Love food but not sure where to go from there? Consider a career in the food industry – from apprenticeships to food journalism to writing recipe books, we spoke to four people who love their food so much they’ve made a career out of it.
You have a readymade, watertight reference-for-life: “The people who train you know better than anyone what your abilities are, so they can recommend you to those they know you’ll work well with,” Jasmin says. “I’ve only been out of the apprenticeship scheme for about nine months and am working in a great place that’s perfect for me because I love working with fresh ingredients.”
If you’re damn good, you will never be out of work: “I’ve worked in cocktails bars, clubs and restaurants, but it’s such a hire and fire industry. I was turning 22 when I started the course and decided to pull my finger out because I didn’t want to end up in a dead end job,” she said. “Now I have this skill I’ll never be unemployed ever again.”
By doing an apprenticeship, you’re going to find out pretty quickly if this is the profession for you. “A lot of young people have no idea what this kind of job entails,” says Jasmin. “It’s hard, so don’t take this as an easy way out… but we are in serious demand. Some people really benefit from the responsibility and the importance of doing a good job.” Like the others who completed the Fifteen apprenticeship, Jasmin is someone who needs to be pushed and responds well to pressure.
If it’s what you want to do, then it’s the best job in the world with so many possibilities. “I never watch the clock,” she says. “I love where I’m working; I’m very produce-based and quality is very important to me so I sought out what restaurants were using fresh proper British produce.” Whether you want to work with hearty grub or high-end, delicate gastronomy then it’s a matter of targeting the restaurants. Those who trained you during the apprenticeship are your human-shaped CVs; it’s up to you to impress them during the course and then reap the rewards: “Because they invested so much time and money in us, it’s in their best interest to look after us!”
Tips for getting an apprenticeship:
Aim high. “Know where you want to go and push it,” she advises. “Choose the ultimate restaurant that does the sort of food you’re interested in and don’t stop until you’ve got there.”
Know that it’s not just about cooking so educate yourself on flavour, taste and seasonality. “An education in food and an interest in the industry itself is crucial,” she says. “Seasonality and understanding your own taste buds are real skills; most people don’t know what they’re tasting.”
Have prior experience. Jasmin worked in kitchens, both front of house and in the kitchen itself, for years before realising that was what she wanted to do. “It’s important to appreciate the other side and to understand the workings of all areas of the restaurant.” The fact she’d worked for so many years also demonstrated a dedication and an ability to really work hard. As a chef, you’re going to have to put the hours in.
Know your food. “I’ve got a large understanding of food and food from other countries,” she says. “Eat a wide range of food and experiment with things; that’s something you definitely have to be aware of.”
Nathan, 23, started his food career as a pot washer aged 16. He is now chef-de-partie at The Delaunay in Covent Garden, London.
Get into a kitchen as soon as possible, and stay there. Nathan did his NVQ Level 2, but it was a weekend kitchen assistant job that really boosted his CV. “I really think you just need to get into the kitchen – you can’t learn better than being on the job,” he says. “People don’t tend to look at qualifications, they look at experience and how long you’ve been doing it for.” Job-hopping doesn’t go down so well either: “If your CV shows that you only stay in jobs for a few months at a time they won’t hire you because people want loyalty.” So working your way up through the ranks of a kitchen is a lot better than skipping from place to place.
The bigger your range, the more employable you are. Sure, you might like pasta – but always be open to new things. “I love Italian food, but am pretty open,” says Nathan. “I work in a Scandinavian restaurant; the more range you have the better because you’re going to appeal to a lot more people.” He also went travelling and worked in restaurants in New Zealand, which helps him to keep a sense of perspective while on the hectic London restaurant scene – a great quality, especially if you hope to one day become head chef. “I’d recommend working in other countries; you get to see different ways to run kitchens. For instance, it’s really relaxed in New Zealand and a lot of it is about the experience, the fun. London is about the food and the money. It’s more traditional over there and less uptight.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of people skills. If you want to rise up the ranks, you’re going to need to manage a team. Nathan works with around 70 chefs in The Delaunay, all overseen by the head chef. “I want to learn about management,” he says. “The Delaunay is renowned for it, so it’s good to get that experience under your belt. Working at a good, well-managed restaurant with a lot of staff is great experience – I can do the cooking but, at the end of the day, the money is in management. Unless of course you’re the best chef in the world, then you don’t really need to know how to manage people.” Quite, just look at Gordon Ramsay.
It’s a small world and people talk. Yes, those who invested time and money into you via an apprenticeship are going to want you to do well. But so are the chefs you’ve assisted while on the job. “It’s a small community, so never burn bridges. They’ll connect you to their friends,” says Nathan, “so networking is a big thing in the kitchen.”
Don’t get comfortable. There’s no point working in a restaurant that bores you, cooking dishes you could do blindfolded: “You’ve got to really push yourself. Don’t go for the easy jobs. Whenever you feel comfortable, that’s when you know you need to move on. Aim high. At 30, I want to be sous chef of a high-end restaurant.”
