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20 October 2021

How diving in and learning as she went helped chef and writer Ella Mittas do her thing

Ella Mittas is an Australian chef who runs her own food business teaching cooking classes, curating food events and hosting private dinners. She’s also an emerging writer on the cusp of having her first book published next year. But how did she get here? By throwing herself into it, finding her own way, and learning as she went, Ella has made her own exciting career. Ella tells us how she got started with her two passions, how planning her income helps her budget for writing breaks, and whether it’s the sustenance of food or words (or both) that’s next for her.

 

Thanks for taking the time to have a chat. Was food always a big thing for you? And did turning your passion for food into a business come naturally?

I’ve always loved cooking and my family is very into food. I studied creative writing in my undergraduate degree and was freelancing for a bunch of different places but making no money, and I had bad anxiety. My family said, “Why don’t you try cooking for a little bit and see?” I think they thought I would do a cooking course for a few weeks and it would be a nice fun hobby for me. But through that course, I got a job working part-time in a restaurant kitchen, and I just loved it so much. Food became an obsession. I became totally immersed in it.

 

How did you go about turning that obsession, and love of cooking, into a business of your own?

I went on to work overseas as a chef. I’d do staging (a kind of free internship) and then get a job offer after that. I learnt so much. I’d go to countries where I wanted to learn the cuisine and learn their traditional food. I did that in a lot of regional locations in Greece and Turkey.

So, initially I started the business because I wanted to keep doing that. I’d come back to Australia and do pop-up events based on what I’d learnt. I’d create a series themed on a cuisine or a region that I’d been to, where I would learn as much as I could about the food and the wine in the region and the music as well. From those events, I’d save up money and go back overseas to learn more.

After a few years, it got quite exhausting after travelling so much, so then I stayed put in Melbourne and just ran my business. I still did food events, but rather than doing all of that travel for inspiration, I themed the events on different things and collaborated with different people. I’d gotten to a point with my cooking where I thought my skills were good enough that I didn’t have to keep doing these massive journeys to learn.

So in the year I decided to start the business, that’s the only thing that I did. I didn’t work for anyone else. From that moment, I started to do more than just events. I did a bunch of different things for more income, including private catering and teaching cooking classes.

 

Did you save or budget to make this happen? How did you set yourself up financially?

So, no, I didn’t at all! Which I regretted after the first year of running the business. I probably had a few grand saved up, but not enough for it to be like I wasn’t chasing my tail the whole time. The first six months of running the business would have been a lot easier if I had some savings and more of a plan. I ran all of my events so that I would be making money from them, but then that turned out to be all the money that I had in the world at that time.

 

Have you changed the way you managed your money as you’ve gone through the years?

By the end of my first year, my profits were sustainable. But during the first six months running events, I didn’t know how to do costings properly or how to do my accounting. I had to learn on my feet. There were a lot of things with budgeting and money that I hadn’t thought about before I started the business. I was trying to market myself at the same time, too. I was trying to do all of these things at the same time. I learnt fast, but it was a very steep learning curve.

I’ve gotten so much better at my costings and making my profit margin realistic. I also make sure I have a substantial amount of savings that I keep at all times to cover quiet periods. I’ve gotten better at planning when I’ll generate income, too. From around November through December and January, I’ll work harder than at any other time, but it means that I get greater flexibility for the rest of the year.

 

You also write. How do you juggle these two passions?

I’m doing my honours in creative writing at the moment. And I’d like to be writing more! I’ve chosen two things that are time-consuming in very different ways, but they balance each other out. Writing is so solitary and cooking is so social, because I’m working with people. Normally I’ll have a food event on the weekend or towards the end of the week, and then the first few days of the week I’ll have for writing. It gives me so much flexibility. I can travel as much as I want, which is really important to me. And if I want to just write, I can block out a few weeks. It’s also meant that I can work overseas really easily. And I can write while I’m overseas. I love to be able to move around.

I couldn’t do one without the other. For example, I wrote a thesis on Greek Australia, and some of the stories from that have been published in The Saturday Paper and the rest of them are going into a cookbook coming out next year. Many of the stories are about my Greek identity and travelling and cooking overseas, with essays on each of the places I have worked.

 

What’s next for you? Is it in food, words, both or something else?

The plan is to do more writing than I’m doing now. During Covid, I was hardly able to cook at all and I thought I’d really miss it. But I actually found that I enjoyed writing consistently a lot more than I thought I would. So I’d like to have longer periods of time where I’m just writing. I think that’s what I’m working towards.

 

Ella’s tips for doing your thing:
  • Doing one thing to make money while trying to get a passion project off the ground? It’s really important to start small and make it as manageable as possible to begin with.
  • Have a savings account that’s separate from your main spending account. I have my everyday account that my rent and groceries and those types of things come out of. It’s important to track your money so you can reflect when you’re spending too much.
  • If you’re considering juggling your passions, be realistic and strict about how much work you can take on. It forces you to slow down and take better care of yourself.

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