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Welcome to The Creative Switch. I’m Nikki Vallance and this week I had the pleasure of interviewing my inspirational guest, Theo Michaels. He will tell us about his food story and how he ended up with so many strings to his culinary bow, and how it all connects back to family.
Hi, Theo. Welcome to the creative switch. It’s lovely to have you here.
I’m honoured to be here, Nikki. Thanks for having me.
We’re going to have a really interesting conversation, I’m sure, about creativity. But before we go into the meat of that, I’d love it if you could just tell people a little bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m an executive chef for an events business, which is sort of a day job, I guess.
An author, I’ve written seven books. Number eight is coming out at the end of 2023.
A TV chef on Steph’s Packed Lunch on Channel Four, which I’m contracted to, so I do that a couple of times a month.
I run a coffee shop and I own an online meal planning service called Five Dinners.com
I also juggle three kids and a dog, which I couldn’t do without my wife, who works and holds everything together.
Amazing. So that’s quite a bit to be juggling. I’d love to know your food story, so maybe we could look at where your food passion first came from. Can you remember where?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting point, because I read things like this and when people ask that question, the answer is, normally, ‘when I was three, I was on my mum’s lap by the kitchen stove…’ I think for me it’s a bit different. My background is Greek Cypriot and so food and family and being around the kitchen table, it’s just part of our DNA. There wasn’t a defining moment, or an epiphany that went, ‘I love food’. It’s just always been there. It’s just part of the culture, it’s part of the family. So even before Master Chef, when I was in the corporate world, food was always a passion, it’s always been there. I think that the turning point was when it went from purely therapeutic home cooking to professional, that was a big turning point. But food itself is just part of our DNA.
Right. So, it’s more like the question I asked you was, where did it start? Actually, it started when you started breathing, really? Because it’s been all around you.
Yeah, because the earliest memories of being with family, are sitting around the table and there’s a ton of food. For Greeks, if you’ve got two people coming for dinner, you cater for ten. Of course, it’s just the natural hospitality of the Greeks. And so those memories, there’s always that thread to the tapestry of life. There’s always a thread of food being part of that.
Okay, so you mentioned MasterChef there, I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, but I want to look at it from a point of view of someone who was thinking about doing that. What were you feeling? What was it that triggered your decision to actually enter in the first place.
So, I think you get two sorts of drivers. I think one is, you’re really excited and you’re running towards something. Then the other driver is you’re really fed up with something, and you’re running away from it. For me, it was the latter of the two and I remember it vividly. So, at this point, I’d run a recruitment business for seven years that I sold, and I was MD of another recruitment business and sat on the board of a Plc, so it was quite a big thing. It was about year seven of doing that, that I was over it. I remember seeing this guy walk through the office. I don’t know how old he was, but he was much older than me and he was like this old warhorse trudging through, and I just thought, that’s going to be me. The money was great, the money was brilliant, but it was so obvious that it was just an exchange. I give you my time, passionless time, in exchange for this cash. It’s so transactional. There was no soul or passion. There was at the beginning, but after 15 years, I just had enough. We had just got back off holiday. I was sitting in the garden and I had the holiday Sunday night blues of having to go back into work. And literally, I remember on the iPad, this advert popped up for MasterChef, and I thought, I’m going to do that. I guess subconsciously, there was like a dream, maybe, of what could this be?
The other side was, if you invite people around for dinner, they go, ‘oh, you should be a cook, you’re amazing at cooking dinner.’ And I always thought to myself, but you’ve got to say that because you’re sitting in my dining room and I’ve just cooked for you. I’ve got to take your comments with a pinch of salt. There was also a little bit of thinking it’d be really cool to know, actually, in an unbiased competitive environment, am I any good? So, for me, it was that running away from something, I guess. I filled out the form without thinking, and then over the course of the next, I guess, four months, there was a sudden phone call out of the blue at work and there was a conversation. The way it goes to get on MasterChef is they have a chat with you and then they go, ‘oh, that was great. If you’re through to the next round, we’ll give you a call, and if you’re not, you won’t hear from us.’ There’s the anxiety of waiting for this next call. So eventually it happened, and I got on the show and did my bit. That was a very long-winded answer to why.
I guess a lot of people would think, and this is true of lots of the contestants, they apply because they’ve watched it for years and they’ve dreamt of being on it, but yours was more, ‘okay, let’s give it a go.’ I guess at first you didn’t feel that anxious, but actually, as the process went on, you got more and more anxious because you wanted it to happen.
I think it’s a really interesting bit of psychology because you start day one, you’re just happy to be there. If I go home today, it’s been great. But then what happens is you go along and your confidence builds a little bit, and you start to think, ‘oh, actually, I’m doing okay.’ And as soon as you feel like you’ve got a chance, then you start to salivate and you want it more and more and more. I think the further you get, the more competitive you get with it. And I think that’s probably like life. You enter it going, ‘I’ll give it a go.’ Then suddenly you’re actually doing okay. I’m going to do more and more and more, and then you want it even more.
