Explore Leiths Diploma Open House – 5th June 2024


Alumni Stories: Duncan Blake

Leiths Diploma student Duncan Blake was Senior Vice President of Brand at BP before enrolling at Leiths School of Food and Wine. As he approaches the end of his life-changing Diploma year, we spoke to Duncan about retraining in his fifties, making the transition from the corporate sector to the kitchen, and why he no longer dreads Mondays.

You were Senior Vice President of Brand at BP before enrolling in culinary school. That must be one of the sharpest pivots we’ve ever seen! Can you tell us about your life before Leiths and what it was that prompted the change?

“I worked at BP for over 30 years and at the end I was SVP of Brand. During the pandemic our new CEO was looking to make changes and this led to a conversation with my boss where we agreed that I would leave the company in a couple of years, which took me to 2023, when I signed up for the Leiths Diploma. When I knew I was going to be leaving BP, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do going forward and I thought I’d actually really like to take the opportunity to do something completely different. Having spent 30 odd years in the corporate world, I wanted to do something that didn’t involve sitting down, spending all day on a computer. I didn’t want to go through life just having worked in the corporate sector. I wanted to almost reinvent myself. It’s quite an extreme change but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

How much cooking experience had you had before Leiths?

“I’d describe myself as a very keen home cook. I’ve been cooking for many years and I’ve always enjoyed it. When I was looking at doing the Diploma, I thought I might skip the foundation term but actually I’m glad I did the full three terms because even though I thought I knew a lot of things we were doing in the first term I discovered I didn’t know them as well as I thought I did. I learned there were better ways of doing some things.”

How have you enjoyed your year at Leiths?

“It’s been one of the best years of my life. It’s not just a change; it’s going back to basics, learning a whole new profession, from the bottom up. Going into school every day, that’s a novelty for me. I’m 57, so it’s been a long time since I was at school. Having the opportunity to go back to the classroom and do it properly this time has been great. I probably didn’t work as hard as I should have done the first time round! All the students at the school take it very seriously, so it’s a really nice learning environment. That’s one of the things I’ve been impressed about. It’s really good seeing a lot of the youngsters talking passionately about food and really working hard to learn the skills and develop as individuals. The staff are very professional and incredibly well organised. I’ve seen a lot of impressive people in the corporate world but the teachers at Leiths are a cut above most. They’re very prepared; they are very knowledgeable; they’ve got really good delivery; and they hold everybody’s attention for a couple of hours while they’re doing the demonstrations and make it fun and engaging as well. You almost have to pinch yourself because it’s such a privilege to be able to sit and listen to these people teaching you what they know. At work,  you’d often have that Sunday night feeling where you dreaded going in the next day but [at Leiths] I’ve never felt like that. It’s transformed my weekends! I actually look forward to going in on a Monday.”

Does it make you wish you’d done it sooner?

“I’m not sure I do because I really enjoyed my time at BP. I think it’s a fantastic company and I got to do some amazing things professionally. So I don’t regret having worked there at all and I still have this opportunity now to have a second career. I’ve probably got another ten years that I can devote to this – more potentially. Who’s to say I couldn’t do it for longer? I want to give this a go and see how far I can get in this new world. I was a little worried when I went on the course that I’d be one of the older people there – I think I am the oldest – but in a way, it’s quite nice. I don’t feel it’s a problem in any way.”

What do you see yourself doing next?

“Through the Diploma, Leiths helps you explore all the different opportunities that are open to you by bringing in experts in different areas to do presentations; they encourage you to be fairly broad-minded about what it is that you are going to do when you come out at the end. As the year’s gone by, I’ve really started to feel I do want to go and work in a restaurant kitchen. I want to see how I can perform, progress, and prove myself in that environment. Coming back to what I was saying about redefining myself, I’d like to be able to say, “I’m a cook and this is where I work”. I may turn around and think this is too difficult or incompatible with my lifestyle, so I could then do private cheffing or any number of things that are related to the food industry.”

What advantages do you think your background gives you?

“I think my background helps in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s about getting on with people. Having spent a lot of time in business I’ve learned how to work with lots of different types of people. You learn resilience – I’ve had to put up with a lot of things throughout my career – I think that’s probably quite important in a professional kitchen. I think you also understand the context to the kitchen, the business of running a restaurant, so you can contribute beyond what it is that you’re being asked to do specifically. I think I understand the importance of networking and building relationships.”

You’ve done some work experience and stages in restaurants during your Diploma. How have you found the working environment compared to the corporate world? 

“Kitchens have this reputation of being environments where everybody shouts and swears and throws things but that’s not something I’ve seen in the kitchens I’ve had the pleasure to work in. They’re certainly hectic but ones I’ve been in are very well-run businesses. They have to be because margins are quite tight, costs are high and people haven’t necessarily got as much disposable income as they used to have. They have to run themselves very well in order to survive. I can see lots of ways that things could be improved; that’s something that comes from experience and having worked in a business environment, but when you’re the work experience boy, you can’t start offering opinions on how they might do things differently! I’m quite happy to start at the bottom and work my way up.”

As you come to the end of your year at Leiths, how do you feel about what’s next?

“We are all feeling quite sad that it’s about to end. It goes incredibly quickly. I’m excited about what’s next, somewhat daunted  as well. I do think what if I struggle to deal with this?” I will make every effort to make it work; I accept it might not be plain sailing. I definitely feel I have something to contribute. I think people appreciate experience, not just cooking experience but experience from other walks of life. There are kitchens I’ve looked at where everybody’s really young and I think “how am I going to fit in?” but I think you’ve just got to get on with it and go for it.”