In this interview, we catch up with alumna and winner of the UK Scholarship Award 2012, Zoe McReynolds. She has gone on to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant and will soon be moving to Australia to follow her dreams down-under! Zoe tells us how she found the competition and how her time on the Grand Diplôme® changed her life.
How did it feel to win the UK Scholarship Award in 2012 at just 18 years old?
I never really pictured it happening, the process was going well and I kept getting through to the next stage so there were some points during the competition that naturally I thought I might actually have a chance. During the finals I looked at my competitors and some of them had some fantastic experience behind them so I didn’t expect to win at all. I stood waiting for the winner’s name to be called out; it was a very tense moment. I remember my family all looking at me and suddenly my name was called and all I remember thinking was ‘are you sure you want me!?’ I felt very lucky indeed to have been chosen for such a fantastic opportunity.
What inspired you to enter?
I always knew that I wanted to cook, so I started looking at colleges and selected my top five cookery schools. Of course Le Cordon Bleu was one of them and one day my close friend asked me if I had seen the scholarship award, and of course I hadn’t. She kept asking if I had submitted my application yet, but I thought I would just be one out of hundreds of people who would apply, so why would Le Cordon Bleu pick me?
It was coming close to the competition's closing date and my friend realised that I hadn't yet submitted a video, so before I knew it she was at my house with her video camera ready to help me write out a script – and so I applied. Before finding out I had won the place, I had saved some money towards the fees which was put to good use after leaving Le Cordon Bleu as it enabled me to stay in London after graduating.
My amazing friends and colleagues helped me so much and without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. They were constantly “tweeting” and sharing my story on social media during the application process to help get me votes because they knew just how much I wanted it.”
What course did you study at Le Cordon Bleu by winning the UK Scholarship Award?
I studied the Grand Diplôme® which was a 9-month programme.
The fundamental techniques that are taught at Le Cordon Bleu are also much more important than people realise, especially when you climb higher up the ladder.
How did you find studying the Diplôme de Cuisine and the Diplôme de Pâtisserie simultaneously?
The workload was fine even with my apprenticeship at Koffmann’s one day a week.
When I was sixteen I worked many jobs so I knew what it was like not to have a day off. I think it depends what background you’ve come from, however I think studying both disciplines gives you better time management – which especially comes from studying pâtisserie.
What positions have you held since leaving Le Cordon Bleu, and where?
Well it started with my apprenticeship at Pierre Koffmann’s, from which I was asked to stay on as a Commis Chef once I left Le Cordon Bleu. Eight months later I became Demi Chef de Partie on the starters and then progressed to the meat and fish sections.
I left Koffmann’s to join La Trompette, a one Michelin-starred restaurant in Chiswick as a Chef de Partie looking after the vegetable section initially, then onto cold starters and finally hot starters.
What position do you hold now, and where?
I have been working as a freelance chef holding dinner parties for clients and running supper clubs for guests in my own home which I called Saint Clements Table. Alongside this, I was also working on an events boat which ran along the Thames and served up to 500 people at one time – the views of the river were quite incredible! But now I am about to embark on a new adventure across the globe as I am moving to Australia! I will be doing lots of exploring but will still be cooking - probably in a restaurant or perhaps for private clients.
How does it feel to be a successful woman in the industry, especially with the recent publicity of the distinct lack of female chefs?
I think you have to be on your guard, and be prepared for some men to think you aren't as mentally or physically capable as them. It comes with its own challenges, but my advice is to be prepared to be discriminated against, but remember how amazing it feels to prove someone wrong.
There are also lots of chefs that like to work with women brigades, many of which say the environment is much calmer and the attention to detail is much higher. But all in all, it’s an opportunity to show people what you can do.
What was your biggest achievement through your training at Le Cordon Bleu?
I struggled with chocolate work and making it through the final exam was quite challenging for me. I burst into tears just before a lesson, which isn’t like me at all, but when I passed - it felt incredible. Pastry in general was an area which I found quite hard, I think it was the anxiety around not knowing if it had gone wrong until I had taken it out of the oven!
How did it feel to land your first job after completing your studies at the school?
Although it was a continuation of my placement at Koffmann’s, it was still a very rewarding moment knowing that they wanted me to stay, and from then on I knew I was making a decent contribution and it was a nice realisation that every day I was making progress.
How did it feel going back to Le Cordon Bleu and speaking to current students?
I loved going back. It was lovely to see everyone, many of whom looked just as nervous and as curious as I once was. Hopefully I offered them some much needed advice – hints, tips and tricks that will be useful in their future careers. It is the little things that matter and one big lesson to learn is that the way you carry yourself in the kitchen is just as important as your culinary skills.
What advice would you give to the entrees for the UK Scholarship Award 2017?
Give it your all! It is a lot of hard work, but you’ve got nothing to lose so don’t fear being knocked back, and it is also a fantastic opportunity to build a network. Also, before you complete your application or go to the interview, consider what the judges are looking for and what they want to see, and usually it’s your interest in the subject and the questions you ask and not your culinary skills.
How important do you think a grounding in traditional techniques is when going into the industry today?
It is certainly useful to know the French terms, so that people don’t have to stop and explain basic terminology to you. The fundamental techniques that are taught at Le Cordon Bleu are also much more important than people realise, especially when you climb higher up the ladder. It’s hard to be at the top yet be unsure of how to do the tasks of people in the lower ranks, and it will certainly come back to bite you in terms of respect from your peers.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I’m currently planning on moving to Australia by the end of the year, exploring but still cooking - probably in a restaurant or perhaps for private clients. It’s nice to have so many options so I get to pick and choose which path I take. I don’t like to make too many plans too far ahead; I’m just going to go with the flow.
Want to follow in Zoe's footsteps? Apply today for the UK Scholarship Award - all you need is passion, we'll teach you the rest.