So – last year I went to culinary school and gained my Cordon Bleu Diploma – a big and long awaited move. The experience was amazing, the financial situation I am now in, not so amazing. Whatever, I knew the implications when I started out, and believe me it was no overnight decision. More one that brewed for years so making that final step to take the plunge was hard, really bloody tough. I had a career, and my family did their absolute best to talk me out of making, and I quote, ‘the biggest mistake of your life’. So here’s the boring background. (It’s really not boring to me, it’s how I am where I am, but it is essentially a standard Devonshire girls upbringing…)
So…. I went to a grammar school in Devon, the type that made it seem university was the only option to obtain a respectable career, as a Doctor, or a Lawyer. Apprenticehips, the hospitality industry, music and arts were not looked on so favourably at that time. Thank goodness things looked to have changed. No one ever sat us down and asked what our passions were. I mean, if I had thought about it, I woud have clearly identified a life long obsession with food, drink and eating. I just didn’t know I could carve a career from basic indulgence. I mean, I knew I always wanted to have a restaurant, but I didn’t quite think I could get that through working as a chef, I thought I needed money first, which I would get from a ‘proper’ job. Well, the money thing hasn’t changed but I do at least feel I have grown up a little and had my eyes opened to various means to an end. I also learnt that you most certainly DO need to work in the kitchen to get better and to understand the industry. A constantly evolving industry. I do believe you can do whatever you set yourself out to achieve, you just have to take that first step, then the second, and stick to your goal. Don’t cave! I spent enough time thinking I should be doing what other people thought I should be doing, and always thinking the grass was greener. Now I know, I have finally learnt to be true to myself. It’s refreshing, because even if you suck at earning a great salary right now, it will pay off eventually. James Knappett, Head Chef / Owner of Bubble Dogs and The Kitchen Table sent me a message just yesterday, saying ‘Remember - great chefs work in kitchens, the pay eventually comes’. Now, I don’t have the best relationship with James Knappett so don’t let that message fool you into thinking we are friends. He offered me a trial at his restaurant, The Kitchen Table, and then I cancelled and then asked for it again, and then cancelled again due to circumstances. It was great advice though.
Anyway, I got sidetracked. Colyton Grammar didn’t encourage students to pursue routes outside of university. As I said, they wanted Doctors and they wanted Lawyers. So the prospect of entering the food industry back then was unthinkable. Despite the fact I had been working in food and hospitality since the age of 12, I knew I had to go to university and get a degree. There really was no other choice at the time. What to study though…. That was the question. After acceptance and a brief dalliance with the idea of studying Law, following a careers guidance session, I attended a taster weekend at Nottingham University. No way, I realised, was I about to embark on a degree in Law – too boring for words. You gots to be studious on simply another level to do Law and I knew that wasn't me. I therefore concluded I would go to University to study something more scintillating to me, and convert to Law afterwards, a very viable option that pleased those around me, including the parentals. I liked History at the time, Art, and English Literature, so it seemed logical to choose History of Art at Oxford Brookes University. History of Art transpired to be a wishy washy course where credits were made up through a random selection of additional modules such as Anthropology and Renaissance Literature, though interesting at the time it was not justifying any rationale to remain there. A feeling not helped by those studious types attending the real Oxford University referring to us plebs as the ‘ELC’. The Early Learning Centre. It was a brush I was not willing to be tarred with at that precious and affected stage of my life. Thus upon realising the course was probably a chronic waste of my time I transferred to Cardiff University to study History and Politics, a much better idea. I worked the whole way through university at the local Mercure Hotel in Conference & Banqueting to pay my way. It worked and kept me in the industry I would ultimately end up in. Back then I recall telling my then boyfriend and his father about my ambitions to one day run a restaurant, to have a restaurant serving great food with a sideline blues bar where one could procure some tasty snacks and a tonne of booze. As I said, I had always loved eating, drinking and blues music, the dream made sense, I just had no practical vision of achieving it. Me and my buddy Blackie would have lots of chats about this little vision that would happen well into the future, it was aspirational. I never felt it was viable to pursue that ambition through kitchens, I felt I would earn the money and turn to it later in life. How naïve when I look back at that idea now…. So the Ex’s Father Geoff sent me to work in a meat packing factory; ‘got to learn from the shop floor up’ he said in his thick Middlesex accent. Fucking great idea, that was. I lasted precisely 4 hours. I won’t go into why, and it’s not because I’m lazy, it was one of the worst work places I have ever seen. Nice time though, nice time to work out I did NOT need to work from the shop floor up.
