Explore Leiths Diploma Open House – 5th June 2024


Olia Hercules

Chef & Cookbook Author

London, United Kingdom


Graduate of:
Leiths Three Term Diploma in Food and Wine

Hailing from the south of Ukraine in a small port city called Kakhovka, Olia has taken much inspiration from her heritage to inform her style of cooking and the direction of her career. Her experience at Leiths opened up many opportunities to cook and develop recipes for reputable London restaurants before she found her feet with cookbook writing. She is now the author of four established cookbooks – her first one, Mamushka, a cookbook that celebrates her family recipes, won her the Observer’s Rising Star in Food award and then went on to win the prestigious Fortnum and Mason Award for best debut cookbook in 2016. It has been translated into 10 languages. She has also published Summer Kitchens, Kaukasis, and, more recently, Home Food. Olia’s awards include 50 Best (Champions of Change), the OFM Special Award for #CookforUkraine, an initiative co-founded by Olia, which in 2023 was also awarded the Guild of Food Writers’ Special Award, and she was included in Vogue UK’s list of top most influential women of the year in 2022.

Life before Leiths
One of Olia’s proudest moments has been leaving Ukraine at the age of 12 and “moving to Cyprus not speaking much English at all, achieving an ‘A’ in my English O-Level two years later, and now being able to write books in English.” Further down the line she studied Italian and International Relations before pursuing a journalistic career in London, and it was the 2008 financial crisis which summoned a huge turning point in Olia’s professional life which led her straight to her culinary dreams. What triggered this decision was “a combination of factors. In most simplistic terms it was my love of food, the multi-sensory stimulation that it gives you, and the opportunity to have a creative job.”

What inspired you to enrol at Leiths?
An advert! I was very ill and rather unhappy, watching one of the food programmes on the telly in early 2009 and the advert came on. And I asked my friend – “why am I not doing this?” and she said – “I have no idea. You really must do this.””

Life after graduation
After completing her diploma, Olia took on the role of Chef de Partie in several London restaurants including Ottolenghi which she thoroughly enjoyed, but plans took a slight turn following the birth of her son. She took on numerous catering jobs, “interned at Sainsbury’s magazine, assisted food stylists, did pub cheffing jobs, recipe development for a start-up, [and] some writing. I did every and any job that came my way. I found the diversity fun, I thrived on [the] pressure of being a freelancer.” During this time her work was noticed by a literary agent, which allowed her to go on to write her first cookbook in 2015. She lives in London with her two sons, Sasha and Wilfred, her niece Aysa, and husband Joe writing, cooking, teaching, and feeding her unceasing curiosity by researching food culture and culinary traditions of countries less explored. “I love research, especially if it takes me travelling (alas not this year), I love putting people’s and my stories down on paper. I really enjoy writing recipes, testing and styling them for the shoots.” Olia’s work brings her the sense of contributing something important by preserving old Eastern European traditions, the ability to be creative and the rewarding feeling of being knowledgeable from the depth of research from both books and people.

How do you imagine the food industry will look for today’s grads?
Going forward, Olia imagines that the food industry “will be a good place; restaurants are diversifying their business models, there are tons of opportunities for budding chefs. Chefs are always needed, all of my restaurateur and head chef friends always look for chefs. And there are a lot more restaurants that do not do the old-school machismo, it is much easier to find places to work at as a chef where you won’t get screamed at. It will still be one of the toughest jobs you’d ever do, but overall it is a much nicer environment. In other areas – like publishing, it is looking different sadly than 8 years ago, you really must work hard to come up with a book idea which is unique, interesting, delicious-sounding and also commercial. But hey, I am a strong believer that enthusiasm and hard work will take you to the place you want to be. After all, I saw that Leiths advert just after the peak 2008 financial crisis.”

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