An appetite for experience by Lara Lee Wood

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An appetite for experience by Lara Lee Wood

As the end of their Diploma training draws closer, the students are starting to consider their new careers. Lara shares the experience she's gained so far, including the benefit of occasionally working for free. Advanced Term, Week 3.

“We want you!” the internship advertisement read on Instagram. I headed to the Leiths List website for further information to find that the role was a 12 week internship for Sam Stern, the international bestselling author of seven cookbooks. 

The successful applicant would be creating 1-2 original recipes per week for Sam’s Huffington Post column and blog. They would also be responsible for styling and photographing those recipes as well as writing restaurant reviews. And then, the words that made me stop and think, “This role is unpaid.”

Why would anyone, ever want to work for free? 

The answer is fairly simple. It is a competitive industry out there and, while there is currently a skilled chef shortage, there are highly desirable roles in top restaurants or food media that require you to already have your foot in the door. Unpaid work experience will give you that opportunity and, if you make the most of it, a paid job offer might follow.

Leiths ensures that all of its students complete a minimum of three different work experiences during their time on the Diploma. There comes a point at which every Leiths student ponders what they will do after the course.  

In our first term, the end of the 9 month course felt so far away that the thought of ever having to work again didn’t really feel like a reality. Fast forward to the 3rd week of the final term and we find ourselves with a far clearer view of our ‘chef identities’. 

Our individual cooking styles have taken form, along with our likes and dislikes (turned vegetables, anyone?) and we are keen to gain work experience in fields that play to our strengths and interests. Leiths List helps us to gain that experience.

For those not in the know, Leiths List is the agency that enables Leiths students to find work experience and paid work during and after the Diploma. It is run by a lovely duo, Sarah and Alison, who advertise posts for roles ranging from private cheffing for a family abroad and stagiare (trainee) placements at top restaurants; to one off experiences working in food television, pop ups and supperclubs.

Sarah tells me that Sam’s last intern was hired by BBC Good Food following their time with him. Seeing that a role as a food writer for BBC Good Food is one of my dream jobs, I was compelled to apply.

After spending time beautifying my CV with artful photographs of my food journey and experience, Sam invited me to meet him for an interview. We had a chat about the role, his expectations and my ability and I was thankfully offered the role on the spot! My first task was to write and photograph a new recipe as his ghost writer by International Pancake Day.

I had less than a week to create, style, shoot and write my recipes. There were a lot of considerations to be made! 

I embarked on trips to art stores to buy coloured cardboard for backdrops, scavanged homeware sale items at TK MAXX and Zara Home, and set up the dining table in my bedroom (yes, my bedroom!) to give the finished dishes the best natural light possible. More importantly, there was creating the recipe. 

What should I pair with pancakes to make this interesting, unique and delicious? I thought back to some of my favourite food experiences. Deep fried ice cream at my local Chinese restaurant as a child sprang to mind. I absolutely love this dessert and the way it plays with textures and temperature, so it formed the foundation of my dish. 

Part of Sam’s brief for recipe writing for a wider public is that the recipe must be accessible and not too difficult for a home cook to make. This meant making the decision to use store-bought ice cream instead of whipping it up from scratch the Leiths way. 

The finished dish was a “’cheat’s’ Fried ice cream on pancakes with a gooey caramel sauce. The Instagram video of these pancakes received close to 4000 views and the Huffington Post column garnered a large number of readers. It felt pretty amazing to see my recipe being positively received by so many foodies out there.

8 weeks into the internship, and with 16 new original recipes under my belt, the process is beginning to feel more natural and the ideas and execution are coming more easily. Sam’s social media strategy is clever – posting a new recipe at 4pm GMT reaches his UK and US fans in at a sociable hour in both time zones. 

We plan new recipe releases on celebrated days. Examples include my Matcha tea and vanilla baked doughnuts for a green-themed St Patrick’s Day, and beautiful multi-coloured eclairs for Mother’s Day. 

Having a deadline to work towards has forced me, at least twice a week, to take the time to plan my food photoshoots - a process which has been invaluable. I’ve learnt that the public love food videos and that close ups of food always receives more social media attention. Artificial lighting will often make the food look less appetising and, unsurprisingly, desserts and guilty pleasure foods are always the most popular. Providing measurement conversions (from grams to ounces) ensures that we never alienate our readers and I triple check every recipe to make sure that there are no typos and no ingredients have been missed.

Unfortunately, time (or lack thereof) is not your friend during an internship. In between the long days at Leiths, the commute, homework, studying and assignments; I find little gaps in the day or weekend to do my work for Sam. This means researching the idea, cooking and testing the recipe, and then setting up my bedroom as the dining-room-cum-photography-studio it has now become. 

There is a strong risk of burning out but, with anything you want badly enough in life, you find the energy and you find the time. My best piece of advice for future culinary students is that you should know your limits and seek balance, but that it is worth investing the time to gain as much experience as possible. In doing so, you will have a better chance of finding a job that you truly love after finishing the course and you will be able to try your hand at brilliant roles that you may not have considered as  potential career paths before.

As part of my work experience, I have tried my hand at plating 500 + dishes on the pass for Taste of London, cooking pasta at Burro e Salvia, ironing Dan Barber’s shirt and setting up the kitchen as a runner for television programme Saturday Kitchen, product development of canapes for a frozen food company and working as a teaching assistant at the School of Wok. I have a stage placement with The Fat Duck scheduled in May and a month with The Ledbury following the diploma in July.

Lara with Angela Hartnett and Nathan Outlaw

In less than 2 months we will all be graduates, looking for our first jobs in our new lives. I know that I adore food writing and styling and I’m inspired by the delicate beauty of menus at fine dining restaurants – it gives me comfort knowing that I will have experience in both of these fields by the end of the course. I still don’t know what my future career will be, but the investment in gaining work experience has been a great guide so far. 

By Lara Lee Wood

Instagram: @LaraLeeEats / Twitter: @LaraLeeLondon / YouTube: LaraLeeEats

Sam Stern: Instagram / Website

For more information about our agency for cooks, Leiths List, visit

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