From Spreadsheets to Sponges

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From Spreadsheets to Sponges

With the intermediate term well underway, diploma student Camilla talks about how her life has changed since swapping her life in the city for days spent in whites.

Tick tock, tick tock. I sit at my accountants’ desk for hour after hour, awaiting the stroke of 6pm, when I can justifiably make the long journey home to my pilchard-sized slice of rural heaven in East Sussex.

Once I’m home, the apron goes on, all lingering thoughts of tomorrow’s 4:50am alarm are banished, and the day’s fun begins; precious minutes to chop or whisk, blanch or bake. The end result? Renewal, sanity, and delicious flavours brightening my day.

I knew for some time that accountancy was the wrong fit for me. Even though I have only been at Leiths since September, my desire to work with food has been apparent for some time. My most recent job was in the finance department at a large restaurant chain; I took it just so I could be closer to food!

Accountancy provided me with plenty of rewarding moments but in a day that often started before 5am and involved a long commute, surely something was out of balance when the first really genuine moments of contentment I would experience didn’t arise until 13 hours later!

Don’t get me wrong, I have never been afraid of long hours, although admittedly I knew comfortably in advance of starting Leiths that the commute (I still live in my Sussex pilchard tin) would take on a very different hue when my destination changed to Leiths School of Food and Wine, Wendell Road.

In fact, the increased complexity of my new commute is considerable and yet my heart is lighter than the chocolate mousse we made in week four.

Any delays on Southern Rail are no longer a downward spiral of frustration and dismay. Whilst still annoying, they are an additional half an hour spent researching recipes for our menu planning coursework or writing up notes from that day’s demonstration. Not to put too fine a point on it, I went from feeling like a battery chicken in my cubicle, stifled to the point of claustrophobia, to finding a new (lemony) zest for life when I swapped calculator for colander. Long hours now no longer exist except on paper!

Leiths has been a game changer for me. It is fascinating, challenging, exciting, at times gruelling, always completely absorbing and most of all, great fun. My daily discussions with colleagues are no longer about the ins and outs of the new IFRS revenue standard. Now they involve an in-depth analysis of how to make a faultless crème anglaise - no white flecks, perfect coating consistency and above all, a delicious flavour (something which unfortunately still only a few have completely mastered at the time of writing).

Further topics of conversation consist of critiques of visits to restaurants (or friend’s dinner parties), what weird and wonderful shapes we could possibly fashion out of meringue, how long is a reasonable length of time to spend concassing tomatoes and debates on whether twiglets are the perfect match for any wine.

Another notable area of improvement in my daily routine is lunch. Lunch has gone from a dash to Pret to collect a sandwich or salad to be eaten at my desk, to five days a week of practically non-stop eating. We are encouraged to taste as much as possible as we cook, something which is great when cooking Risotto Milanese but less so when testing the seasoning in a raw quiche mixture or checking whether there’s any bitterness in our deglacage!

All the food we cook in class is then ours to eat for lunch or take home for dinner, something which my husband was greatly excited about. He had envisaged being fed like a king for a year – imagine the disappointment on his face when I came home on the first day with a bag full of chopped vegetables after our knife skills session. Amazingly, his spirits did not rise like a souffle when I pointed out the perfect uniformity of my carrot batons and petit brunoise!

Last term we also had the joys of the buffet assignment where groups of eight take their turn to prepare a buffet lunch for the rest of their class and one other class (32 people in total with a £4.50 budget per head). This term we are in groups of four cooking for 50 – in case we hadn’t eaten enough, the Leiths students approach these days like a pack of ravenous wolves who have recently ended a lengthy hunger strike!

Particular highlights from the first term were cooking a full-on roast beef lunch (complete with Yorkshire puddings) on a Tuesday, meringues and parfaits for breakfast in the egg white whisking demonstration, and mid-afternoon snacks of coffee eclairs, spiced beignets and vanilla pannacottas. Rumour has it, one girl in my class managed four pannacottas on that particular day, several of which were consumed without the impediment of cutlery! Now I know why our teacher warned us we’d put on the ‘Leiths stone’ over the year...

Having said all of the above, I must now return briefly to the topic of my finance career. Whilst, for me, the bad outweighed the good, I am still able to look back on that period of my life with a sense of pride. I got into accountancy because of a love of maths which developed at school. My two favourite subjects were Maths and Chemistry and I must admit that I loved them (and still do) for their correctness, their precision and their rules-based nature.

I was looking forward to starting at Leiths but was nonetheless nervous and I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t crossed my mind whether, if I followed the same style of precision and rule following at Leiths, I would be able to progress through the course.

I knew I had a great deal to learn before the year started but if I were able to follow instructions, read my (Leiths) Bible nightly like a good student, weigh out ingredients and follow the prescribed formulae of the wonderful Leiths tutors, then would x equal the perfect dish?

In the end, although the Leiths Techniques Bible is my one-way ticket to culinary heaven, and whilst I am required to be precise in weighing out ingredients, there are no absolutes. I cannot fathom how often the Leiths tutors are asked questions in demonstrations regarding exact timings and temperatures. Students call out, “What gas level is the pan on?” “How many minutes have you cooked that duck breast for?” “What exact temperature should the pan be at for each millisecond of the cooking?” We all want exact measurements, and while th and y are key for making a great pastry or meringue, and there are strict rules for certain aspects of cooking (never let your stock boil, never overcrowd the pan when browning meat, only ever add gelatine to warm liquid etc etc), Leiths enforces the idea that cooking is about instinct, feel and experience used in conjunction with knowledge.

“How many minutes should we leave our bread dough to prove?”, someone asks. They’re told that proving time will depend on how much liquid has been added, how warm your hands are, how long you’ve kneaded the dough for, what area of the room your dough is resting in, how hot the kitchen is on that particular day and countless other factors that cannot realistically be quantified by the teachers. The answer is that each bread is unique and it just depends. Good cooking is about discipline yes, but not about strict rules.

The final challenge Leiths is giving me, with all this delicious food in mind, is to not become a food snob! I have to remember that when it comes to food, deliciousness can be found in the most unlikely places. I am reminded of an A A Gill article describing a visit to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais where he tasted unleavened bread made by a refugee and then spent pages eulogising over it; a tiny, ill-equipped shack had delivered flavour where so many white linen bedecked restaurants had failed. With that in mind, I approach the half way point of the Leiths Diploma with my eyes wide open both in and out of school, and a sense of excitement at all the possibilities. There are hidden gems at Leiths as in the outside world, and I can’t wait to discover more of these as the rest of the year unfolds!

Interested in seeing where our professional courses could take you? Join us for our next Open Day on 28th February.

Author: Camilla Stanton

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