“I didn’t have any training but I wanted to be the best”
You don’t need formal training to get ahead in the food business, says Thom Joseph, creative chef at London bakery Cocomaya, which makes premium cakes for the likes of Harrods and Fortnum & Mason
How did you get into the food industry?
I fell into a career in the food industry by accident. I had my heart set on being a fashion designer or a writer and was trying to complete my first novel when my mum recommended going into cake baking and decoration.
I went for my first interview at Lola’s cupcakes and was star struck because the two founders – Victoria Jossel and Romy Lewis – had been on BBC TV’s Young Apprentice. I loved the Lola brand and I think my passion must have come through because I got the job. I didn’t think I would because I didn’t have any formal training but Victoria said she could tell I had a natural flair.
In my first month at Lola’s I was asked to design my first cake range for Top Shop. The brief was to make a girlier product that appealed to the consumer. I know the Top Shop consumer because my sister and cousins shop there. My first two creations were rejected but my third collection was listed. Shortly after my range arrived in Top Shop, I was appointed head decorator. I was the only decorator who could command £7 for a cupcake.
Then Lola’s founder came to work here at Cocomaya so she asked me to start designing cake ranges here, which I’ve been doing for a month now.
Was having no formal training a barrier?
I didn’t have any training but I’d just ask if I didn’t know how to do something. I wanted to be the best. I used to watch my colleagues and think I could do so much better than them. I put in the hours and asked lots of questions. I wanted to know everything. I would stay behind to finish the job. I didn’t want to be an inspired amateur I wanted to be a master.
I think the fact that I’m not trained gives me an advantage because I don’t see any boundaries in what I can and can’t do.
What tips would you offer for getting ahead?
Although going to school helps in this industry – some people are quite snobbish if you don’t have the qualifications – there are so many people who produce the same work. I think having character is a big asset because it makes you stand out.
And my hunger for being the best works too – I’m always looking over my shoulder. In a creative role you have to have a dragon side and a thick skin. I get really passionate about my work but I have to accept that I’m going to be judged.
Don’t burn bridges. This is such a small industry you never know how who you’re going to run into in the future. It’s important to be gracious and, even if you are the most important person in the room, don’t behave as if you are.
What’s a typical day like in your working life?
I don’t have any set working hours here, which sounds ideal but I never switch off. During this past weekend, for example, I kept thinking about our forthcoming ranges.
Sometimes I come into work at five or six in the morning to get things done and once I even came in at 2am. I was tossing and turning because my boss had a photo shoot booked for the next day and I felt the presentation of the range wasn’t working. I thought of a way to make it work so I got out of bed at 2am and went in to arrange the collection. It was beautiful. We sold it to Harrods and Selfridges, and across all our stores.
On a more standard day I get in at 6am and finish when I finish. Ideally I finish at 2pm but that rarely happens. There are peaks and troughs in demand in this industry. At Lola’s, for example, the run up to Valentine’s was crazy and we’d work from six until six or until the job was done. Christmas and Easter are also busy, as is Mother’s Day and St Patrick’s Day because all the Irish travel agencies around here order corporate gifts.
The first job of the day is usually fulfilling the customer orders, which are placed via the website or through our stores. Then I see what help is needed on the retail or cake teams – they often have a lot of layer cakes to decorate. At Lola’s I’d sometimes decorate 20 cakes in an hour so that we could stay on time.
The last thing we do is make sure we’re fully stocked with fillings, toppings and sprinkles and garnishes for the following day. At seasonal peaks the toppings are more bespoke so they need more preparation time.
What do you like most about your job?
The part of the job I like most is presenting my new collection. I get really stressed beforehand but it’s a huge relief when it’s accepted and you know it’s a job done well.
I like to think I create dreams through my cakes. The cakes I produce have come from my inspirations, such as the Tudor period and the flavours of that time.
What has been the biggest surprise about having a career in the food industry?
The intensity of it all and the level of detail that goes into making something so simple. When I’m working for Harrods, for example, I can’t use any ingredients that aren’t halal or kosher – there are so many strict requirements. And there’s always a deadline. You have to work with speed and make things look beautiful at the same time.
What tips would you offer young people considering a career in baking?
Research, research, research. Be inspired. Not necessarily by other bakers but by art and culture –always be plugged in. Know what you’re competitors are doing but don’t copy them. Let your character stand out.