The digital transformation has impacted all industries and has had an undeniable effect on how we carry our daily lives. When it comes to food, for example, one person’s suggestion to try some particular dish can reach thousands of people in a day. In order to address those changes, chefs, food business owners, and restaurateurs are sharpening up their digital marketing skills to cater to consumers who have this new habit of finding information via social media. At today’s #inhershoes, we invited Elizabeth Haigh, better known as The Modern Chef, to tell us how a Michelin Star chef and former Master Chef contestant is combining digital tools with great food to inspire a new generation of chefs to come.
‘In Singapore, you talk about food more than you talk about your feelings. You greet your family by saying: are you hungry?’ begins Elizabeth. ‘Food is undoubtedly an important aspect of Singapore.’ As a young girl growing up to a Singaporean mum and a British Dad, she was constantly exposed to the two different cultures and clearly, to different cuisines as well. ‘I was brought up cooking and eating southeast Asian food. Even after I moved to the UK I was still very connected to our home food. We were cooking Asian food during the weekdays and on Sundays, we would invite guests to eat baked beans on toast and pudding.’
Before even wishing to become a chef, Elizabeth was fascinated by the arts and volcanos. ‘I had two really influential teachers at school, one was an artist and the other was my geography teacher. I loved volcanos and I wanted to become a volcanologist, but it wouldn’t match my creative side. So I decided architecture would be a way of exploring both worlds.’
Having studied architecture at Central St Martins in London, Elizabeth explains that the degree gave her core skills that she would later put into practice as a chef. ‘CSM is extremely competitive. It allowed me to explore my creative side while giving me time management skills. I love drawing and I am good at details but studying architecture is a lot about spending time looking at a screen and editing things on the computer. I didn’t like that’ she says.
‘My friends used to tell me all the time that I loved cooking more than I loved studying. One day, they dared me to enter Masterchef. After my graduation, I applied and surprisingly got through.’ Joining Masterchef proved to be a smart choice for Elizabeth, as it was in the tv-show that she has gained some of her most valuable experiences, connected with interesting people and has grown both the confidence and the knowledge to start her own career as a chef. ‘Masterchef opened my eyes to how much I love cooking. We would talk about food all the time with the other contestants and I was happy to do so all day.’
The Masterchef visibility not only grew her desire to become a chef but also inspired the idea of creating a blog, documenting her journey to become a chef, her projects and creations in the kitchen, called The Modern Chef. The website became a platform for Elizabeth to prove to herself what she was capable to achieve in the kitchen and with her new choice of career.
When it became time to apply for jobs, Elizabeth took a somehow old-fashioned approach. ’I wrote letters to the places I would love to work and one of them said yes. I just started from the bottle by picking spinach leaves, peeling potatoes, learning how to do everything’. Once her work at restaurants started to take off, she took a break from the digital world and to her blog, switching to a full-time job in the kitchen. ’When I started working assisting chefs, I realized how much work it took. I had to readjust. It was a completely different type of discipline. Especially because there weren’t a lot of women in the kitchen so I felt I needed to prove myself and really stand out’ Elizabeth explains. During her first years, she worked at multiple restaurants being exposed to diverse cuisines and to different techniques of preparing food and mostly building up the skills and expertise she would soon put into practice with her own project.
Having reached a satisfactory level of competence as a chef, Elizabeth wanted to keep on evolving. ‘I started studying Culinary Arts at Westminster University on my days off. I loved going back to the education environment. Although I was by far the oldest in the classroom that didn’t hold me back. Actually, I felt encouraged to help my classmates.’ After her graduation, she opened her first restaurant ‘Pidgin London’ in Hackney. Her creative touch combined with her years of experience in the kitchen brought the restaurant to obtain one Michelin star after just one year of activity. Despite the early success, Elizabeth believes that the timing was not quite right. ‘The market wasn’t there. The business rates in London were escalating, it was not the right for me and my family to start a new business like that. It took a little bit of time to focus on what it is that I want to do.’
Looking to constantly evolve, Elizabeth embarked on a new project, redefining what a modern chef is. Her new business, Kaizen House (kaizen meaning ‘to constantly improve’ in Japanese) is a platform for restaurant events, digital content, recipes and especially mentoring and educating a new generation of chefs. ‘With Kaizen house, I want to mentor predominantly young female chefs. I want to give them pointers, directions, references, and guidance.’ Elizabeth says. Given her own personal experience, she believes that mentoring in this industry is highly necessary as there is very little advice on what aspiring chefs should be doing. ‘Being a chef is not only about being the best cook. It is about being a good leader, learning how to budget well. I have worked with great chefs but they weren’t great leaders and additionally, none of them were female. I want to introduce people to the positive side of this industry and mostly have fun.’
Elizabeth finishes the interview with a positive note on the future: ‘being in the food business is about what you can do with all the communication and media channels now available to you. It’s a really exciting time to be doing what we are doing. And I am looking forward to seeing what we can do in the future’.
As told to Karbatin in London.
For more on Elizabeth and her work, follow her Instagram page.