Alexandra Dudley studied fine art at university, and has always been intrigued by the link between food and art, the two things that drive everything she does in her career and personal life. Her entrepreneurial flair started when she set up her first catering company at the age of 15 catering for family and friends. This involved selling homemade tarts that she sold frozen – the idea being that people could simply defrost them at home whenever an occasion arose.
From a young age, Alexandra always knew she wanted to work in the food industry. Upon finishing art school, she funded the start of her own company through selling her paintings. Noticing a gap in the snack market for tasty free from and low in sugar snacks PunchFoods began at her kitchen table, and as the business grew, she moved to a commercial kitchen and outsourced some investment to grow further. Punch Foods launched a snack called Superseeds, setting Alexandra up as one of the pioneers in making seeds ‘cool’. In early 2016, she was approached to write her first cookbook Land & Sea: Secrets to simple, sustainable, sensational food. After writing that she realised how much she loved and missed the creative side of food. As her work progressed and developed, few other opportunities came along: food styling, recipe development and content creation, as well as catering for events, and creative marketing consulting.
We had the chance to sit down with Alexandra over some chia pudding, cardamom granola and a flat white to find out more…
Tell us about your journey with PunchFoods
When I started Punch Foods, I had no experience in terms of running a business and went in blind which, as you can imagine, had its benefits and detriments. I was working with a lean budget, and had to be very creative with my marketing. There are many mistakes that I could’ve avoided, had I been more confident to seek guidance from those more experienced than me. One example was when I noticed a typo on one of the first packaging prints we did….which was a huge cost to reprint – little did I know that in fact I could have sold them as they were as long as I corrected it in the next run. The biggest thing I learned is that you need to find a business partner. It is incredibly hard to carry the weight all on your own and I think it also helps with separating yourself as a person from the brand.
One of my biggest flaws is comparing myself to others. I often panicked about where I was in comparison to much larger brands and was so preoccupied that I often missed my own victories. Rarely did I stop to appreciate the little milestones we were making – another lesson! I think I became slightly disillusioned with the wellness industry. Often it didn’t feel very ‘well’ but the main thing I missed was my creativity, especially in the kitchen. I love food and I love people that love food and it was whilst writing the book that I realised perhaps I wasn’t on the right path.
My lifestyle and income was steadier at the time than it is now, but I know I wouldn’t have been happier being pulled in a different direction. I have some idea for new products I might work on in the future. One thing I know for sure is that if I do pursue them I won’t do it alone. Creating a strong support network is so important!
How has your career in the food industry changed?
I spent some time consulting for food brands, creating their marketing strategy. I have a visual eye so I often do content creation for various brands. I am still my own boss which I really enjoy. Private catering is something I do occasionally, as well as events, cooking classes and supper clubs. My cookbook was published over the summer so engaging with people on social media and watching their meals come to life with recipes from the book is really rewarding.
We’d love to hear more about your cookbook Land & Sea: Secrets to simple, sustainable, sensational food
I’ve always wanted to write a cookbook. When I was asked about writing one, I had to think deeply about what I wanted it to look like, feel like, and what dishes I wanted to bring to the table. I believe that cooking is often an extension of one’s personality, so Land & Sea is in a sense just me.
What’s recognisable in my cooking is celebrating the entirety of the ingredients. There is an increasing awareness around food waste which is something I care about deeply. When I first closed PunchFoods I thought I wanted to venture into another business that dealt with reducing food waste – it all starts in the super markets, not the home. Big producers cut the foods to fit into pre-sized packaging, which means so many tasty and useable parts of fruit and vegetables are disposed of before they even reach your kitchen. I had grand ideas but I knew that I needed more time as did the idea before lurching into a new project. Instead I thought, why not do it on a micro level? My hope is that the book inspires people to make small changes in their daily habits that result in wasting less. It’s simple ideas like cooking up the carrot tops, using the broccoli stems, making a pesto with your radish leaves etc.
