Zoe (pictured on the left) shifted from leading business development to becoming a chef. This is her story.
What career did you start out in, how long were you in that area and what prompted you to make a career change?
I started out in media sales at the Guardian in 1998, kind of by accident after travelling. Life in sales can suck you in as the money is good, which was especially true in newspapers at that time, and I progressed quickly, becoming Head of Client Sales after 5 years. I stayed with the Guardian for 8 years in total, before starting a family and spending another few years moving between different media companies, working within recruitment advertising and sales.
Eventually I reached a point where I needed a new challenge, so when a former client approached me about starting a new business development area in his advertising agency, I took the opportunity.
Two years in and I was getting increasingly frustrated. I didn’t like being reliant on others to win new business pitches and I wanted to see my kids for more than an hour before their bedtimes. Then the Grenfell fire happened in my community. I think this was the final catalyst that made me realise life is too short to not take chances, and I wanted to make changes that would make me and my family more happy.
What were some of the practicalities you managed when transitioning through your career change?
The main consideration was money: going from a very lucrative job where I had a lot of contacts and was well known, to earning minimum wage. Thankfully, my husband was an amazing support persuading me we could make it work.
I also wasn’t sure if my love of food and cooking was enough. Was I good enough? Were friends and family just being polite about what I’d cooked for them in the past?
Then there was the challenge of where to start with becoming a chef and whether I needed any formal training. I figured I needed work experience at the very least so this is what I set out to find! I literally knocked on doors, sent emails and asked whoever I knew.
I was lucky to bump into Atul Kochhar (2 Michelin starred chef) at an event who told me to give him a ring, which I did, and that landed me a week’s experience under chef Brinder Narula at Benares. I also emailed Allegra McEvedy (chef, broadcaster and writer) who called me back and invited me in. She was amazingly supportive and gave me a trial, then a job, she believed in me and let me do 2-3 shifts a week to fit around my kids
Talk through some of the challenges you faced along the way.
The job is really physical! Especially for a 44 year old body. It’s hot, physical work and you’re in a very high pressure environment. You have to learn extremely quickly, take on a lot of information and be prepared to get things wrong. All this for minimum wage plus tips. Also a lot of people presumed I had had formal training and were surprised to learn that I hadn’t, which was a challenge in itself.
How do you feel about your current career, compared to how you felt in the one you left behind?
I love what I now do. I am immensely happy and get such a buzz from creating. I have learnt so much and proven that I am capable of more than I thought I could ever do. In addition I feel more confident doing my own catering for parties and new clients. To a certain extent I am my own boss and have incorporated more flexibility into my week, because I set times I can be at work, and now I get to drop off and pick up my kids from school.
I used to clock watch and be desperate for the day to finish, whereas now I can’t wait for my shift to start.
What, if anything, do you miss about your previous career?
I miss some of the people I worked with, but that’s it. I wish I had taken the plunge years ago.
What were some of the highlights you experienced when making your career change?
Meeting and working with such talented chefs. People booking me to cater for hen parties and birthdays, and loving the food I produced. People sending a message to the kitchen and telling me they loved their meal. And now being able to run the kitchen on my own.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
Three key things:
- I am better at cooking than I realised.
- I am much more excited by being creative and producing something, rather than sitting at a computer.
- I can listen and be told what to do when I want to learn.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering making a career change?
Just do it. Don’t wait around and if you need experience in a new area, then ask. I literally just chose people I wanted to work for and contacted them, incorporating my experience from my former career of winning new business.
And finally, what are you excited about over the next few months?
I’ve just relocated to Bath, so I’m buying a new house and designing a dream kitchen from scratch. I’ll also be setting up a catering business down here and hopefully running small cookery classes from my home.
Follow Zoe on Instagram @zoesaphinecooks