Alumni Stories: Alistair 'AJ' Turner

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Alumni Stories: Alistair 'AJ' Turner

Alistair “AJ” Turner has joined Leiths Academy as Head of Teaching and Learning. The role is a return to Leiths for AJ who started his culinary journey on the Diploma course after he finished university. Here’s his story.

What prompted you to enrol at cookery school?

“I did my part one architecture at Bath University just as the previous recession was packing a punch. Like a lot of people, you go to university thinking you like something, then after a while realise you don’t like it that much, so I decided to have a rethink. I’d already cooked loads at university and always enjoyed it, so I started having a look to see what was out there, conscious I’d already done university and wanted to find something that was good and recognised. I started Googling and came across Leiths. I went to look around and it just had the right feel, to be honest, and had the right sort of course structure. So I took a punt. There’s always that pressure at 16 or 18 to make these massive, life-changing decisions but actually I always said to students when I was teaching, you can do university and not like it and do something else. As long as you work and you like what you’re doing, it’s normally turns out all right.

I loved Leiths. I’m not just saying that because I now work for them! I genuinely really loved it. I didn’t miss a lesson, a demo. I immersed myself in it. I absorbed everything.”

What took you to Cornwall?

“Leiths had this raffle in the middle of the second term for a chance to go and do work experience at Rick Stein’s. My name was picked out of the hat; it was complete luck. I’m from Derby, nowhere near the sea, and had never been to Cornwall, but thought if nothing else it was an excuse to go to the seaside! I worked at the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow for a week and absolutely loved it. They offered me a job for as soon as I finished Leiths. I started there in the middle of the peak season which was a bit of a baptism of fire. I went in at the bottom and was commis chef for six, eight months when you’d do the same job on the same section, day in day out, until you got moved around. I did all the sections, pastry, larder, mains, starters. I then had the opportunity to go to Rick Stein’s in Sandbanks and to be a part of a restaurant opening. I worked my way up to senior sous chef – so you’re head chef on the head chef’s day off – and really enjoyed it. I met my now wife there and we went back to Cornwall, where I went back to the Seafood Restaurant as sous chef.”

How did you make the move into teaching?

“After a while, I felt I’d done my restauranting bit and just needed a bit of a break, so I got in touch with Leiths List who told me about a new Academy school which had recently opened in Truro and was looking for someone to help develop their commercial cookery offering. The great thing about being a Leiths Diploma Graduate is that you can always look for new jobs on Leiths List (Leiths’ in-house employment agency). I had no intention at that stage of teaching children, but student demand at the cookery school really exploded; the number of kids coming through was just amazing. Maria [Dunbar, now Leiths Academy Development Director] wanted a hand so I started teaching a few cookery clubs. One thing led to another and before I knew I was teaching all of the Leiths courses. When Maria left, I became head of the cookery school. It was a really bold decision by Truro School to build a cookery school. It was purpose built and beautiful, nicer than the kitchens I’d worked in! There was no parent that walked in and didn’t go ‘wow, I want my children to be a part of this’. I wish I’d had that at school. It was next level. Not to sound corny, but you’d almost get goosebumps when you’d have a 17-year-old making a beautiful caramel soufflé. These kids are 17 and they can already cook like this. It’s not just the cooking either, it’s the transferable skills you get from cooking, working cleanly, working efficiently, working to a plan, working as part of a team, working with your hands, working under pressure. The skills that make you a good employee.

What are you doing now?

I’ve just joined Leiths Academy as Head of Teaching and Learning. My role is going to be developing and refining the new courses, and working closely with our current Academy schools, making sure that all the teachers are feeling really confident and excited about what they’re delivering. We’ve had a whole new curriculum written that launched in September, piloted by 10 schools across both the Independent and State sector, which will go schoolwide next September so there are still lots of resources and training to be developed. I will also be working closely with Maria to expand the number of Leiths Academy Schools we have, and the number of pupils taking our courses. What Leiths offers is really different to the ‘sciencified’ curriculum offering out there; with Leiths what matters is being a good cook, making delicious food each week and really enjoying the process. That’s the most important thing. I want to get out into different schools and help.

Find out more about Leiths Academy at

Author: Hilary Armstrong


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