busy lifestyle.
You can find Gemma here: