Explore Leiths Diploma Open House – 5th June 2024


Alumni Stories: Alice Power

Leiths Diploma graduate Alice Power was appointed head chef of Michelin-starred restaurant The Black Swan at Oldstead near York in February 2024. Here Alice tells us about her decision to change careers in her late twenties, about her experience of Leiths, and about the pressures of running a Michelin star kitchen.

You’re a career changer, having worked in the civil service before enrolling at Leiths. What sparked the move?

I was in the civil service for five and a half years. I enjoyed my job but it wasn’t filling me with excitement for the next thirty years. I decided to take a career break for a year to think about what I might do next. I decided to invest in something I really love, which is cooking. From being a child, I used to come home from primary school and watch cookery programmes on the telly and cook for my family. I thought the course might either reveal something to me that I hadn’t really thought about or it would just be a nice gift to myself that I’ve made myself a way better cook for the rest of my life.”

How was your time at Leiths?

“I thought it was brilliant end to end. I had a good level of cooking already so was not sure if I should take the first term or come and join in the second term but in the end, I was really pleased I did the first term because it just really solidifies your learning and the reasoning for why you do things a certain way. Just getting to go in 9-5 and cook all day or sit and listen to someone talking to you about food or taste food or whatever it was brilliant. It completely turned my head.”

What came after Leiths?

“I had plans to move back up to the north of England because I’d been here for uni and my partner was from up here. I thought catering or private cheffing could be good but very quickly, once I started work experience in a restaurant, it just flipped things again. My plan was to get that London experience before moving so I started at Carousel which was where I’d done my work experience. It was a place I could really learn as they have different guest chefs every one to two weeks. Then Covid came so I took the chance to come up here.”

Have you found your Leiths training valuable?

“110 percent. It gave me confidence with classical techniques. There were times when I went into other kitchens and I would go in feeling intimidated because obviously there were chefs who’d been working their whole life and you’d see that they wouldn’t be able to do something that was quite a standard method of cooking. You’d know what people were talking about, you’d have a pretty good idea of the base method, and all you have to do was apply how they want to do it differently in their restaurant to that. It just gave you confidence. Even if you haven’t prepped a hundred mackerel a week for the last five years of your life, you know what you’re doing. There’s not much that is too surprising. Whereas other people could be seven years into their career and never have done anything with pastry.”

Do you think your previous career has stood you in good stead?

“I’ve had to talk to people in a very different way than how people have talked to people in kitchens. You have a bit more calmness to you, an ability to do things differently. I think that was spotted by people like Tommy and Cal early doors. You just had a very different background; you could plan things; have a strategy, and a bit of vision outside what is happening in the day-to-day. What I think is great for Leiths students is they might think they’re leaving behind their old career but actually there’s probably something in their old career they can tap into, something that a chef who’s only ever done cheffing maybe doesn’t have.”

What are the challenges of the job?

“Recruiting the right people is hard. We are not super strict on people having Michelin experience – I had no Michelin experience before I came here – but we have a very high standard. So it’s not just finding a good competent chef, it’s finding a chef that gets what we’re trying to do. When I say pick a dill tip, you can probably pick me a hundred OK dill tips but I’m going to ask you to pick me a hundred pristine ones. We work at a level that people may not have seen before in how a kitchen is organised, cleared, managed. It can be a steep learning curve. I was drawn naturally to this level of food. I was excited about it. Every day you have an opportunity to meet people’s expectations or exceed them. Every day we’ll find something that we could do better and change, so it’s not a very steady state. That is a constant drive.”

You have made quite swift progress at the Black Swan.

“Yes. Which I think is testament to Cal and Tommy and how they run it here. It is one of those kitchens where you are expected to have a good knowledge of the whole menu and other sections and of what they need in service and how their service works. If you show good skill and can progress through those sections, you can work your way up. I started here as a chef de partie and then I have just progressed up from there.”

What does your role as head chef involve?

“I work in collaboration with Callum Leslie, he’s the executive chef based across a couple of our different sites. Essentially, my role involves the full day-to-day running of the kitchen, recruitment, quality control, teaching people, bringing new staff on, managing service, liaising with the farm, working on menu changes, innovating. We’re trying to push ourselves beyond just one star so every week we’re trying something new to elevate what we’re doing.”

What goals do you have for the future?

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to run my own restaurant. The hours are long and I don’t want to do that for the length of my career. My future goal is to move into teaching probably because I think I would probably enjoy that as a career and again that gives you a level of flexibility in where you teach and how you teach.”

What advice can you share for those looking to get into a top level kitchen?

“I appreciate it’s not easy because it incurs a cost but if you can, stage in as many places as you can. Try and make sure you see varied styles of food and kitchen but if you have a particular interest, go and see lots of those places and see how people are doing the same thing, but differently. If you find somewhere that doesn’t seem a nice fit or a nice culture don’t spend too much more time there! Look at Instagram. It’s great to be able to go and eat in some of these restaurants but in reality, people can probably afford to do that maybe a couple of times a year. Restaurants are very good at sharing a lot of information on Instagram. You can actually see plating and prep. That’s a massive resource. There are restaurants in California I’m probably never going to go to but I can look in their kitchen and see how they do things.”