Remarkable food for your freezer at COOK

Gary Jefferies

Based on Monson Road, COOK Tunbridge Wells specialises in frozen food that’s prepared by hand, using the same ingredients and techniques you would use at home. We hear more about how they’re bringing meals into the home that are as wholesome as they are quick, easy and convenient

Tell us the background of COOK and how it got started
COOK was set up by local entrepreneur Edward Perry and his friend Dale Penfold in 1997. Ed looked after the business side of things and Dale, an experienced chef, was in charge of the food. Their founding statement was: to COOK using the same ingredients and techniques a good cook would use at home, so everything looks and tastes homemade. We’ve stuck by this ever since, even though we’ve now got more than 85 shops nationwide.

Originally, getting the food to taste as good as homemade was a big challenge. One of the first recipes Dale made tasted so bad it made Ed cry. It wasn’t just the taste of the food, but the enormity of the challenge they’d taken on. But they persevered. Through trial and error and the odd explosion, Dale’s food got better and better and people started coming back for more.

The first shop – called Cakes & Casseroles back then – was in Farnham, Surrey. A few months later, we opened a second, small shop on Monson Road in Tunbridge Wells. Ed and Dale continue to lead the business, with Ed as CEO and Dale as chef director.

What about Tunbridge Wells appealed as a destination to set up a store?
The big appeal back in 1997 was that we knew Tunbridge Wells as a town and that Matt Hills, a school friend of Ed’s, was foolish enough to put in the money for the shop lease and agreed to run the shop. It’s fair to say that shop keeping proved not to be Matt’s calling in life, but he’s still at COOK, overseeing the commercial side of our food development. Over the years, the Tunbridge Wells community has been hugely supportive of COOK. This might be because it’s a town that generally appreciates good food and is also home to lots of people who like to entertain at home.

Talk us through some of your bestselling products
Our bestsellers have remained remarkably consistent over the years: Lasagne Al Forno, Classic Fish Pie, Beef Bourguignon and Lamb Tagine are usually at the top of the savoury dishes. Raspberry Pavlova has historically been our bestselling pud, although it’s been challenged recently by Chocolate & Salted Caramel Pavlova – it seems the British public simply can’t get enough of salted caramel. Our curries – both Indian and Thai – are also really popular because they often taste better than the local takeaway, are great value and you know exactly what’s gone into them.

COOK’s motto is ‘Remarkable food for your freezer’ – why this choice for a slogan?
We like the word ‘remarkable’ because it pretty much sums up how COOK has grown: through word of mouth, with customers remarking on how good our food is to their friends and family. Of course, the other sense in which the word ‘remarkable’ is used is to describe something that is genuinely exceptional, extraordinary or different, and that’s what we aspire to with our food.

People often can’t quite believe that a frozen ready meal can genuinely taste as good as homemade, if not better. Frozen food tends to have a bit of a bad reputation in the UK.

The irony is that freezing is nature’s way of preserving food; no nasty additives or preservatives are required, and it definitely cuts down on food waste too, as meals can be kept for much longer. We’ve been challenging the perception of frozen food since day one in terms of quality and taste.

As a company, COOK is big on its values – what are they and how are they realised?
We’re trying to redefine what it means to be a successful business, away from a narrow focus on profit, towards the idea that business should genuinely be a force for good in society. We’ve helped launch the B Corporation movement in the UK, a global community of companies committed to a better way of doing business. In the US, it includes businesses like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Patagonia, the clothing firm. Here in the UK, there are now 80 certified B Corps that have all passed a tough test to prove that they care about people and the planet, as well as profits. COOK was the first national retailer to become an official Living Wage employer last year and we were named recently as the 28th Best Company To Work For in the annual Sunday Times ranking.

Your founding principle is ‘to cook like you do at home’ – what makes your food stand out for home cooks and look and taste homemade?
Even good cooks sometimes fancy the night off, and that’s where we come in. As one wrote in to tell us: “I love cooking and that’s why I love COOK…good food cooked as I would.” The simple fact is that we don’t cut corners and are obsessive about the taste of our food. In many ways, we’re the ready meal company for people who don’t normally buy ready meals. People trust that when they buy our food, they’re buying the equivalent of a home-cooked meal, prepared by hand with the same care and attention to detail as they would put into it at home.

Are the ingredients used in your food sourced sustainably and responsibly?
We take sourcing of ingredients extremely seriously. Our goal is to establish long-term relationships with farmers and suppliers that are based on trust and transparency. We’ve been working really hard recently to build strong relationships with British farmers. For example, we now have just two farms from which we source all our free-range pork. While it’s time-consuming and expensive, we know this approach pays off. When the horsemeat scandal hit a few years ago, we were able to trace back all our beef to the farm, the field and the cow. And because we mince all our meat at the kitchen ourselves, we knew exactly what had gone into our Lasagne al Forno and Cottage Pie.

Where would you like to take COOK going forward?
Our new shop in Tunbridge Wells was really a bit of an experiment for COOK. It’s much bigger than our shops usually are, was a brand new design and had some new products we don’t stock anywhere else, such as frozen breakfast pastries and fresh bread, baked by the Lighthouse Bakery, who are based nearby in Bodiam. So far, the reception has been fantastic.

We also wanted to really promote the idea of a COOK shop as a hub for the local community, in particular through our Community Kitchen scheme, which gives local groups 30% off our food for community events, and also through donating both food and time to local causes. Among the local groups we’ve been working with are the YMCA and Chapter 1, a local charity that gives support to young people at risk, and also the Pickering Cancer Drop-In Centre. For the future, we hope that both sales from the shop and our community activities keep growing strongly.

4-6 Monson Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1ND
01892 523 840

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