GETTING THE CHOP
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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