Can you tell us about your previous work as a Chef?
My career as a chef began very suddenly. Roughly 7 years ago my sister had been working and developing with Macknade Fine Foods in Faversham as the Deli Supervisor and said to me one day, “what harm would it do to apply?” At the time I believe they were advertising for part-time maternity cover – although, I’m sure I’ve never worked a part-time job there!
The business hadn’t yet evolved to include General Managers so I went for an interview with Stefano, the owner. I put my hands up to having absolutely no catering training whatsoever; but told him I was the best person for the job! I was very honest and although I hadn’t yet learned the ways around a commercial kitchen I was very good at baking bread, and that for the last few years since my parents had split up and Mum moved to Scotland, I had taken it upon myself to learn to cook all the things I watched her make growing up… amongst a few specials of my own.
So, I got the job. I began working with like-minded people who, like me, were passionate about food but with little catering training and relished the chance to feel the rush of a kitchen, creating dishes using produce that people would normally throw away. I still carry this passion and ethos throughout my career today.
I was offered an opportunity to work as a Chef De Partie at a local Award-Winning pub The Three Tuns, in Lower Halstow 1 and a half years later. This gave me an incredible platform to grow and expand my skills, allowing me to come into my own. Through all the highs, the lows, and working with such a tight-knit group of creative chefs everyday was such a blessing. When I started, I was put on the Cold Section of the kitchen; platters, sandwiches, cold starters, soups and desserts. I recall very vividly having a hard conversation with my boyfriend (now husband) and him coaching me in confidently telling the Head Chef that if I had wanted to do all these things I would have stayed at Macknade and had more sociable hours! ‘Be confident! Be self-assured!’.
Needless to say, the actual conversation with the Head Chef didn’t turn out that way! I asked him rather timidly if at all possible, I could learn some of the hot sections – and he said yes! I still remember being on the hot pass for the first time and plating up my first dish, a cut of venison, with sweet Moroccan Spiced Couscous and Purple Sprouting Broccoli with a Red Wine Jus. Hearing the praise of my boss telling me I had a natural talent for putting something on a plate and it looking fantastic, gave me the drive I was looking for!
I loved my time here, and whilst I was growing as a person and as a chef, I still had the desire for more. But alas, all good things must come to an end and my career took me to work in an office. Working as a Chef De Partie, (or any chef for that matter) created a very unsociable life.
Not long later, my passion and drive for the food industry drew me back and I was taken on as a Sous Chef at The Plough Inn Lewson Street. A great little pub owned by two fantastic kind-hearted people providing me with the opportunity to explore menus and push my skills and abilities. After 6 months, this transpired to be the hardest 6 months of my life. The pressure, the hours, the work, I wasn’t in a great place in my life and so took a step back from the industry for my mental health and my family.
I decided after a short, but tumultuous, career as a chef I would rather be talking about all the fantastic products than cooking them behind the scenes – where better than back on the Deli at Macknade Fine Foods.
How has this impacted where you are today in your career?
I would say that my time a chef has very much influenced where I am today. When I started my career in the food industry, I had no idea where it would lead me! It has shaped me into the sharp, innovative and disciplined person that I am today.
It gives me great joy talking to all my customers every day. Not just selling cheese and charcuterie, but investing in them the time to ask what they will use the products for, what recipes they will try, or if they are simply looking for some inspiration. Building myself personally and within my career, now a Supervisor at Macknade, has made me kind, and nurturing with a full understanding from every perspective – I wanted to be so unlike some of the bosses I had in the past that broke me down. I want to teach, train and help build people up to feel the joy like I do.
What’s your first memory of food?
My first memory of food is a fond one. I grew up on the Isle of Sheppey in a working class family, and my parents loved to host dinner parties. I would say that although we weren’t born into ‘fine food’, they were both always curious and excited to cook new things. I remember my mum always being in the kitchen on a Friday night, cooking for friends and I would sit on the worktop whilst she was working and just watch her whirl around our little galley kitchen. I have always been a rather curious person myself by nature and would bombard my mum with lots of questions about what she was doing. Then when the guests would arrive I would promptly be sent up to bed but I would try and stay awake so after everyone had gone, my parents would let me come back downstairs so I could taste all the things that they had cooked!
What cheeses should we be eating but probably aren’t?
I would say that out of all the cheese trends this year that have come about this year, my favourite has been educating people in the ‘washed rind’ variety. Most people will know the usual European favourites such as Italian Tallegio and French Epoises and will know these cheeses from their aroma over whether they have actually tried them. For me, there is such a huge industry now in the UK that has developed these underloved cheeses, and if you find the right one it will become your favourite cheese to buy!
I believe there are some amazing varieties of cheese out there now and in the last two years Village Maid, a dairy-based in Berkshire have released the ‘Maida Vale’ a soft Guernsey cheese washed in a local ale to them by the Uprising Brewery. It’s super rich and creamy with a yeasty afternote.