You mentioned earlier that the key turning point wasn’t really the entry to MasterChef or even being on MasterChef. It was the reigniting of, or the reconnection with this skill or this talent or this love or this passion. So that turning point, talk to me about that turning point.
Well, it was a bit of both, really. When you do MasterChef, something like that, it’s all encompassing. It literally takes over your life. And there are people on the show that quit their job just to be on the show, just to go through the process. But for me, it was this reignition of passion. It was, oh, man, I’m really sleeping and I’m dreaming about food, and I’m dreaming about textures and shapes and colours and flavours. It was when I consciously acknowledged I’ve got this real passion again. Now, I’m really enthusiastic. I want this. That was, for me, the moment where I thought, actually, I need to change my life because I’m not enjoying what I’m doing anymore. And for me, it was passionless. It’s not downgrading recruitment. I mean, I did it for 15 years, and I used to love it, but I just got to a point where I wanted to do something else. And once I knew there was a passion there, I just thought, you know what? Life’s too short, right? Also, I think one of the big obstacles for a lot of people is pride with things. Actually, for me, I think I went on the basis of, you know what? If it all goes wrong, I’ll just get a job back in recruitment, or I’ll go into sales, or I’ll just default into that. So, take away that pride element of failure. Well, what have we got to lose? I think to put it in context and keep it relative, we were lucky. Wife, three kids, mortgage, the usual ties of existence, and we were lucky enough that when I left the recruitment business, we had a bit of a buffer, because you hear a lot about people being entrepreneurs and people just go for it. But there is also the reality -you’ve got to put food on the table. So, for us, we were lucky enough to have a bit of a buffer. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I think I’m going to quit.’ I was a shareholder as well, ‘so I think I’m going to leave the business.’ And she said ‘You’ve got six months, to start bringing in some cash. I don’t know what this midlife crisis is you’ve got going on, but you’ve got six months and if not, you’re going back into recruitment.’ And I went, ‘all right, fair enough, let’s do it.’
Good. I mean, having that structured goal is good, I think, because otherwise you could just wander and not really know where you’re going.
I was motivated!
Definitely. And so much so that you don’t just have one thing that you do that’s related to food. You have all those different things. You mentioned your businesses and your day job and your writing and TV work. So how on earth do you juggle it all? And also, I’m keen to know, does the passion still exist? Because obviously you’ve turned your passion into a job, so I’m curious to know how that works.
So, firstly, how I juggle it all. Probably badly, if I’m brutally honest. My time management skills need to be improved, as evidenced by today. (The big elephant in the room is Theo was late for this podcast!) It’s difficult juggling stuff and I’m still working on that, trying to find a way to be proactive with things. It’s really easy to get lost in work and become really reactive and so you can spend a week being super busy and think, I don’t know what I’ve achieved. One thing that I do try and do is step back and just reassess, where are we? What are we doing? What things do I need to ignite to keep progressing things in the right direction, rather than just responding to a million emails and just being really reactive.
Your passion has turned into your job. How do you maintain the passion?
The way I look at it is a big jigsaw. Everyone’s career, everyone’s life is this big jigsaw. And for me, my jigsaw of my career, there’s loads of bits of those puzzle that I really like. I love this piece and I love this piece and there’s loads of bits of that puzzle that I detest beyond belief and it’s a necessary evil. Like doing my accounts, for instance, and other bits, and then there’s a bunch of other bits that are just blue sky that just fill space that you get on with. And I think as long as you keep in mind that you’re not riding unicorns every morning to work and oh, I’m doing my passion as a job and every day is like skipping in the morning dew outside, that’s amazing! That’s not life and that’s not reality. And so, I think as long as you keep that in check, you go, that’s cool. I know with any job, there’s going to be some bits that are just a bit of a pain. You’re standing there chopping five kilos of onions, and you think, this isn’t the glamorous life that I expected. But then you get those little pockets, those little pieces of the jigsaw that just shine, and they are the reasons I do this. You hold on to those because it’s like the perfect dish. You need a bit of saltiness and a bit of sweetness and a bit of that. You need the contrast so that you can easily define all the different flavours and that’s the same with life and careers.
It’s a great philosophy about balance as well. Same thing with the dish, you need to have the balance and I think being realistic, you need to recognize that every job has those elements to it. But in a way, those elements are what allow you to build to the bits which are really exciting and joyful. So, without the other bits, you wouldn’t have the joy. You’ve got to go, well, they come together, this is it.
