Do quit your day job

Food-loving bystanders are turning into pros.

When it comes to careers, many of us work that cliched 9 to 5 job, chained to a desk just existing for the weekend. Who hasn’t daydreamed out of a rainy window for better things? That slider burger craze was actually your idea, as was the notion to rehash popular cookery shows into Comic Relief specials and masterclass two-parters. You’d have been a millionaire by now if it wasn’t for your actual job.

The appeal of the food industry is great, its popularity so consistent among the facets of restaurants, critiquing, blogging and general enthusing that an evening and weekend hobby can soon turn into a second job. And these days very few of us stick to one career for a lifetime, and it’s almost the fashion now to move around and dip your hand into whatever takes your fancy. In these especially turbulent times though, hearing that someone jacked in a stable career for the unknown path of food might make you choke on that delicious slider they just served you. Except it’s not so unusual, as Ed Smith, an ex-City lawyer-turned food writer and chef tells us.

“I worked at a large ‘Magic Circle’ law firm in the City for five years – two as a trainee solicitor, three as a solicitor in the Financial Institutions Disputes Group,” he says. “Prior to that I had completed a postgraduate diploma in law and then the legal practice course. So my legal career had been a seven year investment. My clients were retail and investment banks and large insurance companies and I was involved in disputes at all levels of the court system, as well as regulatory investigations.”

The extensive hours of Ed’s City career meant his food blog, Rocket and Squash, would happen between midnight and 2am. “[It] caused me to reassess what I was doing. I thought seriously about trying to create a working life in an industry that I was passionate about for six to nine months before handing in my notice.” He took a 6 month professional course that turned out to be a cathartic process – cooking every day meant he was doing something he loved. “[It] was something I could use as a reason to leave the job, rather than simply jumping into an unstructured and unplanned unknown.”

Not making the move sooner was because it seemed too risky or too late, Ed says. “The decision wasn’t easy at all. Most lawyers are risk averse, and I would say that I’m at the extreme end of that tendency. This meant that I deliberated over and over again, eventually deciding that if I didn’t try to change I would always regret it; secondly, I had no dependents and no mortgage, so was able to make the move without too much worry – something that would not always be the case; and third, I am in the fortunate position of being able to go back to a good and comfortable profession if it does not work out.”

But it’s never too late, as the saying goes. And this was certainly true for Joseph Sopher, who spent 20 years of electrical wholesaling business trips to the US tracking down America’s greatest snack for his co-workers back home. “I saw the gourmet popcorn, thought it was unusual so brought it back from my trip,” he says. “Everyone was absolutely loving the stuff and kept asking me to bring back more. On the next trip I brought back 23kg of popcorn in a suitcase.”

He no doubt kept himself entertained on his overseas trips with the ideas that were parked in the back of his mind. “It was October 2010 and I hadn’t been doing a lot – I had been semi-retired for two years. I started messing around with popcorn and eventually worked out how to attach caramel to it. Then I tried coconut, and it worked. “The pinnacle came after making the snack for a friend. Joseph forgot to add an ingredient so added it at the end and recooked it.”Then I discovered the process of layering the flavours. At that stage I thought, maybe there is a business here.”

Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn was born. With six weeks until his first food trade show, Joseph took a crash course in food safety, came up with the brand name and worked out how to translate cooking 200g of popcorn in a domestic oven to 200kg in a commercial outfit. “It was a baptism of fire! Even on the way to the show I was calling hospitals to see if they’d want 300kg of popcorn because I thought it wouldn’t sell. We left the show with just the sign.”

Countless ‘About Me’ sections on food blogger and semi-professional food writers lay claim to sticking it to the man and settling on food. Is it just our natural draw to food that makes it an appealing full-time pursuit, or were the career changers simply in the wrong line of work? Camilla Schneideman, Managing Director of Leiths Cookery School says it’s not unusual, and many students that pass through its doors are in the midst of a career change.

“I suppose part of our appeal is because we have a focus on directing people into food-related careers and the industry as a whole, and we’re not solely focused on training chefs to go into restaurants,” she says. “Food offers so much now. It’s big business and we find a lot of people coming to us for a career change. Lots of students are interested in food writing or teaching, running their own catering business or becoming a critic. For people who’ve been sitting at desks, they can make enormous adjustments and have great success. You don’t have to be a young whippersnapper to work in food – whether you’re developing recipes for supermarkets or creating new food products.” But she hastens to add that someone who’s not in their prime could find kitchens the most difficult move. “It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult – the long hours, it’s not very well paid and it’s very difficult to keep up.”

Joseph can safely say that in the two years of new business, his gut feeling has been a success. “Americans voted us the gift to take home. America is the spiritual home of popcorn, and for them to say they like it is my greatest accolade, as it’s what inspired me.” But with his recent experience comes a touch of wisdom: “Have a product that is genuinely different, and don’t give up a day job. If it doesn’t sell, walk away and be honest with yourself. There’s only one test – will they part with pound notes?”

For Ed, the satisfaction of change is with him every day: “My confidence in what I am doing ebbs and flows. But I remain convinced that the potential positives outweigh what I have left behind; the first time I made money off my own back was so much more satisfactory than any pay cheque, pay rise or bonus that I ever received in my old job.”

“I’m by no means a model career changer,” he says. “If you can, think hard about what you’re going to do before that, focus, commit to it, and jump straight in. We only live once. Do what makes you happy.”

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