#MadeAtLeiths: Esther Clark on the Leiths network of possibilites

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#MadeAtLeiths: Esther Clark on the Leiths network of possibilites

As part of our #MadeAtLeiths series, food stylist, cookery writer, recipe tester and Deputy Food Editor at BBC Good Food, Esther Clark shares her Leiths journey.

After leaving school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself; I was massively in to cooking at home but I wasn’t sure where to channel that. I ended up getting a job at Waitrose and concocting recipes in my parents’ kitchen in my spare time. I had an unformed idea that I wanted to work in food, but not as a chef. I’d always been good at cooking but I wanted to be a *really* good home cook. I wanted to be able to make a béarnaise sauce in five minutes that tasted amazing, or a perfectly buttery shortcrust pastry. My mum is an artist and I was very much in the arts too, but I didn’t know how to translate any of this into a career.

When my Nan was about, she talked about Leiths a lot, so at 23 I went to look around. I thought ‘my God this is the place for me’. It was relaxed, not snooty, and I liked the teachers I met. There was a good atmosphere. It was in a beautiful part of London and it smelt of amazing cooking!

I told my Dad I wanted to go, thinking he’d say ‘absolutely not’, but he was supportive. He said it was pricey but a good investment. University was £9000 a year when I was looking, with three years of living costs on top. Besides, the alumni had done things I wanted to do. Rosie Reynolds (a Leiths graduate and successful writer/stylist) was inspiring to me, and I could tell you’d get a really thorough training at Leiths. I didn’t even look anywhere else.

I commuted from Brighton for the first term. The first week was really tiring, but after that I just loved it. I found it really welcoming. I got on with the teachers straight away. I was worried I’d be too old, but my classmates were all different ages; some were much older than me. Everyone was taking it really seriously and they wanted to change their lives. That might sound intense, but Leiths really is an incredible place and it really can change your life.

The first exam was hard and I felt under a lot of pressure. I did start to wonder if I was fast enough, but the teachers reassured me that it’s not all about being a restaurant chef. The training is geared towards a range of jobs, for example when we do our buffet training, that’s about catering. Looking back, the whole year was an absolute dream. I didn’t take a single day off because there was always something I didn’t want to miss; who’d want to miss a cheese lecture?! I also made some of my best friends at Leiths. At our graduation ceremony, I won the portfolio prize, which was a surprise and a real honour.

I went to Italy the day after I graduated, as I’d been offered a six month internship through Leiths List, the agency for Leiths-trained cooks. I cooked on a farm and embraced my lifelong love of Italian food. I drove around in a 1991 Fiat Panda and did everything; looking after baby goats, farming, meat curing, cooking breakfast. It was a mad time, but I just went for it. Instagram was really new then, and I was focused on creating beautiful food pictures.

While I was in Italy, Georgina Fuggle, who I’d met on my Leiths Open Evening, messaged me and said, “I was really impressed with you, do you want to work with me?” So when I got back from Italy I started going to her house two or three times a week to write and test recipes with her. She showed me how to write a really thorough recipe. I realised I was quite good at writing recipes, and I could do it quickly. The rest of my weeks I did tonnes of work experience.

Then, the lovely Claire Knivett asked me to come and test recipes for Jamie magazine. While I was there, I worked with lots of food stylists, learning from them. I spent a good two or three years assisting different food stylists from all over the industry on shoots, usually working on features for magazines and cook books too.

You have to assist other stylists to start with, because it’s the best way to learn. You have to pitch in; I was sweeping floors and emptying bins, but I was so happy to be there, and not working in a supermarket. I felt like I was part of something amazing. I think if you really appreciate the fact you are there, you will go far.

Then I heard from Rosie Reynolds. She followed me on Instagram, emailed me and said “Come and work with me!” Our friendship really blossomed. I also started assisting Lizzie Kamenetzky, ex Food Editor on delicious. magazine, and that was great because it meant I was being exposed to a range of artistic styles. Rosie is so talented at styling happy, bright, nostalgic food like fish finger sandwiches and jelly and ice cream, while Lizzie’s style is a little delicately beautiful and very seasonal, and it was good for me to keep adapting.

I started working as a freelance stylist by myself, styling cookbooks, working for magazines and doing a few jobs for companies wanting images for product launches. I also did some ghost writing, working in food features for magazines, and got my name on a few small features of my own. Working my way up through the ranks in magazines did require a bit of self belief, but I was really determined.

Considering my background, Leiths might seem like an expensive choice, but the school really facilitated everything I wanted to do. It was sort of like “you’ve given us 23 grand, we’re going to give you a really good training, keep encouraging you, and link you up with everyone we can think of.”

Eventually Rosie Reynolds said to me: “Just write a book!” I did some freelance styling on another cookery book, and I stayed in touch with the publisher, Lydia Good at Penguin, who then moved to Harper Collins. I decided to be brave and just email her a proposal. I didn’t even look for an agent, I just went for it. I decided I had nothing to lose, and excitingly, she loved my idea.

My book, Mexicana!, is a joyous selection of my favourite inauthentic Mexican dishes. It’s fairly far removed from the cooking I learnt at Leiths, and yet so many dishes make use of skills I learnt at Leiths and apply them in a new way. For example the fried chicken is a twist on Leiths recipe, and the sauces and aiolis come from skills I learnt at Leiths.

Last year Mexicana! was covered in a double page spread in the Times and Telegraph, and in December I was offered the job of Deputy Food Editor on BBC Good Food. I feel like I’m on solid foundations now, but I still want to push it more and more. I’ve worked so hard but I honestly love going to work every day. I also really want to help new people coming into the business, and I will always try and make time for Leiths graduates with a passion for what they want to do. It’s not an easy road but it’s so rewarding, and don’t forget, we always need fresh talent too!


If you dream of a career in food, come along to our friendly Open Evening on 5th June.

At Leiths, there are dozens of routes to your dream career, from our Food Styling course to our Recipe Writing classes to Nutrition in Culinary Practice or our full Diploma.

Share your Leiths memories using the #MadeAtLeiths hashtag.

Author: Pamela Daniels

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