How One Woman Switched Careers From A Barrister To A Baker | sheerluxe.com
In her debut book, food writer and baker Olivia Potts explores how the unexpected death of her mother, love and cake took her from the courtroom to Le Cordon Bleu. Here, she explains why she made the switch and offers advice and tips for anyone else who’s considering a change in career…
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Following the early death of her mother, Olivia Potts found solace in the kitchen, coming home from her exhausting job as a criminal barrister to bake soda bread and chocolate banana cakes – finding comfort in custard and a sense of clarity in the rigorous recipes baking requires. What began as a distraction from grief became a way of surviving and making sense of life without her mum.

At the stove, she concocted a plan to begin a new happier life, filled with fewer magistrates and more macaroons. And so she left the bar and enrolled on the Diplôme de Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu, plunging headfirst into the world of patisserie. Today, Olivia is a wedding caterer, the Spectator’s cookery columnist and was the winner of Young British Foodies Fresh Voices In Food Writing award in 2017. Here’s how she took the leap from barrister to baker – with absolute success.

Both Le Cordon Bleu and the criminal bar exist around a structure of rules and tradition… 

They both probably appear strange, maybe old-fashioned, to outsiders, but they are places where rules keep the system going. At the bar, the rules and formality ensure that both defendants and complainants are treated fairly, and that justice is not only done, but seen to be done. In a professional kitchen, clearly defined roles and expectations are the only way to keep the machine well-oiled, to produce huge quantities of food to the same high standard. And being both a barrister and a private chef have instilled in me the value of hard work, preparation and problem solving. But I'd be being disingenuous if I said that my days making dozens of puddings bear much relation to my days in court in a wig and gown!

What initially attracted me to cookery were the recipes…

I loved that I could follow a set of rules, and – give or take a divot in my cake, or sieving some lumps out of my custard – end up with what I'd been promised. It offered a stability that I was suddenly lacking elsewhere in my life. Baking is all about the recipes: salt weighed to the gram, water measured on scales rather than in jugs, cooking times down to the minute: I didn't have a cookery inheritance, and it took me a very, very long time to feel confident cooking instinctively, so I fell hard for recipes. And by the time I could cook instinctively, patisserie – the technique, the precision, the creativity and artistry – had stolen my heart. It helps that I have developed a robust sweet tooth along the way.

Saving to change jobs can be hard…

In one sense, I was in a fortunate position, because I had some inheritance from my mother's death, which opened up the possibility of the professional training course at Le Cordon Bleu. But that was only one facet of the financial implications of changing careers: it's hard to save money at the criminal bar because the legal aid system is on its knees, and the job pays notoriously poorly; I spent my final year in practice seconded to the Financial Conduct Authority, advising on a large fraud case. Having reliable income for the first time (albeit still self-employed, so without holiday or sick pay or other benefits), meant I was able to set some of my earnings to one side to provide a financial buffer during my career change.

I made the decision to switch careers with my heart…

My sister described the decision better than I have: 'a career change made with the heart, not with the head'. I knew that I'd reached a point where I had to change something professionally as the anxiety and misery I was feeling were unsustainable, but when I first decided I was going to leave and pursue cookery, it was very much a gut decision. Subsequently, I did my research, and came up with a hundred reasons to justify it – and of course I wobbled, particularly when I told friends and colleagues who had always known me as someone who was or wanted to be a criminal barrister, but the main decision to leave was in my bones, and once I'd decided on it, there was no real turning back.

I said ‘yes’ a lot once I’d finished my course…

I had been doing a small amount of food writing for publications before the course began, so I was able to continue with that, and it gave me the confidence to pitch to other publications, and to widen my writing scope. But in terms of building those little bits of writing into a career, and pursuing professional baking and catering, it was a matter of saying yes to opportunities even when my self-confidence wanted me to say no. 

Be brave…

You know you better than anyone else does, so don't be swayed by those for whom your new career sounds odd. You are more than your job, even if it's all you've ever really known, and if it is making you unhappy, and you think you can find happiness elsewhere, pursue it fearlessly.

A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts is out now.

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