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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lucy Ridge

From pig farming to cheesemaking: how grown-up work experience changed my life

Chef's hands spraying flour over the dough
‘Passionate people want to share their passions’, as Lucy Ridge found in her travelling food stories. Photograph: Larisa Stefanuyk/Alamy

In 2020 I was a very tired chef, disillusioned with the hospitality industry and looking to do something different with my life.

I’d been thinking about making a transition to travel writing and was on the edge of booking a big overseas trip when suddenly, like many others, I found myself unemployed. In between waiting on hold with Centrelink and crying on the couch I eventually realised I could use this disaster as a catalyst to change my life.

When I was 15 years old I had the opportunity to do work experience at a local cafe under the tutelage of an incredible female chef. I signed up for an apprenticeship, and that was that. I was going to be a chef.

By 27 I was still passionate about food, but I knew I didn’t want to be a chef any more. And with a global pandemic still raging, my travel writing fantasy was definitely off the cards.

So I crafted a plan to undertake short-term internships working with food. I was looking to learn in a way that allowed me to do the work and get my hands dirty, rather than passively observing. I wanted to seek out experiences in different parts of the country; if I couldn’t go overseas it would be nice to at least see more of Australia. And I added another condition: I wanted to learn from women. After a career in hospitality I’d had enough of men telling me what to do.

The next step of my plan involved sending out a lot of emails, sliding into Instagram DMs, posting in Facebook groups and cold-calling friends of friends of friends.

Initially I received a lot of rejections.

But then I struck gold: a boutique cheesemaker in Orange was happy to take me on for about eight weeks. She needed to increase production ahead of a food festival, and my previous experience in kitchens made me a good fit for the role. She’d even pay me as a casual employee. The niece of a family friend had a spare room I could rent cheaply. It was happening.

And then I was accepted for an internship with a small-scale pastured pig farmer and butcher in regional Victoria. The position was not paid, but I would live on-site for free and all meals were provided.

Now at this point you’re probably wondering how the heck I was able to afford to leave my life behind and go off around Australia for months at a time.

Remember that big overseas trip I never took? I was able to live off those savings for a while. I don’t have any dependents and I am extremely privileged to have stable, affordable housing. Despite all this it was still a financial loss, and while I was willing to take the hit in the short term, I knew I couldn’t sustain it for long.

But these internships allowed me to get out of a rut and readjust my priorities. I changed my focus from travel writing to food writing which, in hindsight, was a much better fit. And it turns out that sending a pitch to an editor is way less nerve-racking once you’ve already sent 50 emails to winemakers and farmers asking if you could come and follow them around, please.

I made a habit of diarising my internship experiences, and it wasn’t too long before I had landed myself a semi-regular freelance food writing gig, which later became a permanent part-time position.

By integrating myself into different parts of the food system I’d also accidentally tapped into a thriving community. Through friendships made on the pig farm I was connected with a farming not-for-profit near my home which led to more regular work.

The best part was that these new jobs could (at least partially) be done remotely. So once I had topped up my savings I headed out on another internship, and then another. Each time with a slightly better safety net than I’d had for the one before as every internship brought with it more opportunities and broadened my horizons.

In 2022 I spent time on a market garden in Queensland, and then was able to afford to fly to Broome and pay an Indigenous bush foods expert to teach me about wild harvesting. It was a life-changing experience that shaped the way I think about food.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from this whole journey is that passionate people want to share their passions. If you’ve always thought you might like to learn woodwork or weaving: there will be someone out there who’s willing to teach you. You don’t have to take it to the same extreme I did; there might be someone closer to home willing to teach you for a few hours a week.

And in doing so you might just gain so much more than a new skill from the experience.

I’m still searching for more internships – if you’re a female brewer, please drop me a line! – and I might never stop. The passion I’ve unearthed isn’t just for one single job, or even one single career, but a passion for learning about food and making connections with the people who produce it.

• Lucy Ridge is a food writer living and working on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. She is working on a book about her internship experiences

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