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Top chefs' secret weapon; Millions love her cooking but, chances are, you've never heard of Jill Weatherburn. JANE HALL meets the woman who helps to bring the recipes of food companies and celebrity chefs to life.


DON'T say it too loud, but Jill Weatherburn spent a recent weekend with the BBC's handsome Saturday Kitchen host James Martin.

The married mother-of-two was with the celebrity cook in his hometown of Malton, North Yorkshire, where he is executive chef at The Talbot Hotel.

It wasn't the first time Jill had been lured from her home in Low Fell, Gateshead, by the TV cook and Strictly Come Dancing star.

Nothing untoward, of course. The liaisons, approved by husband Ken and children Nina and Finn, are because Jill is the person often called on by celebrity chefs to help bring their TV and other live cooking ideas to flavoursome fruition. If they want their panna cotta to look pleasing, meat mouth-watering and desserts delectable, they turn to Jill.

So it was that the 50-year-old found herself working alongside James, sourcing and preparing ingredients, sorting utensils and even preparing some of the food in classic Blue Peter "here's one I made earlier" style for a cookery demonstration.

It can be a tough assignment.

Chefs under stress are not always easy to work with. But James Martin obviously appreciates Jill's skills, commitment and clear-headedness in the kitchen as he has chosen to work with her on many occasions.

Likewise, Jill speaks highly of James and his down-to-earth attitude. She recalls a shareholder dinner for a small Yorkshire-based company she helped to cook for in Bridlington, where James made a point of chatting to the guests as each course was served. Afterwards, Jill and James popped out for fish and chips. James was mobbed by (mostly female) admirers, but took it all in good grace.

"He is such a nice man to work with," Jill says. "He's not just friendly, likeable and good-looking, he also happens to be a very good chef and his recipes are always well thought-out and delicious, too.

"It's nice being able to say, 'I'm just back from spending the weekend with James Martin!'."

But working with high-profile cooks such as Martin, Mary Berry, Gino, Paul Rankin, Ainsley Harriott, Rachel Allen, Jean-Christophe Novelli, Brian Turner and Lesley Waters is just a small part of Jill's exciting, if tiring, job. A career home economist (an area of expertise dropped from the school curriculum), she is also recipe developer and tester, food stylist, teacher and demonstrator. As well as TV chefs, her clients include some of the world's biggest brands, including Homepride, Hovis, Premier Foods and Sharwoods. Self-employed for the past eight years, she built her business up from two or three days work to "not having enough time to do everything". No two days are ever the same as Jill juggles photoshoots (many in her own dining room), visits to schools, food festivals and TV work, such as making sure recipes are camera-ready for TV commercials, and shows such as The Hairy Bikers Come Home.

Jill even tests kitchen appliances and foods for companies, including Lakeland. There is no room for the car in the garage, which has been converted into a mini-kitchen and preparation area. Jars of dried ingredients and spices line the shelves, while food samples are stacked in boxes and cupboards. There's even a retro SMEG fridge. By comparison, the domestic kitchen with its ultra-modern Neff appliances is immaculate. "I've got a thing about keeping the kitchen clean and tidy," Jill says. "It has to be spotless." As long as she can remember, Jill has loved cooking. It was her grandmother who first inspired her. Jill says: "I stayed with her for a little while when I was younger and she made a lot of things like teacakes and bread and traditional dishes. I never actually cooked with her but I would watch her a lot. There were three kids in the family and we used to fight to see who would go over From 25 to hers for Sunday lunch, as she couldn't take all of us. "Then, when I started secondary school, I loved home economics. I did it at both O and A level and knew I wanted to do something with cooking. "At first, I thought I wanted to teach it, and actually got on the home economics cookery teaching course at what was Sheffield Poly. But then I changed to the three-year home economics course at the last minute."

After graduating, Jill joined British Gas on a work placement in the Rotherham area and visited schools and WIs. But home economists were becoming a thing of the past. "There weren't the opportunities," she says. "Those there were meant travelling to head offices which were all in the South." Instead, Jill landed a job in Sunderland, teaching adults with learning disabilities skills such as cooking and housekeeping. She then moved to RHM (Rank Hovis McDougall), covering the North East, Scotland and, bizarrely, the Channel Islands. She describes it as her "first proper home economist job", developing recipes, doing product training and running cookery demonstrations. After marrying Ken, a property investor, she went to work for Gateshead Council. On the death of her father, Jill decided to return to what she had trained for - home economics. Going freelance coincided with a renewed interest in the field, spurred partly by the economic downturn pushing people back into the kitchen. While the South seems to be the favoured stamping ground for freelance home economists, Jill maintains things are slowly changing as the internet and other advances mean location is no longer an issue. She cites a recent food styling assignment she took on for Walkers Sunbites wholegrain crispy snacks, where the photos were taken in her home "and the images whizzed over on email just a few hours later". That job also involved a notable recipe challenge. "I had to come up with 36 recipes using crisps. Using crisps isn't easy.

But in the end I came up with lasagne using crisps instead of pasta sheets and lamb with onion and rosemary Sunbites crushed on top." Every recipe must be tried and tested many times. Usually, Jill ropes in Nina, 15, Finn, 11, and other family members and neighbours. With a laugh, she admits she becomes very popular around these times. She recalls one incident "where one of Finn's friends came around for tea and we had a MasterChef recipe I was testing from one of the books. He was expecting chicken nuggets and instead he got venison". Not all Jill's cooking is highbrow, though. In a fit of nostalgia the other day she decided to bake a pineapple upside-down cake - a 1970s favourite - because she had a can of the fruit. As you would expect, she is good at making the most of food. "I always make sure I use everything. It's one of the things I do for The Co-operative and I am part of their Watch Your Waste campaign." With the food festival season just starting, Jill's workload is about to increase. But she wouldn't have it any other way. "The craziness comes in waves," she explains. The variety, the pressure and the unpredictability are what she loves about her job, and explain why she has stuck with it for the past eight years. Next time you watch a TV cookery show or celebrity chef demo, or try out a recipe, you'll know who's really in the kitchen. Chances are it'll be Jill. JILL'S KITCHEN TIPS

Invest in a small blowtorch and quickly heat the sides of your cheesecake tin. It'll ensure the cheesecake will come out with the sides beautifully smooth. ? I bought a potato ricer after watching James Martin demonstrating "perfect mashed potato". It always produces lump-free mash. ? Invest in good-quality knives and look after them well. I always hand wash my knives with a damp cloth, never immerse them in water and don't put them in the dish washer. ? I'm always on the lookout for great local suppliers, especially of fresh meat and fish. Talk to experts, such as Latimer's Seafood at Whitburn or Ridley's fish and Game in Acomb, for advice. ? I always use up leftovers. Here's a great tip for banana ice cream: cut over-ripe bananas into chunks, freeze them, then mix in a food processor with buttermilk, vanilla extract and sugar.


RECIPE FOR SUCCESS Chef Jill Weatherburn returned to her home economics training to build up a busy business working with the stars of cooking

BEHIND THE SCENES Jill with Ainsley Harriott, Mary Berry and working on a recent Harviestoun Brewery food styling shoot with photographer Brendan MacNeill, right
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 26, 2013
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