When Leaving School At 15 Actually Works

Photography by Atisha Paulson.
Sophie Michell — who, at 33 years old, is the youngest female executive chef in London — ditched school at 15 and started working at the local pub. Since trading textbooks for a sauté pan, she’s been a private chef to stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Claudia Schiffer, cooked for Princes William and Harry at the annual Royal Polo tournament, penned multiple cookbooks, and appeared on several TV shows, including Iron Chef USA. In addition to being executive chef at Pont St at The Belgraves Hotel in London, Sophie heads up the all-female chef team behind The Gorgeous Kitchen at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Sophie’s road to success has never been straight or smooth; there have been curves and dips, hills and ditches. Ahead, more about leaving school at 15 and why being “bloody-minded” may be the most important thing you can do for your career.
Turn a setback into an opportunity.
"Growing up, I had ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome], which is an immune system syndrome where you get incredibly exhausted. I got it when I was 14 and to recover I had to take six months off from school. While I was home, I did a lot of cooking and thought, I don’t want to go back to school; I want to be a chef.
Have confidence in your decisions.
"Naturally, it was quite controversial to leave school at such a young age, but cooking was the right thing for me for to do. You have to be confident in yourself and trust your own intuition. I have never doubted for one microsecond my choice of being a chef. It involved a lot of self-drive, which I learned from my mum. She was a single mother...making money and supporting me. She was always inspiring me. She had a great influence on my career."
When things are rough, just get on with it.
"After cooking school, I went to the Michelin-starred Greenhouse. I was a tiny, little, blonde girl, and it was an aggressive kitchen. I saw someone’s arm get dislocated once. It was a difficult environment to work in. But, truthfully, you just have to get on with it. You have to be quite determined and stick to your guns."
All forks in the road lead to the right place.
"I left the kitchen after I had another bout of ME and started doing private chef work for Claudia Schiffer and doing some consulting, too. I wrote cookbooks and did TV and traveled. But, I wanted to get back to kitchens and do some proper cooking. To be taken seriously as a female chef, you can’t be in high heels on TV all the time. When I got back, it felt so natural, and I thought, How could it be that I haven’t been doing this for so long? It was a long road to get to where I really wanted to be."
Be a bit "bloody-minded."
"Because I am very feminine and I like girly things, people don’t correlate that with being an executive chef. I was speaking to a man at an event, and I told him I was the executive chef at Belgraves, and he said, ‘Well, you got that job because you’re so pretty.’ And, I thought, If you think that being pretty helped on any level with my career, you are dead wrong. The only way you can deal with sexist people is to show them that you are getting on with your job and just doing it. You have to be a bit bloody-minded. The more we are strong-minded, the less we will be called bitchy or dramatic, and the more people will say, 'Well, she’s just right.'"
When leading, be decisive and fair.
"I manage nearly 60 people at Belgraves and 20 at The Gorgeous Kitchen. Being an executive chef, you can’t lead people if you are indecisive; you have to know what you want. Also, you have to be fair. You have to tell someone if they are doing something wrong, but you need to do it so that you can teach them in a positive way how to do it properly."
Once a day, take 10 minutes to yourself.
"I used to get to the gym, but now I have no time. But, it’s important to get some time for yourself, whatever that may be. So, I try to sit down by myself for about 10 minutes every morning with a cup of coffee. I just sit there and have a bit of peace and quiet. It’s my own form of meditation."

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series