Entering the world of a professional culinary diploma by Lara Lee Wood

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Entering the world of a professional culinary diploma by Lara Lee Wood

On September 26th, we welcomed a new set of professional students. Lara, who is studying for the Three Term Diploma in Food and Wine, brings us up to speed with her summary of the first three weeks. Foundation Term, Weeks 1 - 3.

Is it shameful to say that I was inspired to study at Leiths School of Food and Wine thanks to my obsession with Masterchef Australia? 

Doing a professional culinary diploma is certainly no reality television show, but the journey of home cooks to gastronomic connoisseurs is one that resonates with me. 

Like the Masterchef contestants, my story is a familiar one. I found myself in a job I lacked passion for and spent the hours daydreaming about food. I would use weekends and evenings to concoct culinary creations in the kitchen. Why not try goat meat in a rendang curry? What if I made a novelty cake in the shape of a flamingo? What if my croquembouche looks a bit like cow dung? (This was a total accident, but it was still delicious). 

Jiro Ono, one of the world's greatest sushi chefs, once said in a documentary titled Jiro Dreams of Sushi, "Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in work. You have to fall in love with your work... You must dedicate your life to mastering the skill."

I was faced with a career dilemma after ten years in the corporate world. If food brings my soul to life, then what is life without food? The journey to a career change involved great research, two years of saving (I have become the eBay queen) and finding the courage to make a change. From evening study at a London oriental cooking school, to launching a street food stall, to filming my first ever YouTube video about cooking dumplings… by the time the course started at Leiths, there was no doubt that I was ready to be immersed in food.

So here we are at the end of week three of the Foundation Certificate; the first part of the Three Term Diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine. No one can quite prepare you for the intensity of your new life as a chef in training. Gizzi Erskine once described the course as hardcore and the Leiths alumni share stories of their Leiths year as being one of the best of their life. 

There are a number of observations I have made at this early stage. The first is that, no matter how tightly I tie my apron; I look more like Mrs Doubtfire than Nigella Lawson in my chef whites. The second is that I am thrilled to finally be following my dream. To give this more context – and if I had the spare time – being at Leiths makes me want to run up a hilltop and break out in song like Maria in the Sound of Music. Yes, I am THAT happy. The days are long and exhausting but you go to sleep fulfilled, dreaming of cakes and plating. Even if you lock yourself out of the house accidentally (week 2, day 3) nothing can get you down.

The days are broken into two parts, alternating between three hour demonstrations that showcase techniques, to a three hour cooking practical in the kitchen. The demos are highly anticipated sessions as students are invited to taste the dishes shown. Cake and pastry days have been crowd favourites thus far, while fish stock has rated slightly lower on the collective snack-o-meter.

In the evenings, we are given homework that includes food theory and writing a time plan that accounts for every step of our cooking practical. At the end of every practical one of the two teachers in our class will taste our food and assess the seasoning, timing, presentation, knife skills, flavour and so on. This is my favourite Masterchef-esque moment. The teachers are both constructive and encouraging – more Mary Berry than Gordon Ramsey. 

It turns out scrambling eggs is not a strength (I turned them from beautiful flakes into baby food!) but I do have a knack for food presentation and cooking fish. Making mistakes in the kitchen has become a daily occurrence but I am grateful for them because this is how you learn. The great news is that I am making new mistakes each day rather than the same ones (aside from the oven burns… oooh the oven burns, I am certainly accumulating those).

“I’m three weeks in and I can happily say: I am in love with this course.”

Leiths train you to be able to cook a meal under any circumstances, such as in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere with no electric whisks or food processors. They want you to learn how to make dishes from scratch by hand, such as making mayonnaise with a wooden spoon or the very hard work of making shortcrust pastry with two cutlery knives (Leiths doubles as a personal trainer as my biceps are looking amazing these days). I am learning new skills every day, from making a white sauce, to filleting a fish, kneading bread and baking the perfect scone (I married a Devonshire man so it is cream first then jam second, my friends. No arguments).

One of the greatest parts of the course is being grouped with like minded people who are just as passionate about food as I am. The students have been grouped together in classes of 16 depending on their stage in life. There’s a real mix: school leavers on their gap years, university graduates and, like me, career changers. 

We are rotated each week on tables of four and, on several occasions a week, we work together on a dish, such as the delicious roast pork lunch we prepared. These group activities call for high levels of communication and teamwork to ensure our food is balanced and seasoned, well presented, at temperature and served on time. Due to the sheer amount of food created, and my husband's legendary appetite, I have unofficially become the human food bin for our class when my fellow students are unable to take home all of their food (more crackling for me, yes please). 

Jiro said that you have to fall in love with your work. I’m three weeks in and I can happily say: “I am in love with this course.” 

Perhaps it is the fact that I got to take home three unwanted baked custards the other week, or the strangely eerie notion that I find jointing a chicken relaxing, or that every day feels somewhat like an episode of Masterchef (seriously, how cool is that!) - but to wake up every day knowing that I am going to do what I love today, is the greatest feeling in the world.

By Lara Lee Wood

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

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