I’ve been working in food & drink for most of my life, from my first Saturday job in a butcher's shop to cooking in five-star hotels and later working in the wine trade.
Since then I’ve written for all sorts of food & drink businesses, from large UK retailers to some of the country’s smallest artisan food producers and innovators.
If you'd like to know more, dig in for the full nine courses below, from amuse bouche to the petit fours, with wine…
A potted history
I'm a glutton. I guess 'gourmand' is a nicer word, but glutton is more apt. I like to eat. Always have, always will. It helped that my mum was a great cook. Not a fancy-pants, two-weeks-in-Provence, Julia Childs type, but a creative, versatile, loving home cook who could pretty much turn her hand to anything and make it special (crumble notwithstanding).
So I decided as a schoolboy that I wanted to be a chef, going on to study City & Guilds 706/1&2 at Thames Valley Uni (née Slough College). It had its moments (making osso-bucco in beautiful old copper pans, learning the art of crystal clear consommé, Viennoiserie, tempering chocolate, flambéing crêpes, all that jazz) but the atmosphere was a million miles away from the bustling French bistro I worked at in the evenings.
During college I did work experience at Cliveden Hotel in Taplow, where my eyes were opened to all the wonders of the classic Escoffier kitchen. Although it was a little like joining the army (starting at the bottom and being shouted at by angry, stressed men) the experience was unbeatable. Nets of still-twitching pike turned into delicate mousses, shelling langoustines and tending to the dizzyingly vast cheeseboard, drooling over petit fours and delicate hazelnut biscuits, snaffling dauphinoise trimmings, but mostly, hunting down all the odds and ends for the saucier's stockpots, which he'd reduce down into his wondrous, lustrous sauces.
After college I returned to work at Cliveden 'for real', but while the experience was still profound, those stiflingly hot 16 hour split-shift days eventually took their toll – it felt like there was a whole world out there I wasn't going to see if I stayed in the kitchen. So I took a job in a large, busy pub in the Burnham Beeches, a sort of proto-gastro pub. I started in the kitchen but soon moved front of house (hey, people!). The pub had six real ales on at any one time, plus as many on keg (in the days when one of each was deemed plenty in most pubs). I learned how to manage a cellar – the endless cleaning and back-busting barrel shifting, tapping the ales and learning to dodge those foamy jets that hit you in the face if you're not careful. And I got pretty good at it. Our clear, fresh real ale was a huge draw and we'd get queues for our Brakspear's, Abbot, Directors et al. I even used to serve beer writer Melissa Cole.
But still something was missing, so after a year or so I decided to go back to college and do the A-levels I never took. This rekindled my love of writing and literature, leading to an Access course, which got me off to the University of North London. I took a degree in English and Film with a view to becoming a journalist. But I always worked (studying in London, I had to), and my catering training served me well. Waiting tables in Pierre Victoire and Caffè Uno, bartending (later 'shift leading') at All Bar One and Florian's restaurant in Crouch End… not much money to speak of, but good tips and great fun.
So what does a food-loving 'mature student' do with all this knowledge and training? Get a job on a business-to-business magazine about digital printing, obviously. It's what dreams are made of. In all seriousness, despite the publisher resembling a very odd version of The Office, my time working on Digital Display Printing magazine was great. I learnt the basics of publishing, developed a writing style, realised the importance of good, concise editing and did quite a bit of international travel (although this mainly involved sitting in air-conditioned conference centres watching large inkjet printers demo their latest features).
Soon a plan started to form. I had a talent for writing, I loved food - couldn't I combine the two? My options were journalism or copywriting. I opted for copywriting as this was the very early noughties, before food supplements were in every newspaper and Jamie Oliver was a household name (honestly, that time existed). Eventually, with no contacts and not much of an idea about how to do it, I ditched the job and launched myself as a freelance copywriter. After a couple of years’ slogging, I landed my big break: the sole copywriter on the first rebrand of Sainsbury's premium Taste The Difference range. Working with creative agency BR&Me, I wrote copy across hundreds of products, from posh crisps to Christmas cakes, donut peaches to duck pâtè, beers to breads. It was a huge amount of work, but I loved every minute of it and will forever be grateful to BR&Me's Elsa Tye for taking a chance on me.
Once the Taste The Difference work was wrapped up, I decided to take a sidestep. I wanted to learn about wine and add to my 'skillset'. So as any sane person would, I took a job in the large Oddbins in Crouch End in November 2005, just in time to get stuck into the Christmas madness. Well, the money may not have been much, but the people were great and I learnt so much more about wine in my 18 months there than I ever would have on courses or evening classes. It was a great time and served me in good stead for things to come.
Ironically, the next big job came from a chance encounter while at Oddbins. I got chatting to a customer one day, mentioned what I actually did, and it turned out his wife was Head of Packaging at Marks & Spencer. A few emails later and I had an interview, getting involved with M&S's Cook's Essentials launch. This range of 300+ products saw the retailer go after the home-cooking market for the first time with a beautifully presented (of course) selection of quality kitchen cupboard items, from cider vinegar to smoked paprika, coconut milk to chickpeas. It was a whole new level working for M&S, with their attention to detail and passion for quality. I'm very proud of this work, with its clever 'cook with…', 'bake with…', 'flavour with…' copy style which became a real challenging brief to work around. As my mum used to say: "good old M&S…".