Then you have the Isle of Avalon which is my absolute favourite. From Godstone in Surrey, it starts its life as a French Port Salut and is then transferred to the James Aldridge Dairy to be washed in wine during its maturation process. It is wonderfully stinky, but has a stunning floral flavour that’s rich and oozy with a beautifully picturesque sunset orange rind that’s sticky and bursting with flavour!
Another one that I completely adore which is not a rind-washed cheese but is just as good, is a new one released by the Charles Martell & Son Dairy this year. Famous for making the Stinking Bishop cheese this new one has a great name: ‘Slack-Ma-Girdle’! I just love saying it! It’s not as pungent as the Stinking Bishop as it just has a dappled grey mould-ripened rind and the inside practically runs away!
What is your top cheese and charcuterie combination?
This is a really hard question! There are so many great combinations of cheese and charcuterie, but if I have to choose, one of my favourites would have to be Bresaola. But not just any type of Bresaola. The one we source specially for Macknade’s Deli is a Tyrolese Bresaola which is a lot bigger than a regular one, it’s much sweeter, slightly smokey and the texture is almost as soft and delicate as Carpaccio. The Tyrol region where this comes from, is a very mountainous area that splits itself between the Alps of Northern Italy and Western Austria which are two of my favourite places in the world.
Some of this Bresaola sliced thinly and laid on a plate, with a little bit of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and some shaved Pecorino Sardo is a match made in heaven. My mum’s partner comes from Milan, Italy and he will often do a plate of this when I visit.
Favourite recipe with cheese?
So many! My favourite recipe to cook all together is actually classed as a bit of an Italian Peasants dish called Stromboli. When I first learned to make bread, my sister gave me a book which was a step-by-step cookbook and the bread section fascinated me! The first time I cooked this recipe was with her, and I believe I still have a photo of it somewhere! It’s a basic Italian dough made with olive oil, rolled and stretched, then layered with salami, basil, mozzarella and roasted red peppers. It’s then rolled up a bit like a Swiss roll and baked. It is a truly glorious recipe. Over the years that I’ve made it, I have chopped and changed the filling and now use a strong Provolone Mandarone cheese alongside the mozzarella.
Go-to restaurant in Kent?
Also a very tough question! Some of my favourite places would have to include Posillipo’s, an Italian restaurant with stunning views of Faversham creek. Ever since my husband and I moved here 2 and a half years ago, it’s become one of our regulars! Always feeling very welcome, I’m obsessed with their Spaghetti alla Vongole and I always like to finish my meal with a flaming Molinari Sambuca!
Another one of my favourites would be The Fish on the Green in Bearsted. Although it’s been a while since I’ve been back, this restaurant was probably one of my first experiences eating seafood and I instantly fell in love with how versatile fish is to cook.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with the Sunset Sessions?
This is always so much fun! I have taken part in about 6 Sunset Sessions over the last year and a half with a collaboration of Macknade and Simpson’s Wine Estate.
Customers pre-book their tickets for an evening of wine tasting and an array of cheese and charcuterie boards provided by Macknade (and selected by myself!) to compliment the range of Simpsons wines every last week of the month.
I have done the majority of the Sunset Sessions with Silvia and Henry who were new to Simpsons at the beginning of this year – they are such a fantastic team. They do a wonderfully informative tour of the vineyard and winery (which I get to attend too!) introducing their stunning Chalklands Special Cuvee sparkling wine first, and then back at the winery we talk wine, cheese and meat! I always try to take something a little different just to prove to people that you can pair so many different flavours with a variety of different wines. I really love Simpson’s Wine Estate and I have found myself a bit of a brand ambassador for them, always recommending their wines over any other. Charles and Ruth who own the company have a super successful vineyard in the south of France as well as their one here in the heart of Kent and I’m always so impressed at what they have accomplished.
In the years that I’ve been a part of the Macknade family, I have preached to the masses that there is no better place to shop. It’s my belief that every person who works here wants to be here. Everyone wants to be on the leading front of innovation in the industry, which is why this is everyone’s ‘Favourite Place’… for the customers and the staff – I absolutely love it! I have been blessed to be on the front lines every day for the last two and a half years, instilling that passion and drive for quality and local produce into the hearts of everyone I talk to. This is why, from November I will be leaving Macknade Deli to fulfill the next chapter in my career. I’m taking my knowledge back to the source and will be training to become one of the cheesemakers at The Cheesemakers of Canterbury. It’s an exciting new step, and I’m always looking to further my education and hope to be able to continue to teach people about the greatness of Kentish produce. Maybe next year my Macknade Deli family can tell their customers that their batch of Ashmore Cheddar was made by me!
Follow Mica on the gram at @prayerstocheesus