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Better by nature

Words by Hannah Tapping

A professional rugby-player-turned-chef puts food at the fore in a bid to educate and impact.

Every single one of us eats; but could we be eating better and what does better actually mean? Better tasting food? Meals that are better for our health? Better value for money? Food that is better for the environment? Rupert Cooper is a chef trying to help people to eat better in all of those ways.

Rupert owns and runs Philleigh Way, one of Cornwall’s most popular and well-established cookery schools. A former professional rugby player with a love of food that went above and beyond the fuel/volume attitude of many of his contemporaries, Rupert made the transition to full time chef and teacher in 2018 after moving to Cornwall, his wife’s home county, to play for The Cornish Pirates. Philleigh Way’s original owners were on the verge of closing the cookery school’s doors for good, but it was just the opportunity that Rupert was looking for.

“I knew that I wanted to work with food after playing sport,” Rupert says “I’d been getting experience working in professional kitchens and ran a popular supper club in Nottingham where I’d been playing rugby, before moving to Cornwall. After moving down here there was no question of us leaving and the food scene is so rich. I was looking to take that onward step and inevitable career change, but I wasn’t expecting an opportunity that combines so many of my passions to come up. I get to cook, I get to share skills and knowledge with people, and I get to do it in a beautiful part of the world where we have some of the best ingredients on our doorstep. It’s so much more than simply feeding people, and I love it.”

Taking on a Cornish cookery school appears to have been a home-run hit for Rupert. Good chefs create beautiful plates of food and their appeal is largely in delivering something that most of us cannot produce at home.

Sharing a recipe and method is only part of the picture, though. What Rupert has the opportunity to do, and that he does so well, is to share not only the knowledge and tips that separate chefs from home cooks, but his bigger picture food ethos.

His aim is to make it easier for people to eat better food, in every way possible: “There are so many small, easy things that people could be doing,” he says. “What we eat every day is so important on so many levels. Health is in the headlines all the time, as is food poverty and the environmental impact of our food and diets. Sharing recipes that minimize food waste, and championing producers and ingredients that we need to be eating more of, has a real ripple effect.” This subtext becomes apparent when you look a little deeper at what Rupert is doing at Philleigh Way.

Over the last year he has worked to promote oysters, both as a low impact and sustainable seafood but also in an effort to help develop the domestic market for an industry so negatively impacted by Brexit (the cookery school also works with and is certified by the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide). Last summer he teamed up with Homage To The Bovine – local farmers with a focus on soil health (soil is a really important carbon sink) who raise grass-fed retired dairy cow beef – for a feast night celebrating their unique and forward thinking produce.

The cookery school’s blog and newsletter frequently features articles and recipes focused on topics such as food waste or on readily available ingredients that we should be eating more of, such as venison. “We all know that we need to be eating more plants, and considering our diets, but the reality can be complicated and nuanced,” he explains. “It doesn’t need to be a binary choice and shouldn’t be polarising. I’m really keen to try and bring people along for the ride and sow the seeds for small changes that can quickly add up. I have to be balanced because we offer courses in vegan cookery as well as butchery, sometimes with specialist guest tutors, and so the cookery school’s position needs to be spot on. But it really doesn’t need to be difficult or awkward. It’s as simple as encouraging whole-animal eating and selectively sourcing meat from the right producers, or promoting plant based options that utilise the locally-grown vegetables, fruits and salads that are abundant in-season, instead of using fake meat with a long list of imported ingredients.”

Over the last three years Rupert has worked tirelessly to grow the business and expand its offering. Taking on an established family business and running it single-handedly hasn’t been without its challenges, but one gets the impression that Rupert is used to this from his previous career, and his mindset hasn’t changed. Alongside traditionally popular cookery courses such as Cornish pasties, baking bread and fish and seafood, he offers courses in a huge range of cuisines from half-day courses in knife skills or understanding spices, through regional cuisine and on into fermenting, foraging, or full-day immersive Argentian asado experiences around the fire.

Rupert has developed strong relationships with many of the region’s top chefs and specialists, many of whom appear regularly on the Philleigh Way line-up as guest tutors:

“There are so many amazing chefs and food professionals here in the south west. Some of them are well known, some are rising stars, and some are unsung heroes. All of them have got some amazing skills and insights to share and it’s been so rewarding to have them lead specialist courses at the cookery school. I think their courses are worth the ticket price just to have them cook for you in such an intimate setting, let alone to learn from them.”

Alongside the cookery courses, Rupert took the obvious step of using his experience running supper clubs to expand Philleigh Way’s offering further to include pop-up feast nights, event catering and private dinners. However, being both an ‘experience’ business and in the hospitality sector, the effects of the pandemic posed a very real risk to everything that he’d achieved. “The industry went into panic overnight, and there were some real horror stories. Because I had quite a broad and unique offering as a cookery school my reaction could be broad too. I started putting together cook-at-home recipe kits and ready meals, and drove all over Cornwall delivering them during the first lockdown.

It was hard work, but our local community were so supportive. I wanted to be able to do something for our customers and community outside of Cornwall too though, so I published some menu plans and recipes on our blog and email newsletter, and trialed doing weekly cook-alongs on social media that then developed into online cookery courses. I also bought an old horsebox and my brother in law spent the summer of 2020 fitting that out into a food trailer for me. When the country locked down for the second and third times I had a plan in place and was ready to react. I was just doing whatever I could to ensure that the business would survive, but the online cookery courses and the food trailer are still active parts of our offering and are huge assets.”

Speaking with Rupert it is clear that he’s a natural communicator; he’s articulate, funny, and approachable despite his formidable height and build - attributes that have led to him hosting and cooking at many of the region’s leading food festivals over the last few years. He’s also an incredibly accomplished and knowledgeable chef, who’s found a new vocation where those skills intersect.

The career change he took is quite extreme, but both are linked by one common thread: impact. The impact that he’s able to make now through Philleigh Way cookery school is subtle, but the positive effects of eating better are important to him. “The core of Philleigh Way has and always will be the courses at the cookery school,” Rupert concludes. “I love the energy of a room full of people and the smell when everyone is cooking. And the more successful I can make the cookery school, the more I’m able to share beyond these four walls, which is really exciting.”

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