On the back of this I became one of M&S’s freelance marketing copywriters, working in-house for them three days a week between 2007 and 2010. I specialised in food packaging work and learnt a great deal about the finer art of crafting crisp, engaging and conversational copy. At the same time, my business really got going. I was contacted by Roger Harris Wines, Britain's premier Beaujolais and Macon wine importer, who needed help re-energising their customer communications. With such a stunning selection of wines, and so many great stories to tell, it was an absolute pleasure working with Roger and his team, and I got to learn so much about the fascinating southern Burgundy sub-region over the three years I worked with them.
I also became involved with Oliver Peyton's Peyton & Byrne brand around this time, working with him and design agency Farrow on a range of exquisite products – from teas and coffees to chutneys and chocolates – for their beautiful cafés. Working with such exacting taste-makers as Oliver and Mark Farrow isn't the easiest gig in the world, but it certainly ups your game. I've worked with Oliver since over the years on websites, branding strategy and non P&B development concepts and it's always an adventure.
Other memorable jobs around this time include writing the descriptors for Royal warrant-holding Belgian chocolatier Mary Deluc. Tasting my way through a couple of kilos of artisan pralines, bonbons, truffles and caramels (not to mention the napolitains and chocolate-dipped candied fruit things) was, quite frankly, heaven. "And they pay you for that?!"
In late 2011, following a move to Frome in Somerset, I found myself in the thick of food production, surrounded by some of the country's finest produce, with the craft boom just starting to break through. So enamoured by what was being crafted locally, I started a blog in 2012 to document all the produce I was discovering, initially inspired while we were renting a cottage just down the road from Burcott Mill, a still-working water mill that produces delicious organic spelt flour from locally grown wheat. I was hooked.
Within days of moving out of London, I was contacted by The Perfect Cellar (now Sipp Wine), a startup online wine business. Led by French entrepreneur Moez Seraly, it was a great opportunity to get involved with an exciting new wine venture right from the outset. I was heavily involved in structuring the website and tone of voice, and even got to select the wines for the company's initial list, working with Les Caves de Pyrene to build an inviting selection, with a focus on natural and organic cuvées.
But the real fun started when my blog began to grow in popularity. While it wasn't my intention to use the blog as a 'business tool', by getting out and meeting food and drink producers, asking them probing, cheffy questions, then going off and singing their praises online, I began to get wider work. I met Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy when I paid him a visit to buy some of their ricotta. The dairy had just won the BBC Food & Farming award, so it was a serendipitous meeting. We bonded as two ex chefs do, and I was soon rewriting, then rebuilding the Westcombe Dairy website.
I also met Duncan Glendinning of Thoughtful Bread Company around this time, becoming involved with his bakery's transformation from a Radstock bread wholesaler to a central Bath bakery and cafe. Duncan's determination and 24/7 graft is really inspiring to witness, so it's always a pleasure to work with him. I wrote some profiles of his suppliers for his website initially, then got involved marketing the new bakery's lunch offers. Eventually I was asked to refresh the Thoughtful brand, working with Area 10 design to restructure the company as Thoughtful Bakery, taking the emphasis solely away from bread to widen the scope across all the other fantastic products they produce fresh each day at their central Bath bakery.
At the end of 2013, just as we were about to move to Bristol, I was contacted by M&S again, this time by the Wines, Beers & Spirits team directly. They needed urgent help rewriting all their back labels to make them FIR compliant, which was a mammoth undertaking, but we got through it. After this I became a regular part of the small but passionate M&S wine team, going on to support the winemakers with copywriting for wine labels and online, writing the M&S Wine Club tasting notes, redesign the back labels (all M&S wines are own label, so have bespoke back labels) and even worked on a major strategy document to assess front label designs, customer perceptions and best practices.
Phew. Well, surely that's enough about me. I guess what I'm saying is: I know my stuff. I've seen the world of food and drink from most angles – from the production and preparation to the serving and the selling. I've prepped food in Michelin-starred kitchens and Kentucky Fried Chickens (a weekend job when I was at school – don’t judge me). I've sold wines in off-licenses and helped a major UK retailer launch their en primeur Bordeaux range. I've pulled pints in pubs and poured champagne for MPs. All of which has given me a rich understanding of the ins and outs of the industry.
While I'll always prefer the simple and straightforward, I love the art and artifice of it all. The magical tricks chefs use to create sensations and explosions of flavour, the craft of the winemaker in turning humble grapes into life-affirming wines, the tactile graft of the baker, transforming flour, yeast and water into voluminous bronzed loaves that mere mortals can't resist, and the mysterious machinations of bacteria slowly transforming cheeses, meats, teas, etc. into exquisite, preserved delicacies…
And I love the language and the persuasion that drives so much of food and drink: the conversations that whet appetites when there was previously none there; the romantic imagery that carries you off to different times and places; the choice phrase that conveys flavours and sensations so vividly your mouth starts to water. It's all about being transported, whether it's to the comfort of our mother's kitchen or the rarefied heights of the elite restaurant table.
So if you think the things I’ve learned on my journey could help you or your brand move on to greater things, get in touch. I’d love to hear from you…