GET­TING THE CHOP

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

What hap­pened when Lisa Mark­well got a taste for change and made a dras­tic ca­reer move

In my old job, I used to wear de­signer clothes and be in­vited to par­ties. Now, I wear an apron with Crocs and am the hired help at par­ties. I’ve gone from run­ning a team of dozens to be­ing the boss of just me. And this year, I’ll earn a frac­tion (a re­ally small frac­tion) of what I earned last year, and ev­ery year for two decades be­fore that. Af­ter a long climb to reach the top of a tough, in­her­ently male-dom­i­nated busi­ness, I’ve spun down to the bot­tom of another. Feel­ing sorry for me yet? Don’t. Be­cause I used to give peo­ple bad news for a liv­ing, but now I give them good times. And I love it.

So, let me ex­plain. Un­til the spring of last year, I was ed­i­tor of The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day, one of a very small hand­ful of women who have reached the top in na­tional news­pa­pers. De­spite the down­ward tail­spin of print jour­nal­ism, and the al­most un­remit­ting agenda of so­ci­etal and po­lit­i­cal dis­as­ters and tur­moil, there’s some­thing thrilling about mar­shalling a team of tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als to cre­ate a com­pelling, in­for­ma­tive and en­ter­tain­ing pack­age.

Then – bam! – the news­pa­per closed and I was out of a job. It was like be­ing on an es­ca­la­tor that un­ex­pect­edly stops; the mo­men­tum of writ­ing and edit­ing that I’d built up lurched to a halt and the at­mos­phere in which I thrived was gone. Sud­denly, do­ing one lit­tle task – like the laun­dry, mak­ing a cake or get­ting a new park­ing per­mit – seemed to take all day.

That ter­ri­ble cliché – ‘If you want some­thing done, ask a busy per­son’ – was true, damn it. I was mourn­ing no longer be­ing part of some­thing, miss­ing the ca­ma­raderie that comes with be­ing in a like-minded team. But, in time (amaz­ingly, for some­one who has only ever done one job for her en­tire ca­reer – jour­nal­ism), I ac­cepted that I needed to find some other way to chan­nel my dead­line-driven en­ergy. And then I re­alised that the hobby I’d turned to in or­der to fill my days of no-job angst – cook­ing – could be the an­swer.

But eight years as a res­tau­rant critic and din­ner-party host, while valu­able, is not qual­i­fi­ca­tion enough to put on a tall white hat and call my­self ‘chef’.

For that, I’d need to get pro­fes­sional train­ing. So, af­ter much soulsearch­ing and num­ber-crunch­ing, and with the sup­port of my long­suf­fer­ing (and luck­ily food-lov­ing) hus­band, I made the wildly ran­dom de­ci­sion to spend my re­dun­dancy money on a year-long chef diploma course at Lei­ths School of Food and Wine.

That’s where the apron and Crocs came in – all sense of in­di­vid­u­al­ity dis­ap­pears in a kitchen: no jew­ellery, no fra­grance, hair tucked into a cap. All that set me apart from my fel­low stu­dents was far more wrin­kles (many were fresh out of school or univer­sity) and my ter­ri­ble habit of try­ing to or­gan­ise ev­ery­one.

I’m pretty sure I made a few en­e­mies in the first few weeks – the old habits of be­ing a boss (for which read: bossy) died hard. And work­ing un­der the eye of fas­tid­i­ous teach­ers was a tough ad­just­ment. I was used to choos­ing my own front-page sto­ries and pic­tures, a skill for which I had won a pres­ti­gious Press Award; now, too much caster sugar on the sur­face of a Vic­to­ria sponge was a cause for low scores. I used to ap­proach a cock­tail party at No 10 or an in­ter­view with the Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer with breezy con­fi­dence; now, I was cry­ing over de­flated prof­iteroles.

The stakes were, if not higher, then cer­tainly dif­fer­ent, but I was de­ter­mined to suc­ceed. A clas­si­cal chef train­ing meant learn­ing (or, in some cases, re-learn­ing) how to cook eggs, the cor­rect size and shape to cut veg­eta­bles, achiev­ing a silken white sauce, pas­try that crum­bles just so. The sat­is­fac­tion that came with each build­ing block was in­tense; it meant that as the tasks be­came more com­plex – a crys­tal-clear con­sommé or a light, but­tery crois­sant – I had the skills to make it hap­pen.

