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#MadeAtLeiths: Lara Lee on exploring her cookery heritage

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#MadeAtLeiths: Lara Lee on exploring her cookery heritage

Lara Lee, cookbook author and co-founder of catering business Kiwi and Roo, reflects on her journey from working in IT to training and Leiths and beyond.

As told to Jen Coles.

They say you have three careers in a lifetime, but I think I’ve had about ten! I grew up in Sydney, where I studied journalism at university, worked as a professional tap dancer, a cabaret performer and later worked in technology sales! The company I worked for sponsored me to move to London so I grabbed hold of that opportunity, but computing was never my passion.

In my early twenties, I felt too busy to cook, but by my late twenties, cooking was all I wanted to do. I’d sit at work and dream of what I’d whip up that evening, or the delicious menu I would serve my friends at the weekend. My passion for food grew, and soon I found myself running a street food stall with a friend in East London – we served an epic Antipodean steak sandwich which sold out every weekend.

I saved up for four years to come to Leiths. I was in a well-paid job, but you wouldn’t have known it. My sights were set on culinary school and I lived so frugally! I also got married to my wonderful husband Nick Wood, and a happy by product of this was the chance to study or work professionally in any job I liked.

With my husband cheering me on, and a cushion of savings to see me through nine months, I set off for my first day at Leiths.

Strangely enough I had plenty of confidence in my cooking abilities, but felt nervous about whether I’d make friends. Luckily I had an amazing group of classmates; we became so close. There are a handful who I consider incredibly close friends, and we still work together on catering jobs.

When I stepped into the classroom, I knew right away that it was where I wanted to be. It was everything you see on Masterchef and the Great British Bake Off and more. For nine months, I lived and breathed Leiths. I don’t really do things by halves, so whenever there was a new challenge - the Christmas cake competition for example - I’d spend hours thinking about how I wanted everything to look and taste. From finishing our technical portfolios in the second term, to work experience at restaurants like The Fat Duck, there was always a new challenge on the horizon. I embraced it and immersed myself completely.

I learnt so many new skills, but I realise at that point in time I was striving to be a Heston Blumenthal, dabbling in flavour combinations that would surprise (and sometimes fail), or trying to make charred leek ash mayonnaise and smoking out the kitchen! I realised molecular gastronomy wasn’t really me. I was still searching for my identity as a chef.

After graduating, I spent time gaining work experience in Michelin starred kitchens. I knew it was a privilege, and the orchestral coming together of flavour, sound and people was inspiring, but I hadn’t fallen in love with what I was doing.

I realised I wanted to cook food that represented me as a person and where I’d come from.

Kiwi and Roo

My friend, Fiona Hannah, felt the same about her native New Zealand cuisine, so we set up a catering company together to reflect our nationalities; Kiwi and Roo.

It really took off! We catered our first wedding and pulled it off and our little catering business took flight last year when we were approached by the Australian Embassy to cater an event for 350 people. The menu included cauliflower and Australian truffle croquettes with aioli, yuzu and soy sashimi with pickled jalapeno. We used an Australian fished called Hiramasa Kingfish and we even made our own version of a Middle Eastern dukkah using indigenous Australian bush spices.

It made us both proud to see our heritage on a plate, and we felt like we’d really found our niche. Soon, we were being booked for events at the New Zealand embassy, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Natural History Museum, Qantas airlines and we have even catered for the Royal Family.

We quickly moved into commercial premises and built up a team of freelance chefs we could rely on. Our freelancers include more than half a dozen Leiths chefs.

Coconut and Sambal

Although I was trying to become the next Heston, I do think a part of me always wanted to cook food that was part of my heritage. I saw a poster on the noticeboard at Leiths for the Yan Kit So award for Asian food writers and decided to enter. The prize was a bursary to travel and explore Asian cuisine and to enter you had to submit a cookbook proposal.

I decided to submit a proposal that would take me to Indonesia to my late grandmother’s island of Timor and research the food of my father and grandmother’s home. I didn’t win but I did place as a runner up. Armed with the feeling that I was onto a good idea, I had the courage to contact the doyenne of Indonesian cuisine, Sri Owen, who is based in Wimbledon.

She invited me to her home and offered to become my mentor. We met weekly, cooking up Indonesian feasts for friends and family who would come to visit. I also took the ‘How to be a Food Presenter’ course at Leiths, where I met Helen Goh, an incredible chef who co-wrote Sweet with Yotam Ottolenghi. She introduced me to her literary agent, who offered to represent me, and from there I tweaked my cookbook concept so it could be sent to publishers.

Incredibly, we received offers from a number of publishers, but it was Bloomsbury who I loved the most and who I eventually signed with. My book, Coconut and Sambal, will come out in May 2020.

Changing careers and retraining at Leiths helped me to find myself as a chef, giving me the freedom and confidence to explore multiple paths until I found my true home – Indonesian and Modern Australian cooking.

@Laraleeeats

@Kiwiandroo

Kiwi & Roo

Fancy following in Lara’s footsteps...but treading your own unique path? At Leiths, there are dozens of routes to your dream career, from our Food Writing course to How to be a Food Presenter to our Online Essential or our full Diploma. Find out more by booking onto our friendly Open Evening.

Share your Leiths memories using the #MadeAtLeiths hashtag.

Jen Coles

Author: Jen Coles

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