Dr Ellen Evans is living proof you can achieve huge career success even if your studies don’t go exactly to plan.
Many people will be considering their next steps after receiving exam results recently. Some will be pressing ahead with their plans after getting the grades they needed, while others may be wondering what to do next.
After doing a year of AS levels straight from her GCSEs, Ellen found herself at such a crossroads. She decided she needed to change direction, and contacted Coleg Menai to ask about courses in the culinary arts.
That was back in 2003. Twenty years later, Ellen is a Reader in Food Safety Behaviour at Cardiff Metropolitan University’s ZERO2FIVE Food Industry Centre. She is globally renowned for her research, contributes regularly to international conferences and academic journals, and is often asked to share her expert insights on the BBC and other national media.
It’s an impressive CV - and it all started when her passion for food preparation was ignited while studying an NVQ in Professional Cookery at Coleg Menai.
“It took me a long time to realise that returning to school wasn’t for me,” Ellen recalled. “I did one year at AS Level but I didn’t enjoy it, and my results weren’t particularly good. It was quite a challenging decision to leave that and go into something completely different.
“I eventually worked up the courage to phone Coleg Menai and ask about the culinary courses. I’d missed the deadline for applying, but they said I could go and speak to the tutors.
“They showed me around the facilities at the Friars building, and I could see there was this sense of progressing through the levels, and teaching the skills and techniques that would really help prepare somebody for a career.”
Ellen studied Level 1 and 2 Food Preparation and Cookery, as well as Level 1 and 2 Food Service, while working as a chef at The Bull in her home town of Beaumaris.
After completing her Level 3 in Professional Cookery in 2006, Ellen went to Cardiff Met to study a BSc in Food and Consumer Science - despite not having the academic qualifications she thought she would need to progress to higher education.
“They were willing to take me on based on my interest in the subject and my vocational background,” she said.
“I just loved cooking, and I took huge pride in working as a chef. I would have been content to continue working as a chef because I enjoyed it, I was good at it and the money was good, so what else would you want from a job?
“But from Coleg Menai I got this bug for learning. In school I sometimes resented learning because I felt I wasn’t good at it, but because I had such an interest in food preparation, I wanted to learn more about the science behind it.
“I didn’t know where I would end up and what I would end up doing, but I wanted to learn more about it, and that was enough of a career plan for me at 21 years old.”
After graduating with a first-class honours degree, Ellen studied a PhD in Consumer Food Safety at Cardiff Met, before joining the university’s ZERO2FIVE Food Industry Centre as a research assistant. Earlier this year she was made a senior research fellow, and was recently appointed Reader in Food Safety Behaviour.
Even in her work today, Ellen still remembers the lessons she learned from her lecturers at Coleg Menai, including Roger Williams and Brian Leather.
“Brian Leather used to say a menu is composed, not written,” Ellen said. “I took it to mean that you have to work at something, to develop it, and that’s something I always think about now in my work.
“I remember Roger Williams saying you have two friends in the kitchen - Percy and Will. By that he meant perseverance and will power. Those soft disciplines are important as a chef, but can also be applied in any situation, and that’s something I emphasise to my PhD students.
“I got so much from the tutors on the course. Showing my personality and my interests was encouraged.
“It was completely different to any sort of schooling. It was practical, it was real-world skills. At that time, I wanted a course where I could learn something by doing it, and it’s what inspired me to do what I do now.
“You have to discover what you like doing to then become successful. There will be different paths that suit different people at different times in their life.
“If you enjoy it, it doesn’t feel like hard work. I don’t think I would be where I am now if it wasn’t for the time spent learning and evolving at Coleg Menai. It gave me that foundation and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Ellen’s work has brought her back in contact with Grŵp Llandrillo Menai through Food Innovation Wales, which recently announced it had delivered more than £355m of economic benefits to the Welsh food and drink industry through its Project HELIX programme.
Food Innovation Wales is a partnership between ZERO2FIVE, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai’s Food Technology Centre in Llangefni, and Food Centre Wales in Ceredigion. The partnership delivers Project HELIX, a Welsh Government-funded initiative that has provided technical and commercial support to the food and drink sector since 2016.
Earlier this month, Project HELIX reported that since it began, it has supported 703 businesses in Wales, created 683 jobs and safeguarded a further 3,647, as well as helping to bring 2,082 new food and drink products to the market.
For more information on Food Innovation Wales, click here.
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