Early on in the course, I did work ex­pe­ri­ence at a food mag­a­zine and in a TV stu­dio. I think they were quite be­mused that I was back at the bot­tom. On the set of the TV show about food, chef An­gela Hart­nett raised her eye­brows at me, a critic who’d given the ver­dict on her res­tau­rant not that long be­fore. ‘What are you do­ing here?’ she asked.

But she, like many other food pro­fes­sion­als I’ve come across in this back-to-school year, has been in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive (once they got over their sur­prise). A high point was a ‘stage’ at Spring, Skye Gyn­gell’s Lon­don res­tau­rant, dur­ing which she taught me the elu­sive art of putting food on a plate so that it’s per­fectly con­structed and yet looks com­pletely nat­u­ral. I used to edit Skye’s copy when she wrote a recipe col­umn for The In­de­pen­dent on Sun­day, now it was me get­ting schooled. I’ll never just ‘put’ salad on a plate again.

There cer­tainly aren’t as many women at the top of the res­tau­rant busi­ness as there should be, but the in­dus­try is alive to the need to en­cour­age more of us in, and things are (very slowly) chang­ing from the testos­terone-fu­elled, sweary, knife-wield­ing old days. The restau­rants run by Hart­nett, Gyn­gell, Clare Smyth, Ruth Rogers, Nieves Bar­ragán Mo­ha­cho, Hélène Dar­roze and Mon­ica Galetti, among others, prove it is pos­si­ble to do things dif­fer­ently.

In the kitchens of these restau­rants, I’m told, C-words and F-bombs are fewer and far be­tween – al­though, com­ing from a news­room, I could cer­tainly give as good as I got. God knows I’m bossy enough. But at the end of my gru­elling 10-month course, I took the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion not to work in a res­tau­rant kitchen.

Most im­por­tantly, my fam­ily would take a rather dim view of me dis­ap­pear­ing ev­ery day un­til mid­night, and I still wanted to have some sem­blance of a so­cial life. So I’m do­ing what I thought I’d never do – I’m en­joy­ing a port­fo­lio ca­reer, but my port­fo­lio is all about food.

Firstly, I’m a pri­vate chef. There’s some­thing about go­ing into a client’s home and mak­ing their food wishes come true that gives me the same buzz as edit­ing a pa­per. Re­cent jobs in­clude cook­ing a healthy din­ner, of a dif­fer­ent cui­sine ev­ery night, for two weeks for a group of 15 Cana­di­ans; I ab­so­lutely loved wow­ing them with flavours they’d never had be­fore. And af­ter that, a week­end party at a Down­ton-es­que coun­try house for which ev­ery­thing from the canapés to the mac­arons had to be pre­cise and per­fect.

Hav­ing said that, it’s not with­out its chal­lenges. Tricky cus­tomers are like flaky re­porters: they don’t sit down on time and they grum­ble when you make them stick to a bud­get. So I’m also work­ing on a healthy/ in­dul­gent 80/20 cater­ing con­cept and writ­ing a book to help home cooks think like chefs – the jour­ney from my own kitchen through pro­fes­sional train­ing has trans­formed my cook­ing and taken all the stress out of din­ners. It’s easy to never burn onions and to make glossy sauces with a lit­tle bit of know-how – and I want to share that knowl­edge.

My In­sta­gram han­dle is @Hold­sKnifeLikePen, be­cause I know the power of both. I’ll never get the feel­ing back in the tip of my thumb (al­most sev­ered twice in knife in­juries), and I no longer have much need for my prized Chanel jacket (in­deed, I no longer fit into it due to all the recipe test­ing), but I get to give peo­ple de­li­cious­ness ev­ery day – and that’s a great feel­ing.

‘I used to ap­proach a party at No 1O with breezy con­fi­dence; now, I was cry­ing over de­flated prof­iteroles’

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