Olivia Potts - From The Bar To Le Cordon Bleu | Living North

Interview: Olivia Potts, Author of A Half Baked Idea


Olivia Potts - Image © Jamie Drew
After her mother’s death, Olivia Potts found solace in the kitchen and before long her passion for cooking led her to leave her job as a criminal barrister to pursue baking full time, undertaking a Diplôme de Pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu.
‘It’s lovely making a cake with a perfect mirror glaze, but actually what people want on a Saturday afternoon is a slice of chocolate and banana cake’

Following the publication of her autobiography, A Half Baked Idea, we catch up with Newcastle-born Olivia to talk melting wedding cakes, comfort food and the cathartic experience of writing

Since you left the world of law and graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, what have you been up to?
I’m half food writer and half private chef at the moment, and I’m doing promo for my book too. I make wedding cakes and my catering company, Feast, caters a small number of weddings a year, in places that often don’t have fully set-up kitchens – so we build the kitchen and cater the wedding, but I do wedding cakes on my own, ad hoc whenever people need them.

Wedding cakes are a huge part of people’s big day – do you feel the pressure?
It depends. I’m much quicker now, which means I don’t lose a week of my time worrying about it before even making it. I did one recently for my best friend up in Sunderland and the actual cake wasn’t stressful, but getting stuck in hot weather on the A1M transporting it up north was very stressful. It was always going to be a long journey with five butter-creamed cakes in the car, but I was convinced they were all going to have melted by the time we got there. A wedding cake is supposed to be part of the aesthetic, everyone’s going to eat it, and you will (hopefully!) only have one in your lifetime, so there is a certain amount of pressure.

So you write for (half of) a living, but was writing a book a different ballgame?
I’ve written about grief, food and the interplay between them before, but I’d done it in quite short articles or blog posts. I was really clear when I wrote the book that I wanted to do long-form narrative, it was important to me that I told it as a story – and that was much harder than I anticipated. I didn’t want to be repetitive about grief, there are a lot of clichés out there, so finding something that felt authentic was quite tricky emotionally. 

I thought I was more hardened than I was, but then interrogating how I really felt about certain things was harder than I thought. It did make me address how I’d coped (or not coped) with grief. I only started going to therapy while writing the book, so actually I’m a much healthier and happier person now.

Criminal barrister and chef seem like two professions that are poles apart, but did you find any similarities between the two?
There aren’t really any day-to-day similarities, but they both rely on hard work and attention to detail. They both require you to be as prepared as possible, to cope with things changing, or even going wrong, and then finding a way around it.

What was the toughest part of your training at Le Cordon Bleu?
I don’t excel at teamwork. Another tough part was not being good at things immediately. I might not have been a brilliant barrister from day one, but I was already quite good at speaking in public, I’m quite good at assimilating information quickly. No one is naturally good at piping macarons. I would find it really frustrating when I couldn’t get things right and, as I say in the book, previously if I couldn’t get something right away, I’d just give it up. There was a steep learning curve that there’s virtue in acknowledging your mistakes and coming back to the task.

Is there anything you’ve made that you’d never bake again?
That’s a good question. I haven’t pulled sugar at home and I haven’t made any chocolate structures. When I was in a professional kitchen, fine, but there are some things I just think, ‘I’ve proven that I can do this, that’s a box ticked, and now I don’t need to do it again.’

And which bakes do you keep returning to?
I make lots of macarons, partly because people ask for them. I made loads for my dad’s wedding, and for my book launch – they’re so beautiful and you can play with colours and flavours, which is really the fun of patisserie. At home I make lots of loaf cakes and normal biscuits (although they’re much better than before) because what I love is producing delicious food. It’s lovely making a cake with a perfect mirror glaze, but actually what people want on a Saturday afternoon is a slice of chocolate and banana cake.

What is your favourite comfort food?
I’m very autumnal and wintery when it comes to comfort food. I like mashed potato-covered pies like fish pie but I love proper pastry too, as well as ragùs, casseroles and stews. Something that needs to be simmered on a stove for a long time is my idea of perfect comfort food. 

What is your top baking tip?
When I did my driving test, my sister said to me: ‘If you think you’ve failed, it doesn’t matter, keep going. You don’t usually fail your test on what you think you’ve failed on – you fail because you think you’ve failed and then stop paying attention or give up.’ I think there’s a lot of that in sweet baking. There are points where you think ‘I’ve really messed  this up’, when actually, buttercream can cover a multitude of sins. The things you spot as mistakes, other people probably won’t. Just have a bit of faith. 

Olivia’s book A Half Baked Idea is published by Fig Tree and is out now.

Published in: December 2019

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