Sustainability as a theme runs through Land & Sea but it isn’t overpowering. Many books today profess certain ways of eating as the right way and it can be uninspiring and intimidating. Land & Sea celebrates local, easily accessible ingredients, making them look fancy, delicious and sensational without too many ingredients. I also introduce a few pantry staples such as pomegranate molasses and miso paste – both of which last a long time and require just a touch to add a huge amount of flavour.
I didn’t have a lot of time to develop the recipes as I had a short deadline on the book so most of the recipes are things that I cook anyway. I keep wishing I could add more but I suppose that is the nature of any cook. The writing process was very organic, as I love to write. We shot it in the summer, followed by the editing process which is the boring bit, and then it was just a case of waiting for it to come out!
How would you describe the importance of social media for your work?
In truth I personally find social media affects my self-worth and value, and I find it hard to disconnect it from the real value of my work. Nevertheless, it’s like having a portfolio that is constantly updating all the time and that can be useful. What I like is that you can instantly share your work with many people and it is of course also an invitation for critique from your audience so that you can make improvements to your work, and your product. It also forces you to find the aesthetic and visual qualities regardless if you’re selling a concept or a service. It’s incredibly valuable to promote events and announcements. However, a gentle reminder that it’s important to remember that the art and the work is more important than the number of likes. We are so much more than our Instagram accounts!
What does your typical day look like?
They are never the same. This week I’m doing a day of recipe testing for Olive Magazine. I might have a food styling job later in the week, and I always try to put one day a week aside to work on my own creative content. This doesn’t mean life admin, i.e. responding to emails and such but playing around in the kitchen or writing. Sometimes I even draw. It’s really important when you work for yourself not to get bogged down with the daily grind. You need to make space to create and push the value of what you’re doing.
What do you enjoy most about doing your own thing?
Most people expect you to say you have lie-ins etc. but I wake up at 5.30am every day. I prefer to work and wrap up early and, yes, working for yourself gives you the freedom to do that but you also have to keep up the momentum and there are days where things aren’t going so well and money isn’t flying in and it’s just really hard. Those are the days where you have to work even harder to get up, get dressed and go up and at ‘em. I think the best bit of working the way I do is the people I get to meet. I love meeting different people doing different things, as it forces you to connect outside of your circle. The way you’ll go further is reaching outside of your network to expand your business and get better known.
Who are the women who inspire you?
Angela Harnett has to be one of them of course. She is a beacon for women in food at the moment. A bit like the corporate world – the food world is very male dominated. Head Chefs are usually male – even the clothing we wear in professional kitchens is very masculine! I have a friend, Maxine, who manages the brand PolkaPants. She worked in fashion and food previously. Chefs clothing is predominately unisex which basically means built for men and she had the most fantastic idea to create chefs trousers that were fitted for women’s body shapes, which are fun and exciting, celebrating women as chefs and women in general! I actually wear mine all the time whether I am cooking or going out for dinner.
My friends inspire me a lot. Women as a collective are standing up for themselves, and becoming slowly more supportive of each other. Women who are successful now don’t have to be dragons – there is a softness coming into women in business. Aggression isn’t always the way to move forward and close the deal. I have some incredibly supportive and talented friends who inspire me every day. My friend Zoe runs two businesses; Wunderworkshop – a turmeric brand that makes turmeric latte and chai mixes, loose teas and pure turmeric powder and Boobs essential – an essential oil blend for women’s breasts that encourages both self-love and breast checks. Zoe is true gold!
What’s next for you?
I’d like to work more with restaurants, and to work with people who have more experience than me, and who have done this longer than I have. I’d also love to do a bit more to bridge the link between art and food. There is an intrinsic link with the art world, which continues to suffer from funding cuts. I want to make art more accessible to people who sometimes find the art world intimidating. Food is a great community builder and often a great way to get people talking. I’m still working on how to use it to start the conversations so watch this space.
Alexandra’s cook book Land & Sea: Secrets to simple, sustainable, sensational food is now available on Amazon here