#MadeAtLeiths: Olia Hercules on taking a chance on happiness

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#MadeAtLeiths: Olia Hercules on taking a chance on happiness

Leiths alumna Olia Hercules has her third cookbook heading to the bookshelves. She shares her journey towards her dream.

It was winter 2008, and the financial crisis was in full swing. Scary, unsettling times. Every week someone would get a redundancy notice at the magazine I was working at. I’d been working there as a junior reporter for three years, but I was increasingly feeling overworked and exhausted. I became ill, and decided to take a few days off work.

Even though I didn’t know how to fry an egg until my early twenties, by that time (I was 25), I was totally obsessed with cooking.

Unwell, shivering, huddled on the sofa, watching one of the cookery channels, the Leiths advert came on. I remember turning towards my ex-husband and saying, “Why on Earth am I not doing this?”. To my amazement he replied, “I have no idea why you are not doing this; you should.”

When I went back to work, I clearly remember looking at my computer screen and casually mentioning, “Oh this Leiths course…” to my colleague, best friend and fellow foodie, Caroline. She casually asked if I was planning to retrain. I remember thinking, “It is possible!” It was a Eureka moment.

I knew the diploma course at Leiths was pricey and I was only just making enough to live on. I approached my parents and told my Mum through the computer screen that I had something important to tell her. I was planning to say that I was going to take a bank loan and become a chef. I couldn’t imagine my parents paying for more education after my BA and Master’s degrees. These had already cost them a fortune, especially as I was a foreign student.

Before I could begin, my Mum told me she’d had a vivid dream that she had to tell me about first. I listened.

She had dreamt that we were both on a bus. I suddenly disappeared and she panicked. She looked out the window and with relief saw me walking confidently up a mountain.

I shrugged my shoulders and hastily blurted out my plans. She said that they would help me pay my fees and that she had a feeling that it was the right thing to do. I was shocked, to be honest. They have always been supportive, but the fact I did a language and politics degree instead of a business degree they envisaged was already controversial.

I would like to stress that not even in my wildest dreams did I think that this ‘going up a mountain’ dream would end up with me writing three cookbooks. But I decided that turning my obsessive hobby into my profession, whatever the reward, would bring the most happiness into my life.

Studying at Leiths was everything I wished for and more. By then I was 26 and appreciated having the maturity to really focus. I was amazed as I met peers in their forties and fifties and loved this diversity.

For many in the industry, even late career changers, it didn’t seem necessary to train. One could start staging in restaurants straight away. But for the type of person that I am - oscillating between highly confident and then lacking positivity - I believe Leiths was a must. I gave it my all, and it built up my confidence. By graduation, my knowledge, coupled with my raw enthusiasm, made me feel that I had something to give, whatever direction I was to choose.

I remember inspiring lectures by famous chefs and writers: Peter Gordon, Yotam Ottolenghi, Niki Segnit, Henry Harris; all awe-inducing and inspirational. I took Saturday jobs at Leiths, doing the washing up during ultra-popular Saturday classes for the public. Never once did it enter my head that I might be that chef doing those classes or giving a lecture to Diploma students (both of which I did end up doing).

The teachers at Leiths were great sources of motivation, teaching us to dispatch lobsters, make ethereal pastry, clarify stocks and do catering cost calculations. They were helpful, fair and charismatic.

After graduating, I interviewed for an internship at BBC Good Food magazine, which was my first choice career path. I went to Good Food HQ to do a recipe test and interview, but I wasn’t successful. I don’t blame them, I was stiff and gormless; not myself.

In despair, I decided to prove to myself that I was tough, and started working in restaurants. My first job immediately after graduation was in a bistro in Fulham and then I was offered a job at Ottolenghi Islington - Ottolenghi’s busiest space. Soon enough, I was Chef de Partie. By the end of my stay I could seamlessly do 105 breakfast covers in three hours on a busy Saturday morning.

As in any professional kitchen, the experience was challenging. Yet I honed my knife skills, I trained myself to do service with my eyes closed, and I learnt how to season properly. Finally I grew a tougher skin.

While I was pregnant, I got an internship with Sainsbury’s magazine. That experience taught me how to test and develop recipes. I was taken on photoshoots as an assistant, which provided a glimpse into food styling.

I took six months off after I had my son Sasha, and then went back to work. Restaurants did not seem plausible anymore, so I did any kind of cooking work I could find. ‘Leiths List’ provides graduates with positions in a range of food related projects as well as full time and part time opportunities. It’s definitely another plus to being a Leiths alumni.

Going back home to visit my parents, complete with kitchen burn scars on my arms and scabby chef’s hands, worried my mum. She didn’t like the thought of me lugging heavy crates around for catering jobs, yet she did see that what I did for a living made me extremely fulfilled.

When my son was one, I began working as a recipe developer at a start-up. It was fulfilling to combine recipe writing with styling. On a whim, I decided to write a letter to Guardian Cook. I was thrilled as they published a couple of my recipes in their ‘Get Together’ column.

Fourteen more recipes followed the next year, and I recall the surprise and encouragement I found sharing my mum’s Ukrainian recipes.

By February 2015, the start-up company folded. I was jobless and the revolution was kicking off in Ukraine. Crimea was getting annexed. I was worried sick for my family. They lived next door to Crimea, and in this dark time we had no clue what was going to happen.

As all this unfolded, an agent from United Agents saw my Ukrainian recipes in Guardian Cook and contacted me. We met up, and she said I ticked every box but that I needed to increase my network and profile. At that time I had 500 Instagram followers, and for them it was nowhere near where they wanted me to be. I was sent off to work on it and come back in a couple of years.

This gave me drive, and I spent much of my time crafting test shoots for my potential cookbook. The stars aligned in a favourable manner because within two months I was personally called by Faber Guardian who made me an offer for a cookbook deal.

I was signed immediately by United Agents immediately; and i still work with that same agent today. Within a month there was a bidding war between three big publishers for my debut cookbook ‘Mamushka’. I still pinch myself often. Despite being a single parent at that point, I didn’t go for the biggest monetary advance. I went with my gut feeling and picked a publisher who felt completely aligned with me. I think I may have been doing it all my life, but this was the very moment when I discovered what it actually meant to go with the ‘gut’. I have been consciously doing that ever since.

I am now able to live off my book writing. As I enjoy the physicality of cooking, I still do food styling, TV work, pop ups, and I teach Eastern European cookery at Leiths.

Everyone has their own personality, their own path, their own drive and expectations. I quite honestly did not have big dreams or aspirations. I just wanted to cook for a living. With my academic background, it was important to me to feel knowledgeable and properly prepared before I entered a new industry.

Training at Leiths was what gave me the foundation and confidence to tackle each phase one step at a time, and to move up that dreamscape mountain of my mother’s, not realising along the way, that I was turning that dream into my reality.


Want to discover the flavours of Olia's childhood and introduce Eastern European flavours into your cooking? Then book onto Creative Vegetarian Feast with Olia Hercules.

The class draws on Olia's travels whilst writing her two well-loved cookbooks, Mamushka and Kaukasis. Explore the exciting flavours of regions such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iran, Russia and Turkey.

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.


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