Rosemary Shrager is distracted. “Sorry, I simply must check out the ratings,” she tells me with an apologetic smile, dabbing at her smart phone.
The call connects: “How did we do last night? Do you know yet? OK, send me a text on my mobile when you do… thanks.” Putting the phone on the table next to her, she returns her attention to the interview, glancing down at the screen from time to time as we talk.
What is getting the celebrity cook agitated? A new prime time TV show, launched by the BBC to rival Bake Off, which has been snapped up by Channel 4. The Great Family Cooking Showdown challenges families across the UK to produce dishes in a set time, or to a strict budget and Rosemary is an important ingredient in its success, judging the contestants with fellow chef Giorgio Locatelli.
Reviews have been mixed since the first episode aired on 15 August and Rosemary is keen to know where the show stands in the listings now that it’s been moved to a different slot on Thursdays, missing the direct conflict with Bake Off.
I’m visiting Rosemary in the light, modern kitchen of her cookery school in The Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells and, knowing that my time with her is short, I rattle off some questions about her upbringing (youngest child of company executive John Worlledge and his wife June, studied at Northwich School of Art and Design and Healtherley School of Fine Art, intending to become an interior designer).
She married barrister Michael Shrager and had two children, then set up a catering business, providing lunches for directors in the City. “I had always cooked,” she tells me, leaning across the table in her brown silk suit and crisp white blouse. “The problem is, I’m rather clumsy and I needed a butler to serve the meals I created. Luckily, they had one!”
- Rosemary played a scary headmistress in “The Girls of Hedsor Hall”, the American version of the UK’s popular “Ladette to Lady” series – produced by none other than Donald Trump for MTV! She shudders slightly remembering the experience, referring to him as “something else”, but refusing to divulge more
- Rosemary showed her mettle as a contestant in “I’m a Celebrity… get me out of here” in 2012 and has appeared on several other reality TV programmes, including Royal Upstairs Downstairs, in which she recreated dishes created for Queen Victoria
- She was one of a team of older celebrities who travelled to India to look at possible retirement living solutions in “The Real Marigold Hotel” in 2016. “I loved it,” she enthuses. “What an amazing country!”
At this point, the other person in the kitchen, entrepreneur Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, interrupts the conversation with “but, Rosemary you are an innovator!” and they laugh together. Mark has become Rosemary’s firm friend and business mentor since the cookery school faced a crisis last spring. They pooled their expertise – his as CEO of the Hadlow Group which offers professional training opportunities and acts as a bridge between young people and companies wanting to take on an apprentice.
Mark, dressed in dazzling white shirt and slim light trousers, explains how he met Rosemary at the Kent Choices Live show 2016. “I was late for the lunch and as I rushed in, I was met by Kent branch manager of the Institute of Directors Lesley Bennett, who told me ‘you’ve got to meet Rosemary, she’s in a bit of a state’. I didn’t know what to expect, but I agreed.”
What followed was Rosemary giving Mark a five-minute pitch on why her cookery school was a good idea and why she needed help to make it succeed.
It’s Rosemary’s turn to butt in now. The two are rather like a fast-talking double act, tumbling over each other’s sentences in their eagerness to get their message across.
“I was at rock bottom,” she admits. “I now see I had taken on too much at the school and it was draining me. I don’t often cry, but I was very close to tears that day. Thank heavens Mark agreed to listen to me and saw something worth investing his expertise in.”
The resulting partnership proved a turning point for the cookery school. Hadlow now offers apprenticeships at Rosemary’s school and provides a solid business backbone for the enterprise. It’s teamwork at its best and the two clearly very much enjoy the benefits of their work together.
“We are changing people’s lives,” says Mark enthusiastically. “Young people are getting an opportunity to work in the catering industry, with fantastic training and in wonderful surroundings.” Rosemary’s school has also diversified into providing a fine dining experience for members of the public, as well as running day schools in cookery.
The school has 15 apprentices and the plan is to double the number each year. A £350,000 turnover is predicted for 2017, with significant increases in the next few years. In business terms it is “washing its face” says Mark, who admits he “took a real gamble” in supporting Rosemary’s venture which she acknowledges was “a vision, the reality on paper was a nightmare” when she first met him.
“It was serendipity,” Rosemary says, flashing Mark her trademark smile. Their partnership continues to create a buzz in the catering business and they hope it will long continue.
Meanwhile, Rosemary is enormously busy with her TV and public appearances and attending the school as often as she can to check on her apprentices’ progress.
“We offer something unique here,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see my vision taking shape.”
Mark agrees, adding: “The Hadlow Group looked at the school and saw a fabulous opportunity. We went back to first principles and built Rosemary’s brand. A year on, her apprentices get a phenomenal experience and the business is on an even keel.”