Student Stories: Long Distance Learning with passionate Aussie cook Michelle

Australian home cook Michelle Singer loved her Leiths Online course so much, she crossed the globe to do her next course at Leiths in London. We talked to Michelle about long distance learning, the time difference, and why meeting Leiths’ teachers left her starstruck.

Long Distance Learning with passionate Aussie cook Michelle

Australian home cook Michelle Singer loved her Leiths Online course so much, she flew across the globe to take her next course at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. We chatted to Michelle about her experience of (very) long distance learning, about the transition from online to real world learning, and her ‘celebrity’ mentors.

Please can you start by telling us a little about yourself?

“I’m Michelle, I am an Australian and I am a freelance journalist, content creator, copywriter, and very passionate home cook. I’m fortunate to split  my time fifty-fifty between Tasmania and Queensland.”

How did you get into food?

“I have four younger brothers. My parents tried to give us more responsibility at home and would say ‘right, you’re cooking once a week’ but it didn’t take. None of us were interested. It wasn’t until I got to university and I was procrastinating and putting off study that I started cooking. Since then, cooking for other people has been a real absolute love.”

How did you hear about Leiths?

“I heard about Leiths through a friend who lives in Australia and was a teacher there. She had so many good things to say, I looked it up and signed up to the newsletters. It had always been in the back of my mind, then when Covid happened, I had more time like many of us had, and I saw that they were offering online courses, so I took the Essential Cooking course. I didn’t really know what to expect and I just had fun with it. I was the only Australian on there so the time difference was quite interesting, the seasonal differences were quite interesting, but that’s right up my alley because I was able to think creatively about the replacements for things that were out of season and different types of fish. I can’t believe it was 24 weeks. It felt like it went so quickly. You got so much out of it. The essential skills are skills that, if you are a cook, you use every single day. Starting from the knife skills, learning how to make a stock, learning how to make mayonnaise, learning how to cook eggs properly. Things that you think ‘Oh, I know how to do all of that’ but you don’t unless you’ve been taught properly. I found it invaluable. It also validated a lot of things. It validated my palate and my ability to combine flavours, but also taught me humility. I remember talking to my friend out of frustration saying, ‘Why can’t I add these flavours?’ ‘Why can’t I do this?’ and she said ‘No, you need to understand the basics and the foundations and that will then give you the ability to then expand and colour outside the lines’. It was such a good lesson.”

What made you do your next course at the school in London?

“I was desperate to do the accreditation but it was Covid so all the borders were closed. My husband bought a voucher to cover the cost to use at a later date but I then thought, instead of the accreditation I would put the voucher to use for a week-long course [in Advanced Cooking Skills]. So I took the plunge. That was the whole purpose of us coming to London this year.”

How was the experience?

“It exceeded my expectations. I thought a whole week of cooking would do one of two things: I would get it out of my system and go ‘That’s too much cooking’ or it would just light my fire even more. It did the latter. It absolutely helped that the weather was amazing. It’s different when you’re a tourist; you’re not bogged down by chores or looking after kids. I could literally get ready at the hotel, come to the school, cook, learn, and ride home in the beautiful sunshine. I made a point of making an adventure of it, going to visit restaurants and to Books for Cooks in Notting Hill. I really prepared for the course. I watched all the videos that they sent us; I read all the ingredients and recipes before a class: I would turn up early. I just fully committed and I couldn’t have loved it more. The super fun thing was, all the people you see on the online tutorials are also teachers at the school, so to me, seeing them in real life, they were celebrities! They are the most beautiful, gracious people and couldn’t have made me feel more welcome. It’s just the whole environment. If you’re into cooking, it’s nirvana.”

How was the transition from online learning to learning in-school?

“I felt really well prepared. Even though my Essential course had been a couple of years ago, it’s amazing how many things just come back to you. Because it was advanced, it just built and built and built on a lot of those things. I was a little nervous about it being advanced but then when I met everyone, everyone was just like me, passionate home cooks.”

Learning online and learning at the school both have their strengths. With the online course, you have to be self-disciplined; you have to be motivated. I felt 24 weeks went fast but if you weren’t engaged, or if you fell behind, I can imagine it would pile up and be very challenging. One thing that I found worked well for me, and I don’t know that many people were doing it so much, is just to ask as many questions as possible. That’s the whole purpose of having the mentor there. That was definitely a great side of the online. In school, it’s the nuances – what you want to smell, what you want to hear, what you want to taste. You refine, refine, refine. It’s so motivating being in the school and around a profession kitchen. My organisation has improved another level and my confidence and willingness to try new recipes that perhaps I would have avoided in the past. I will absolutely do another course, no question!”

What were your favourite recipes and skills?

“There were some really typically British recipes that I don’t feel will be relevant to me but it was  great to see how passionate the teachers were about the bone marrow and stuff. For me, things like handling live shellfish, how to manage that, how to kill them humanely, how to prepare those dishes, that’s invaluable, it’s a very Australian thing. The lobster was super fun. And the pasta! It was delicious. The macarons were a thing of beauty, and then the chocolate mousse, I’ve never tasted chocolate mousse that good.”

You specialise in property journalism. Do you have any plans to cross over to food or start your own business?

“Look, definitely in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking of food ideas so I don’t know whether a wine bar with friends or a muesli business…I’m always thinking ‘Could I?’ I use the skills I learned a lot. I plan my menu for the whole week. I love playing a game of using leftovers and repurposing them into something brand new the next day. My friends know and ask me to send this week’s menu so they can decide which day to come round!”

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