The celebrity chef and media personality, Rosemary Shrager, tells Trevor Sturgess about the crucial role IoD Kent played in teaming her up with a business partner.
"I’m no media star" insists Rosemary Shrager, but that’s hard to believe when, on the day we meet, a camera crew is following her around her professional kitchen and Patisserie in the Pantiles, Tunbridge Wells.
When this larger-than-life chef is in demand for umpteen television shows from The Real Marigold Hotel to The Great British Bake-off, An Extra Slice and Chopping Block,
Rosemary exudes star quality. The media can’t get enough of an ebullient and bubbly lady who has captured the nation’s affections.
Few admirers of her culinary skills pay much attention to her ability as an entrepreneur. She likes the word, but is less comfortable with 'businesswoman'. “I can make things work but I’m not brilliant at the nitty-gritty,” she told me. “I’m not a paper person, more a people person. I have ideas.”
Her decision to set up a cookery school in Tunbridge Wells was risky. But she loved the setting. “It’s a brilliant place.” To head to Kent from Yorkshire to set up the Rosemary Shrager Cookery School was no easy decision. It involved substantial investment in state-of-the-art equipment in the kitchen where she works with professional chefs. More cash went into the spacious kitchen where amateurs and aspiring young chefs develop their skills.
Rosemary admits now that she took on too much financially. “It should have been step by step. But we did it and it worked. It was a massive learning curve.” The school did however, come 'close to the brink'. “I was feeling incredibly vulnerable and stressed,” she confessed. “The business model worked but there was an area that was not quite right. I didn’t have the infrastructure or funding. It needed more investment. I put in as much as I possibly could but I was looking for a partner.”
Enter 'matchmaker' Lesley Bennett, Kent branch manager of the Institute of Directors. Rosemary had agreed, albeit a little reluctantly, to play the celebrity role at Kent Choices Live, the show that helps young people learn more about careers. As an I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here contestant, she was deluged with youthful requests for selfies and autographs.
Rosemary had met Lesley and outlined her need for a business partner. Lesley knew a man who can help. She convinced Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, the entrepreneurial deputy principal and deputy CEO at the Hadlow Group of colleges and other ambitious projects, to attend the show and meet Rosemary.
For Rosemary, that first meeting felt like entering the Dragons’ Den. But they got on famously, and agreed that Rosemary and Hadlow should work together. “I’m really happy to be in partnership with them,” she said. “Mark is very entrepreneurial – we speak the same language. We’re like two peas in a pod". “I was interested in going with Hadlow because it‘s land-based – food from ground to oven and plate. Local sourcing is really important to me.”
Under the deal, Rosemary provides her facilities to NVQ3 and 4 student chefs and their tutors from West Kent and Ashford Colleges – both part of the Hadlow Group. In return for business and 'modest' financial support, Hadlow Group’s catering education status is enhanced.
“Hadlow is investing in the future which is more important to me than anything else. I’m excited because we can take this to a completely different level.”
Rosemary loves her life. Now in her sixties, she has become a national treasure, blessed, she says, with what she calls a “cooking gene” inherited from her grandmother.
Rosemary gave up a career in interior design at 32 to turn her hobby into a business. She has two children and four grandchildren. Suki, 10, is already an enthusiastic cook.
Rosemary is well connected. She knows telly chefs like John Torode and Kent’s Gregg Wallace from Master Chef, and Bake-off’s Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. “We meet on the circuit, at parties and events.”
She’s a natural in front of an audience or camera. “I always wanted to perform, to be an actress.” Rosemary will also be presenting her own national one-woman show in 2017.
Businesses like California Prunes, Mitsubishi Cars, Billington’s sugar and Tate & Lyle work with her as an ambassador.
She believes that while it’s demanding, catering is a great career for the young. “It’s an incredible opportunity for young people – cookery can take you anywhere in the world.”
Male-dominated it may be, but women who tough it out can succeed, although they have to be “twice as tough” as a man. She admits that when she gets upset, she swears.
Rosemary loves being in the Garden of England and hopes to become more involved in the county, perhaps with Produced in Kent and as a Kent Ambassador.
She is quick to praise IoD Kent for the introduction that transformed her business fortunes.
That contact led to Rosemary being the guest speaker at the IoD breakfast at the Kent County Show in July.
“Without the IoD, this would not be happening,” she said. “I have a lot to be grateful for – especially to Lesley.”
Rosemary may be approaching bus pass territory but don’t expect her to hang up her white chef’s coat any time soon. “From a marketing point of view, my job is to keep myself in the public eye. I am the business. Without me, I don’t think it would work. I’m going to go on until I drop. The Champagne will flow when I can sit back and say: we’ve done it.’”
She added with her wide characteristic smile: “With Hadlow’s support, I’m hoping we will become the best catering college in the country. That’s wonderful for Kent.”