Having grown up in a family of bakers and chefs, Ailsa has always had a passion for baking. But it was only after living overseas for several years and concentrating on a very different career path, that she realised it was time to follow her dream of baking for a living. After returning to the UK in 2012, it was the perfect opportunity for Ailsa to undertake the Diplôme de Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu London. Now Ailsa is the proud owner of a mobile pâtisserie business, catering for weddings, parties and events in the Angus countryside, in Scotland.
Ailsa took some time out to speak to Le Cordon Bleu London about her time at the school and how her pâtisserie Diploma has contributed to her success.
Why did you choose to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu London?
I was in my late thirties, and I had recently been made redundant from my job, working for a FinTech company, specialising in currencies and commodities, while living in the United Arab Emirates. Upon returning to London I wanted to follow another path. I loved baking, especially breads and pastries, so I set about looking for a course to teach myself some new skills.
Le Cordon Bleu’s Diplôme de Pâtisserie kept appearing in my search engine results. At first I thought it was maybe a little too serious, for younger folk, or just a little more than I wanted to spend on learning a new skill before heading back into working life. However, the more I thought about it and discussed it with my husband, the more it seemed like the perfect course to learn these new skills. To learn from the very best teaching chefs, to learn how to put these skills to the best use and ultimately to use what I learn to possibly be able to work for myself one day.
What did you most enjoy about your experience whilst on the course?
I made some great friends that I still keep in touch with. We were all very supportive of each other and I was very lucky to be around others that were all so keen to learn. We all had that common goal.
The Master Chefs were absolutely amazing with us. We always panicked during demonstration classes that we would never be able to replicate the incredible dishes that the Master Chefs were so seamlessly creating. But when we were in class they talked us through every detail. They took a lot of time explaining things and never got fed up of constantly being asked questions. In fact they relished in it! They were always more than happy to give advice on anything, from what equipment to buy to our career moves.
But overall, what I really enjoyed, was just the school itself. As a foodie, it was great to be surrounded by so many others who had the same passion for learning as I did. It was wonderful!
What have you been doing since graduating?
After going back to Le Cordon Bleu London several times to do some short courses (I couldn’t keep away!), I started doing some local farmers markets. I just wanted to practice all of the skills that I had learned. That led me to finding “Fleur”. Rusty and abandoned by a farmer in Provence, Fleur, our 1970 Citroen H Van Mobile Pâtisserie, was then in much need of some TLC. We shipped her back to the UK and spent over a year renovating her into the beauty that she is now. We now live in the Angus Glens, Scotland where Fleur delights guests at weddings, private parties and events, with tall rustic cakes, pastries and champagne cocktails.
The Diplôme de Pâtisserie gave me a huge amount of confidence in myself that I could actually make good food, and it also made me challenge ingredients and taste.
How do you think your Diplôme de Pâtisserie has contributed to your success?
It has contributed massively! The Diploma gave me a huge amount of confidence in myself that I could actually make good food, and it also made me challenge ingredients and taste. I make it a mission to source the best ingredients, as we were taught the importance of this at Le Cordon Bleu, and this is what produces real taste! I think it has also made me a little bit of a perfectionist, not to mention the credibility that the qualification has given me, both as a woman and a newbie to this industry.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome this?
Setting up and continuing to run a business on my own, when never having done so before! It’s so incredibly hard, and very lonely when you are doing it on your own. You have nobody else to bounce ideas off, or nobody even to challenge you. We are still a very young business so I have not taken on any staff as yet, but I do have my incredibly supportive husband to help out, when he is not busy with his own very demanding, and very stressful job. We also have a couple of very lovely girls who help serve guests, but the day to day running, and all of the baking, I do myself. Every day has challenges and something new for me to learn.
What has been your proudest accomplishment to date?
I am proud every time my customers tell me that they love what I make, or that they love how Fleur looks and can tell how much work I put into her. It makes all my hard work of designing a business concept, setting it up and continuing to run it on my own, worthwhile.
I am also very proud to be a member of a local group, The Food Life, who are making huge waves in Scotland. We are a real food collective, recently awarded Rural Innovator Award by the Scottish Rural Parliament. It is a group of like-minded food producers and food business owners promoting good, local food. We hold foodie street food, pop-up events, where the consumer knows that they will be served the very best farm or sea to fork produce. Our very first event as a relatively small, but rapidly growing group, attracted 5000 people to a tiny beach side hamlet in Angus, Scotland. They were people who knew all of us as individual businesses. They came along to eat, see what was available in their area, and learn about what was produced locally. This proved to me that people desperately want quality, thoughtful, sustainable food.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Know what your business model is and stick to it! I am almost two years into this business and sometimes I have veered off due to pressures from others. I have found myself in a situation where customers don’t know what my business is and what we offer. Don’t try to be all things to all people, learn to say no, politely and when things get difficult, keep going. Ask questions from people in the same business, see what others do and think about how you can do it better. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Mistakes will make you a much stronger business person. You must learn from them.
Also, it is important not to cut corners. Consumers are fed up with food businesses that cut corners. Give your customers something to delight their taste buds, tell them where the ingredients came from and why you sourced that particular item. Show them the love and passion you have for what you do and why you want them to enjoy your food. I find that people get excited with me when I tell them that a ninety year-old lady hand-makes the butter that I use in a family dairy five mins from my front door. Or my soft fruit comes fresh from the farm next to my house, still warm from the day’s sun. It’s not a story, it’s absolutely true!
Find out more information about Ailsa’s pâtisserie business, Artisana Bakes.