Student Stories: Heather Lusardi on her Leiths Online Experience

Leiths Online alumna Heather Lusardi and her partner Sam quit their jobs to pursue their dream of opening a gastronomic getaway in rural France.

Heather Lusardi on her Leiths Online Experience

Leiths Online alumna Heather Lusardi and her partner Sam quit their jobs and sold their house to pursue their dream of opening a gastronomic getaway in rural France. Here, in part one of a new three-part series following their story, we spoke to Heather about her longheld dream of living in France and how she’s gone about realising it.

Your Instagram handle is @dreamingofthegarrigue. Can you tell us about your dream?

“It started quite vaguely. We really weren’t sure whether we would be able to do what we wanted to do but we had for many, many years loved France and loved that particular feel of southern France where you can literally smell the herbs as you walk through the undergrowth under pines and oaks – known as the Garrigue. We were dreaming of a different climate, a different pace of life, and a connection to the landscape we lived in, and that migrated into something a bit more concrete as we got a clearer sense of what we might be able to achieve, and realised we could actually move over here.”

“The dream now is to have a life embedded in a community, that provides much more sense of meaning and purpose, but centred around food and wine, because that’s what we love. Although we’re slightly further away from the garrigue than we thought we might be we’ve completely fallen in love with the area we’re moving to and want to share that with others. The dream is to create somewhere people can stay where they can find something that’s more than your average holiday. It will be about people coming together around a big table full of different plates of food, with sounds of clinking glasses and new friendships forged. It is very much for foodies, those people for whom food is a big part of where they choose to go on holiday.”

What were you doing before?

“For most of my career I was working in international development so I was travelling all over the world (and eating incredible food!). I loved it, but in the end, I was away from home for about four or five months of the year abroad which was too much. After that I worked as a civil servant, but never really found any passion or fulfilment in my work. My partner Sam is a lifelong career civil servant, he’s worked in Westminster and Whitehall his entire career so this is a very big change for him.”

You did the Chef Skills course with Leiths Online. What prompted you to do so?

“It took us a while to get to the point where it felt really feasible to take the plunge. In that interim period, I started doing various things to keep myself motivated. During lockdown, I started baking sourdough again; I started trying to go a bit further with my own cooking just on my own; we both did a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) level 2 course – Sam has since done a lot more in that space; and I started taking French lessons. As things started to come together for the move I spotted the Leiths course. Part of the reason for doing it was to give myself a bit of legitimacy, to make myself feel like what I was doing was good enough, and would be seen by others as good enough. The great thing about the online course was I could fit it around work, before making the leap of quitting my job. It kept us going while we were planning and getting the house ready to be sold. It gave me a real sense of purpose and structure and obviously really made a massive difference to my cooking skills.”

How was your experience of Chef Skills?

“I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was initially a bit unsure how it would work online. I knew that Leiths School of Food and Wine was extremely well respected for its face-to-face courses but I wasn’t sure how that would translate. It worked really well. It’s a six-month course which they give you a year to complete. I tried to stick really quite rigidly to that six months so it gave me a real sense of progression. The feedback was really useful. It was really stretching. It definitely built my confidence.”

And you also did the two-day accreditation at Leiths in London. How was that?

“That was fabulous. I loved the course online, it was better than I had anticipated it could be, but being there in person, it connected you to the school itself. When I got into the professional kitchens I felt like that was where I’d always been meant to be. And it was great to meet everybody I’d been chatting with on the course as well.”

Tell us more about your project. Where are you and what do you have planned?

“We’re close to a town called Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the east of the Tarn-et-Garonne region. It’s an absolutely gorgeous area. The Aveyron gorge runs through the town and we’re just up the hill from there. There are beautiful green valleys and lots of hidden wild swimming spots; it’s great for walking, cycling, canoeing, and all kinds of outdoor pursuits. It’s also a little bit of a foodie paradise. It falls between different regions, so it’s not all duck and truffles like you might find in Périgord and Dordogne, although there is a bit of that, but it’s known as the ‘orchard of the south’ famous for its incredible fruits - apricots, cherries, kiwis - and it’s a bit of a foraging paradise with lots of wild mushrooms, herbs. It’s also a big saffron growing area, so that has a really interesting influence on the cuisine as well.”

“We’re buying a house with a couple of small gîtes and a pool and a really big beautiful old stone barn. We have about a hectare of land with a meadow, and woodland. As well as the two existing gites we plan to convert half the barn into a three bedroom gîte so we can accommodate about ten people. The other half of the barn will be our event space, which could hold big feast for up to 50 people, or more intimate events, or workshops and courses. We would love to have supper-club evenings, mini food festivals or concerts on the land as well. Included in the stay with us will be a variety of food-based experiences around three times a week. Perhaps an apéro evening with lots of canapés and sharing food, a more formal five-course feast, then something more informal like pizza or supper cooked over fire. The accommodation will be self-catering so guests can also go to the markets and cook with the fabulous local produce, which is always one of my favourite things to do on holiday, but if you don’t want to lift a finger we can help out, with breakfasts, picnic baskets, meal-kits, or wine tastings on demand.”

What stage are you at with the planning?
“We’re about to sign the contract. We started looking in November last year, then moved over here to a rented place in June. It has been a bit of a convoluted process with the house sale, and we’ve had a whole lot of travails around planning permission for the barn, but that’s just been resolved so we’re hoping to sign next week or the week after. This was the first place we saw that Sam and I were both really really excited about. We saw exactly how you could use the space, the flow of it, the feel of it. The plan is to open next summer.”

All they need now is a name. We’ll catch up again with Heather and Sam in a few months’ time to see work is progressing. In the meantime, you can follow Heather’s news on Instagram or sign up to Sam’s Infinite Jest newsletter on Substack

Check your emails! You'll soon see how easy it can be to learn with Leiths Online...