Leith relief for dismisseth'd us: The lure of the cookery class

Ex-City professionals are cashing in their redundancy cheques to train for a new career
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Indy Lifestyle Online

They are more used to tantalising their taste buds at top restaurants when wooing corporate clients on expenses but, increasingly, recession-hit City professionals are putting their knowledge of fine dining to the test in cordon bleu kitchens.

Cookery schools are being flooded with applications from bankers, lawyers and traders looking to roll up their sleeves on full-time courses after being made redundant or simply quitting the rat race.

Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, founded by Prue Leith, one of the judges on television's The Great British Menu, is full this term. About two-thirds of the 96 students on its £16,500, three-term professional diploma are career changers.

Abi Conway, 28, from London, quit as vice president of equity sales, at an investment bank in April. She used bonuses she had "squirrelled away" over six years to fund her time at Leiths. "I was eating out and entertaining clients in the City, but now it's really interesting hearing about restaurants," she said.

"I'm really enjoying the switch. It's refreshing to be more practical and active. I was sitting on the trading floor at my desk for 12 hours a day."

Camilla Schneideman, Leiths managing director, said the school witnessed a similar influx of career changers during the last economic downturn. "It would seem that during a recession people stop and reassess their work/life situation," she said. "Many see it as an opportunity to pursue a career in something that they have always wanted to do, but perhaps until now they have not considered it seriously."

The Surrey cookery school Tante Marie, which is part-owned by Gordon Ramsay Holdings, has changed its focus from short courses to meet demand for professional training. Longer courses now account for 95 per cent of its turnover, compared with 50 per cent pre-recession. The school's £12,900 two-term diploma has been fully booked for the past 18 months, and the January intake is ready to hit the kitchen.

Gary Hunter, the head of culinary arts at Westminster Kingsway College, which trained celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Ainsley Harriott and Antony Worrall Thompson, said enrolments were up by about 24 per cent this year and about 50 per cent of those were adult learners. Its three-year professional chef course, which costs £2,000 a year, is attracting career changers, particularly former bankers.

"I am not surprised, because there's so much cookery on TV now that everybody seems to know a lot more about food and suddenly it's a lot more acceptable to have a passion for food and eating out," Mr Hunter said.

Leiths student Adam Russell, 29, from London, quit as business analyst at the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline last Christmas. "It was a decent job," he said. "I just thought, do I really want to do it for the rest of my life? It's about following my passion."

Emma Lindsay, 41, a lawyer from Tenterden in Kent, took voluntary redundancy from the Serious Fraud Office in March after 15 years at the organisation. "There's obviously less of an intellectual challenge than I'm used to and I am definitely missing that," she said. "But so far I am not regretting it at all. I am really enjoying the course and I can see a lot of different potential routes at the end of it."

BBC's Masterchef competition has also enjoyed increased interest from people wanting to switch profession. The former barrister James Nathan, 36, who won the show in 2008, now works 70- hour weeks as demi chef de partie at Rick Stein's restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall.

But Bruce Poole, who co-owns three London restaurants, said it was "very, very rare" for career changers to make it in high-level kitchens because of the hard work. Tante Marie student Claire Coello, 32, from Petts Wood, Kent, who left insurance brokering in April 2008 after the Square Mile lifestyle became "too much", said: "After 13 years in the City, I don't know if I could take the pressure."

Mr Poole said the influx of cookery school talent would not affect the job market as the industry was a "huge employer". But he added upmarket eateries could benefit because "a lot of these fairly serious professionals want to work in decent restaurants".

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