Alumna Sam Bilton’s journey from Marketing to Food Historian, Writer and Cook
Sam Bilton graduated with an MA in Culinary Arts in 2010 and has now published her first book. Read her story…..
I’m Sam Bilton a Food Historian, Writer and Cook. Basically I decipher old recipes, try to recreate them for a modern audience and then write about my experiences. But this is not how I began my career.
Following a 10 year career as a marketing manager for an environmental consultancy and a couple of children I decided I wanted to change my job. I have always loved writing and enjoyed cooking so I contacted the for advice on becoming a food writer. They told me about a new Culinary Arts Masters that the University of Brighton had just launched so I enrolled on the course in 2008.
Doing an MA when you have young children is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The course certainly broadened my knowledge of areas like food, culture and society. Shortly after I began the MA my grandmother gave me a hand written recipe note book which had belonged to her great aunt (you can read more about this on my website). This sparked an interest in old cookbooks and historical recipes which is why I ultimately became a food writer specialising in culinary heritage.
I particularly remember the product development module. The Culinary Arts MA students were split into groups and each team had to come up with an innovative idea using carrots. The winning team (sadly not mine) created an outstanding carrot ketchup. It was tremendous fun but I was pretty sick of carrots by the end of the module though. I also enjoyed the primary research I conducted for my dissertation on how 20th century cookery writers influence domestic cooks (the findings were eventually published in Petits Propos Culinaires, a food history magazine).
A lot of the work I do now involves desk research, more often than not at the British Library. One of the key skills the MA has given me is being able to carry out my research efficiently. We had to do a lot of reading (and not all of it was incredibly interesting) so it is good to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Did it help me achieve my aim? Well, I certainly made a few useful contacts while on the course. Food writing is one of those careers where there are no set qualifications for entry. They key to being a good food writer is being passionate about what you write about. It also helps if you are not looking to make a lot of money. Food writing is not particularly lucrative (unless your name is Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson) especially when you specialise in a subject like I do. A lot of the writing I do is for organisations like English Heritage and I am able to supplement the writing work with cookery demos and talks. I also launched a historically themed supper club called Repast in 2015 which I host in my home in Sussex.
If you are passionate about a particular subject or field of work my main piece of advice would be perseverance. It can take a long time to achieve that goal but don’t give up. It has taken me ten years to finally publish my first book on the history of gingerbread. There were a lot of rejections before I received a commission and there were genuinely times when I almost returned to marketing. But I’m very, very glad that I didn’t. I’m also the Co-Vice Chair and Awards Coordinator for the Guild of Food Writers (an unpaid role).
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