This time of year always makes me have butterflies and a sense of excitement about the new year starting. The academic year that is. Why? Because it was this time in 2002 I began my Diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine. The excitement of it all was overwhelming. I was a) leaving a dullsville job that I hated and b) enrolling on a life-changing year of food, food, more food and a bit of wine.
Are you ready?
Maybe you’re thinking about doing the same as the 24-year-old me. I’m not one to stir up trouble, but I’d say go for it – if you’re sure it’s what you want. The cost in both time and money is too high not to be totally committed and focussed on a career once you’re out the other side.
Choosing where to go
I chose Leiths because it seemed like the best fit for me; informal yet professional, and its previous alumni had achieved impressive things since leaving. With a diploma under my belt I knew I’d be fully equipped to hold my own in a magazine test kitchen or when assisting for a photoshoot. Pay a few schools a visit and see if they feel right for you. Ask them what last year’s students are doing now.
As soon as term started, I realised this was my heaven, a place to geek off on food all day long, practice and learn a real craft and meet some of my lifelong friends. Contemporary cooking restaurant-style has moved on a lot since then, but key skills are still at the core what happens in most kitchens both professional and at home.
Still up for it? Here are a few words of wisdom from someone who’s been there:
Learning as an adult is so much fun
I was interested, engaged, and spending my own (and plenty of the bank’s) money on this venture. I wanted to do homework and practice, and was totally into the subject. A very different story to how I felt at college and university.
…but prepare to work hard
During the first week, a voice from the back of the hall muttered to their neighbour ‘I thought we’d be doing a spot of cooking, taking lunch and perhaps leaving early.’ Fraid not. A school like Leiths (and there are others) is there to prepare you for the commercial kitchen. There’s standing for long periods, pressure and competition. You’ll be there full time, and be tired, frustrated and challenged in a totally new way. But you’ll also be elated and have the best fun of your life. The day we did fondant and candy making I thought I may have died and gone to heaven.
Forget what you know (or most of it)
The first term was a bit like boot camp. We thought we could cook, my fellow rookies and I. We’d got our new supersafe shoes, knife rolls and chef’s whites and we were ready to stuff that quail.
But in the first term of cookery school it turned out I need to unlearn what I knew, and get to grips with classical methods and techniques. It’s quite a leveller, making a white sauce again and again, or simply cooking an omelette to order. Despite being a confident cook, I felt like a beginner. Was a beginner. If you are a career changer and used to being top of the tree, this can take a bit of adjustment!
Supplement your income if you can
There’s no guaranteed job at the end of cookery school, so it’s best to keep it real and earn at least something while you can. I looked for a no-brainer job that didn’t sap my energy for the day ahead, and that was near to home.
I worked three shifts a week, every Saturday and alternate Sundays at my local supermarket canteen. It was the total antithesis to high end cooking, but the hours worked around school and that was the most important thing.
I wasn’t looking to work in a restaurant afterwards, but instead focused any spare time on building a portfolio of recipe ideas, practicing writing recipes and also doing work experience here and there to make contacts in the publishing world. One financial bonus? You get lots of food to take home for the evening – which means savings on your food bill. Saying that…
Don’t eat everything you cook
If your cookery school curriculum is based on classic (i.e. French) cookery, you’re going to be cooking some rich old recipes – day in day out. Cream and cheese oozed into most recipes in my classes, and butter was in almost everything. I was soon a good 14lb heavier (it was winter, I was in stretchy chef’s trousers… OK there was really no excuse). But you try resisting hand-made crab ravioli and herb crusted lamb on a daily basis. In the third term I picked up the exercise and stopped being quite such a hoover.
Network and focus on the future
You may be a student but it’s never too soon to reach out and start making contacts. A good school will have plenty of industry knowledge and access to people who can help you get to where you want to be. I did work experience placements during every holiday, working with stylists and on editorial desks. This was invaluable, and I’m sure what enabled me to land paid work from the first day after graduation.