My best teacher

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Peter Startup had masses of curly grey hair and dressed in a Cornish smock, which was always covered in stone dust. He was different from anybody I had ever met

I went to lots of schools because my mother was a restless spirit, having lost her husband and another child in an accident before I was born, and she and I kept moving. Probably because of all these changes I didn't learn much at school, except how to add up. I was always top of the class in maths.

When I was about seven I went to Heron's Gyll in Horsham, Surrey, a small private girls' school run by a glamorous and eccentric headmistress who was very keen on the theatre. I can't remember her name, but she wore heavy perfume and tons of make-up, and her clothes were always very fashionable.

She had shoes with tassels on the ends and as she walked down the school corridors, accompanied by three or four spaniels, you could hear the sound of the tassels hitting the parquet floors. Everybody was terrified of her.

She had such a passion for theatrical productions, she should have been a theatre producer. I loved being a part of these wonderfully extravagant performances of Shakespeare, which were put on in the school's outdoor theatre, with its mown lawn stage. I was cast as one of Titania's handmaidens in A Midsummer Night's Dream and was in the chorus in Twelfth Night. Every child in the school was involved in some way; I was part of the design team and helped make the costumes. Then, one day in the summer holidays, a letter arrived to say that the school had gone broke.

I moved to Manor House in Effingham, another private girls' school, where we did eurythmics in little Greek dresses.

The teachers who were most influential were those I encountered in my teens at Guildford art school. Peter Startup taught me in my first year. He was eccentric and passionate, with an incredible knowledge of contemporary sculpture. He was a good sculptor himself and worked in the studio alongside the students. He made sculptures out of driftwood mainly. They were abstract, with a sense of vigour.

Peter looked like a sculptor. He had masses of curly grey hair and dressed in a Cornish smock, which was always covered in stone dust. He was different from anybody I had ever met. He encouraged us to be individuals and to use materials you might not think of, from a pile of nails or a piece of netting to a bale of hay or an old wooden box. I liked working with clay and stone carving but I went on to specialise in fine art. Even though I left sculpting behind, I remained friends with Peter and in my four years at the college we talked about everything.

When I took up painting I was taught by Peter's best friend, Len Stopani, an Italian who had been a prisoner of war. He didn't talk much about his background but we were told he was a brilliant forger who had made fake passports for escapees. He was enthusiastic about contemporary European painters, and he encouraged free expression. He was clever at teaching you all the techniques to do with the spectrum and how light works, and then he would open you up. He would take us to exhibitions and tell us to go to Paris to look at paintings. He was an intriguing man with long, floppy, greasy black hair and a hooked nose.

John Eatwell was a more general art teacher. He was tall, fair and rounded, a comfortable person to be with and a great carer of the students. I needed mothering; I was fairly unruly, a bit of a wild child. I did what I wanted at home and nobody supervised me or paid me much attention.

My mother taught me to cook and to be interested in food but this trio of teachers gave me confidence, taught me to read, to go to the cinema, what music to listen to, how to eat and what to drink and how to enjoy myself. I fell in love with them all. I took a degree in painting and then, following in their footsteps, I taught. I began teaching at Shoreditch comprehensive in east London, where I played Beatles records in the classroom. I only taught in school for a couple of years, but I teach every day at the River Cafe.

Chef and River Cafe owner Rose Gray was talking to Pamela Coleman


1939 Born in Bedford

1947-50 Heron's Gyll school, Surrey

1950-56 Manor House, Effingham

1956-60 Guildford School of Art

1961-63 Teaches art at Shoreditch comprehensive, east London

1963-81 Designs paper lampshades, sold through Habitat, and imports French cookers

1981-84 Goes to Italy to learn to cook

1985-86 Works as a chef in New York

1987 Opens River Cafe with Ruth Rogers in Hammersmith, west London. Later trainees include a young Jamie Oliver

1995 First River Cafe Cook Book published

1998 Channel 4 series The Italian Kitchen

2004 Sets up Cooks in Schools charity to improve school meals

October 20 Launch of website,

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