And also, you can’t beat yourself up. You look at a normal company, you’ve got a dozen different departments and specialisms, and when you start off your creative journey and you’re trying to monetize or commercialize that, you’ve got to acknowledge that at first you are MD, marketing, sales agent, pencil sharpener, coffee maker. And you’ve got to appreciate that actually some of those you’re really bad at, some you’re just not very good at, and some of them you excel in. As long as you don’t beat yourself up about that, you can go, all right, I’m going to fudge that and learn it as I go. That’s my passion project. I think that’s what you’ve got to do.
Definitely. Of the things you do, is it creating a new dish? Is it the writing? Do you enjoy that creative process? Where is your creative passion really stimulated the most in the things that you do?
I’m a really good starter. I can start stuff every single day, finishing sometimes doesn’t follow suit quite as well. For me, it’s the creative sides I love, and its different facets, like the TV stuff, being on Steph’s Packed Lunch. I love that. If there was a great day at work, that’s a great day at work. The people are awesome in front of the camera. And behind, the process is great. I really enjoy doing what I do on there. It’s really good fun, and I pinch myself. I mean, it’s a long day. It’s hard work behind the scenes, but I pinch myself and think, this is amazing. But I think it’s moments. I think really specifically, for me, as a cook, it’s when you create something. I think a lot of people that are creative will get this. You could spend weeks, years, days, whatever, making a piece of artwork or making a song or creating a new dish, a new recipe. For most creative people, that’s such a personal, intimate thing that you’re doing. You do this in a closed room, a studio or in a kitchen, quietly doing it, and then you basically put this out to the world, and you’ve got a big chunk of your heart in that soundtrack, on that canvas, on that plate, whatever it is. And if people trample on it, it hurts. It’s like a stab. But when people love it, it’s this amazing euphoria, because it’s a really incredible thing to make something and for someone to say I really enjoyed that. The creative process is normally a really personal thing, even comedy or whatever it is, it comes from somewhere, so there’s always a bit of your heart you’re putting out for it.
And it’s those moments, really, that you go, wow. It was amazing.’ You think that’s really cool, like, some person I’ve never met, I’ve touched them somehow and they’ve created something and they’ve had a really cool experience, and I’ve had this little, tiny little part to play in that, and they’ve enjoyed it, and that just warms you. Creativity is really personal. But that’s the paradox nature of it, it’s creating in this really personal environment, and then you put it out for the world to trample on.
I think that being prepared to be vulnerable is the thing, because the process itself, as you say, it’s not necessarily literally in a closed room, but the feeling that you experience whilst you’re creating something is definitely very mindful and you can lose sense of time. It’s a wonderful thing to do and some people just want to create just for that, just for that feeling. But then if your purpose is bigger than that, and I think this is what you’re alluding to here, when you make something, you’re prepared to suffer the consequences of something not being liked. Because actually, the point of doing it is once it gets out in the world, is to affect other people. And it’s a one-to-many kind of model, isn’t it?
Yes, it really is. And that creative process can be quite painful. It’s not always enjoyable. My kids would be testament to that when they have had the same recipe for the fifth night in a row and they’re ‘oh, my God, we’re not having this again’ and I say ‘it’s not right yet, we’re doing it again.’ So, it can be painful, but it is that one to many, as you’ve mentioned. That’s a really great way of looking at it.
I share with people now. I used to be in recruitment for many years, 20 years. And there’s times when you start out where you really get a lot out of that, because you’re putting people in a situation that hopefully they’re going to enjoy and you’re affecting their lives. In a different way, it does have an influence on people’s lives, but it isn’t a one to many, it’s a one to one.
I loved the recruitment bit at the beginning, I really loved it. It does affect people’s lives. You’re putting them into a job, in fact, you’re affecting the majority of their life because they’re working in this new thing that you’ve found and I used to love that. The best part for me of the recruiting business was when I first started and I was working out of the bedroom. I was doing deals, and there was a buzz from doing a deal and there was a buzz from placing someone. But then you fast forward 15 years, and the thing that you used to do, that you love, the reason you used to do it, the deals and stuff, you’ve become so far removed from. Suddenly you find yourself thinking, I’ve just been in strategy meetings for a week. I’ve not picked up the phone to a client. I’ve not put someone into a job. I’ve not had the fun of ringing the bell in the office. And that’s when you suddenly go, oh, life has changed a bit now, let me reassess.
Do you think you’ve taken that lesson and applied it to this jigsaw puzzle so that you do hold on to the bits that you love and make sure they don’t disappear?