When I graduated in 2008, the onset of the financial crisis, I had no clue what to do, I wanted to work on a yacht more than anything but I couldn’t afford the course to do it, at £1000 it was more than I could earn in one month in Cardiff. It wasn’t happening. So I temped, at a construction firm in Llantrisant in Wales, in the middle of nowhere or so it seemed to me. I got offered an apprenticeship to become a QS, which was laughable really as Maths was really never my forte. Ask my friend Emma, she will testify to that. Or Mr Bibby. (Who I once accused of being a giant dildo because the aforementioned Emma told me to, encouraging me because it was funny. Obviously I didn't know what a dildo was and was understandably mortified.) I got better at Maths though and drawing was ok and I was able to learn, up until the offer was retracted due to the financial situation. So I wangled my way into the nearest Law Firm on an initiative they were working on to get university graduates into paralegal type roles. I worked in a defendant personal injury position there learning the trade, before being taking over by a much bigger Law Firm called Beachcroft, I again wangled a transfer to Bristol where I worked in Commercial Property. Needless to say, I didn’t last long. After a year and a half in a legal capacity I sacked it in to go on a ski season in Val D’Isere where I worked for Scott Dunn, a luxury chalet company. I loved it, I learnt to ski and worked alongside some really amazing chefs, it was inspiring to see what they were able to achieve at the top of a mountain. When the season ended, I managed to get myself a position on a superyacht for the summer season, in the Med. This is where I first got to cook for guests, for the owner had a chef coming but not until slightly later in the season. I cooked, simple healthy Mediterranean food, and I loved it. Mooring at ports along the Dalmatian Coast and seeking out whatever produce looked the nicest was incredible. Produce that I hadn’t even seen before, but was able to speak to the traders, find out what to do and then take it back and prepare it. I was excited, and it was therefore after this that I realised my determination to pursue a career in cooking. I returned to England and prepared to sign up for the cooking course at Ashburton School of Cookery in Devon, when Mother intervened and somehow persuaded me to look for a temporary job in London to pay the bills and save some money to pay for the course – encouragement for one last attempt at a ‘proper’ job. So I did, I found myself a job interview for a position in a property company in Knightsbridge within their refurbishment and design team, which appealed to my artsy sensibilities – there was lots of interior design to be dealt with and they liked my previous property background – and I was therefore happy to start on a decent salary as the team assistant. Within a month, the temp job had gone perm, I was spending time out on property sites and flicking through interior design mags, helping my boss pick lighting and furniture, and to top it off I was getting to visit the £20mil penthouse he was project managing. I was blindsided by excitement for the new job and I had a crush on my work colleague. I wasn’t going anywhere for now. Within a year, I had become the Refurbishment & Design Project Leader and then later the Project Manager. I did a diploma in my free time in Interior Design which was great. I knew I could one day use these skills to design my restaurant! But all along I had this nagging feeling, that I would regret not pursuing cooking as a full time profession and an all encompassing venture (adventure), it was always my one true passion and I wanted to know I should at least try to forge some real pride in that. So by the time my job was progressing in more of a surveying direction, over design, I snapped, it was the nail in the coffin and it thankfully prompted me to bite the bullet and pay the course deposit. Such a huge commitment financially; I was going to give up my well paid London job to go back to school. Any doubts or worries I had, of which there were many, were alleviated by the fact I had been moved to a god awful office in Putney, which made the last 8 months of my last job almost unbearable with the excitement of what I was going to be doing. I went and got myself a weekend job at Mark Hix’s Champagne and Oyster Bar in Selfridges and I was all set.
I proceeded to study and obtain my Cordon Bleu Diploma at Tante Marie Cookery School in Woking, a fantastic experience and I was chomping at the bit to get out into the real world, and in the meantime I had somehow persuaded restaurant Noma in Copenhagen to let me stage there for 3 months in 2014. I still am perplexed as to why they accepted my application given how many applications they receive each day, but for some reason they did and I am so grateful. An absurd prospect that the best restaurant in the world would let me in! I started my 3 months at Noma in April this year, at a point where they regained their position as the no 1 restaurant in the world. What an experience. I’m going to write a follow up post all about my Copenhagen experience so will bypass the finer details for now. To conclude, I'm back in London, having accepted a job at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, considered the 5th best restaurant in the world, which I start in September. I’m working for a prestigious events company in the pastry section for the whole of August, to earn my first paycheck since I quit my job what seems like a lifetime ago.
Kitchen life is hard, the hours are long and the people can be chronic assholes. Not to mention the pay. The pay is the biggest asshole of them all. But is there anything else I’d rather be doing? No way. I set myself the challenge of learning from the best kitchens, alongside starting my own sideline ventures, which I’m working on, and then in a few, or maybe several years time, hopefully I can open up a restaurant of my very own. It’s no overnight dream, but one day, I believe it will happen.