Think outside the ‘restaurant critic’ box. “There are a dozen restaurant reviewers in the UK at the moment and they’ll have the market cornered for a long time to come. There’s a gap for good food writing that’s not about reviewing – you might as well start a blog if you’re just a critic and be done with it.” Instead he suggests thinking about the whole experience surrounding food: “Reviewing is really hard – it’s difficult to keep it fresh and entertaining. Starting out reviewing means you would be burning yourself out quite quickly and full marks to anyone who does it,” he says. Some of the subjects Fire and Knives have covered include an eerily prescient horsemeat feature by Felicity Cloake and a piece about how cous cous was integral to the French economy. “There are people doing restaurant criticism, wine, celebrity and recipes a lot better than us so the idea is that we take everything except those things,” he explains. “There’s a tremendous amount of stuff.”
Network. Then network more. Then network even more. “I use Twitter a lot – every editor with commissioning power is on Twitter every day. You can find them, chat to them about something interesting, get involved in a discussion they’re having and find out what they want. Back in the day we used to hang out in the right bars in the hope of running into someone important but now it’s a lot easier.” His general rules for approaching editors on Twitter is to be honest about the whole thing and be friendly. If they ask a question, answer it, or if they start a hilarious food-based hashtag game, give the funniest suggestions.
Forums and message boards are also good ways to get your work seen. Tim would post succinct versions of posts he’d worked on for months when he found out editors were lurking around the communities trying to pick up feature ideas. “I guess now I’d do the same thing on a blog. I’d have them there, make sure they were damn good and, if someone important was talking about it on twitter, you can go ‘oh hey I wrote this on the subject!’ plus a link to the piece and then you’re in…”
Avoid cliché in your writing like the plague. (See what I did there?). There is, as Tim puts it, a “mad adjective frenzy” occurring in many writers’ copy at the moment, and it needs to be stamped out. “It’s difficult to do when you’re writing about something that’s entirely subjective. Proust didn’t ever manage it. Have as many interesting things to say around the actual experience of the food as possible, as opposed to just going on about the ‘creamy deliciousness of the dessert’ or the way the ‘lemon cuts through the richness’. Oh god I hate that. It’s bollocks.”
If you can cook, great. If not, don’t worry. “A lot of critics do their job very well – they write entertaining copy and are writers first and foremost. It doesn’t matter what they can do with a pan,” says Tim. “The reason I find criticising restaurants so difficult is because I’m also in the industry.” While eating at a wide and varied array of restaurants helps with criticism, there are so many other things to write about. “Read widely around the subject of food for feature ideas – I live in Cambridge and go to the uni library a lot. Food is relevant to everybody’s life and it always has been!”
Passion comes first. Ravinder comes from a foodie background, where her mum taught her everything she knew. “When I was five I got dragged into the kitchen and swapped my tricycle for a rolling pin,” she remembers. “I fell in love with it because there was so much encouragement; even when I burnt things my grandfather would always say how delicious it was.” She also started equating food with love: “If you cook, everyone will love you and you get all this praise!” It was this passion, rather than technical know-how, that saw her win The F Word and go on to secure a major book deal.
“You can learn the techniques, but you can’t learn passion,” she says, “I may be slow at chopping, but my relationship with flavour is a really personal one.”
Experiment. Being highly-trained can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing. “I think some chefs are afraid to have happy accidents in the kitchen,” she says. “Some of my most famous recipes came out of accidents. If you have a disaster, don’t go running from it – learn. The kitchen is a safe space!” One such happy accident was her prawn toast scotch egg that came about when she didn’t have any pork or breadcrumbs: “Instead of pork, I made a prawn toast filling and put it around a soft boiled egg with blitzed up prawn crackers for breadcrumbs.” Yum.
Be unique and stay true to your values. After Ravinder won The F word, she got calls from agents wanting her to write a book. “I remember taking in my scrappy little manuscript to one of the agents and she looked at it and she said ‘Oh my god, no-one’s written a book like this.’” Rather than your average cookbook, hers mixes fashion and general lifestyle with the food. It focuses on the experience around eating, just as much as the actual meals, snacks and puddings. “At the time I don’t think anyone had written for 20-somethings who like fashion but love to eat,” she says. “It’s tongue-in-cheek and playful. I’m saying ‘hey I’m not a chef – I break my meringues’ which, as I’ve said before, is the beauty of cooking.”
Get experience in kitchens. “So many people I’ve met haven’t been formally trained, so start at the bottom and work your way up, learn and absorb as much as possible,” she advises. Assisting in kitchens is essential to deepen your understanding of the industry – and, if you’re enthusiastic, it won’t be long before you’re rising up the ranks. “It’s not about grades, it’s about passion. If you have that passion and you’re willing to work hard, you’ll do well. And fast.”
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