Yeah. Because if you go out on your own with something, you need a reason to get up every morning because, make no bones about it, it is a tough slog on every level. There’s no one behind you going, ‘right, this is your job for today, do this.’ You’re doing that yourself now. You’ve got to be motivated. Money is an instant impact. You used to have this great pay check and a commission bonus every month or quarter come in and then suddenly you’re like, ‘oh, this month I’m not sure how much I’m earning, I hope it goes well.’ Then other months you’re like, ‘oh, we had a great month.’ Then you’ve gone from being a passenger on a massive cruise ship to suddenly sailing your own little yacht across the seas, and it’s a different ball game. You need to remind yourself, why did you do this?
Also, I think a bit of comparison as well. For me, one of the things that happens every single year is corporate events at Christmas. They’re four weeks of back-to-back events, feeding anyone, anywhere, from 50 to 200 people a night. It’s nonstop, it’s rinse and repeat, and it’s backbreaking. But we finish a week before Christmas. In recruitment we worked Christmas Eve till 12.30. Every year, no matter how hard it is, I always think, I’d be working in the office now, I’d be working till Christmas Eve and I’m not. There’s that nice little comparison that I always hold on to.
Yeah, I remember that clearly. And actually, the more junior you are in recruitment, the more likely you’ll be working between Christmas and New Year. In temporary recruitment, the chances are something will go wrong and you’ll be needed to sort it out. You never really switch off, which is not healthy.
No. But then again, I think it’s interesting, because people say it’s really cool, you run your own business, blah, blah, blah. It must be great not having a boss. And whenever I hear that, I think, actually, what I’ve done is swapped one boss for basically 25 bosses who are my clients. When any of those 25 say ‘jump’, I say ‘how high?’ You’ve just multiplied the number of bosses you’ve got. The only good thing is they don’t micromanage you.
Yeah. Excellent. You’re bringing back lots of memories, some of which I don’t want.
That’s okay. Do you have any advice for anybody who is thinking about switching direction? Is there anything you’ve learned from doing that yourself that you’d want people to learn from?
I think there’s a few things. I think number one is to really consider what you do as your passion. Is it something you want to do full time? Number one, because there’s a lot of things that people love that actually they might not love if they were doing every day and it becomes a slog. So just consider it before you make the jump.
Number two, I think just go into it with open eyes. I don’t want to keep coming back to the money side of it, but the reality is most people have rent or a mortgage or they’ve got commitments and they’ve got to maintain them every month. So that notion of a bit of a side hustle and building up a bit of a buffer of income is really great because it gives you the ability to say ‘right, I’m going to stop this career and do that career.’ You’ve already got the ball rolling. You’re not picking the phone up from day one. So, for me, I started to do a few private dining things while I was still in recruitment, and people said you should do a pop up, this would work. It was at that point I quit my job. I’ve got a bit of an idea how I can be bringing some money in tomorrow, and that’s going to lay a few foundations for where this thing is going to go. And I don’t know where it’s going to go. We’re going to see. I never dreamt when I was on MasterChef nine years ago, I never dreamt when I left recruitment, that I’d be doing all the things I’m doing now, so be open to new things. You might think, I’m going to be doing this thing, this is what I’m doing now, this is me. But that’s going to evolve. Be open to that evolution because it’s really organic and sometimes it can give you things that you never dreamed of. Whatever industry you’re in, there’s normally this ecosystem of a million little businesses that do a million little things, and they’re all making money out of this one particular industry. It might just be me, but when I went into food, I didn’t know that industry, so I didn’t know what all these tiny little facets were, where businesses were making money and services and how that happened. For me, I went from a board member of a Plc, MD, of this business unit where we were turning over a million, to suddenly sitting in your front room going, I’ve got nothing around me. I’ve not got marketing to call up. There is no marketing, and so just be aware of that. But I think, ultimately, following a passion is a really incredible thing. If you can do it, grab it by the horns and give it the best shot you’ve got and keep going with it. And if it goes great, amazing. And even if it doesn’t go great and you go back into what you’re doing, you did it. You had a go. 99% of people can’t say that. So, I think embrace the adventure. Win or lose, embrace that adventure.
Fantastic advice. 2023 is my year of creative adventures, and what I’m renaming my blog as. It’s what I’m doing. This podcast is part of my creative adventures.
Where can people find you if they want to follow you, if they want to know what you’re up to?
You can find me on Instagram @theocooks, or you can even jump onto our online meal planning service, which we’re giving away as a free lifetime membership. By the way, we changed it because of the cost of living crisis. We just thought we would help a bit. You can sign up to fivedinners.com new meal plans every week, shopping list, all of that jazz. It won’t cost you a penny and it might inspire or save you a few quid as well.
Thank you so much for your time. It’s been great talking to you. I’m sure you have inspired some people to think about switching on their creativity and hopefully you’ve also inspired them to get cooking too.
That’s the dream. Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today.
I do hope you join me and my next guest, Bijal Shah. If you’re curious about Bibliotherapy, you won’t want to miss it. And remember, Why Survive When You Can Thrive?
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