‘You have to accept things in a new country’

For our latest instalment of My Spanish career, we talk to food lover Annie Manson about how she went from being a graduate trainee with a major international bank to running her own cooking school in Andalusia.

'You have to accept things in a new country'
Annie Manson helped set up the highly successful inaugural World Sherry Day in May. Photo: Annie Manson/Eduardo Merille/Flickr

Tell us about your career to date.

I originally graduated from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) with a Bachelor of Commerce.

After that, I started out as a graduate trainee with Chemical Bank, what is now part of JPMorgan Chase. But I lasted only eight months before I realized I wasn't suited to the whole 9 to 5 working life.

Funnily enough, though, I ended up moving over to the consulting firm Dun & Bradstreet, where I stayed for quite a while.

As part of that job, I had to travel around Europe, and that's when I realized I was really more interested in the food I was eating.

Eventually I opened a catering firm in the UK, known as Annie B's. That involved putting on lunches for 2,500 people in London.

And how did you end up in Spain?

About 10 years ago, I bought a house here in Vejer de la Frontera, in Andalusia.

It was always meant to be a holiday house, but in 2006 I took a gap year away from my London catering company, and spent some time out here.

Five years ago, I moved here full time.

Can you tell describe your cooking school business for us?

I offer an insight into the culture in southern Spain through the food here. It's a stress free hands-on experience.

The idea is to offer the sort of experience I would like to have if I were travelling, and that's what I keep in mind.

People who come to my school either do one-day or four-day courses and my customers come from all over the world.

I also hire out my kitchen to visiting celebrity chefs like Canada's Peter Luckett and the Australian Frank Camorra.

Lately, too, I've started doing gourmet tours to Sicily, which has interesting parallels with Andalusian food.

How do you advertize?

I don't advertize at all, except through my website, which a friend helped me set up.

Trip Advisor is also a really good tool for bringing people in.

What I would really like to do though, is to set up a network of other people in Spain running cooking schools like mine.

To be honest, it's amazing how few people there are like me in Spain.

Spanish food is very regional and there is a huge market for people who want to do something on their holiday rather than just lie around on the beach.

And what is your business status?

I'm autónomo, or self-employed. The cooking school itself runs as a private peña, or club.

The kitchen I use was once the living room of my house. I have a large table that everyone works at, but apart from that it's like a normal house.

I have one woman helping me out. Pepi's family run a local restaurant and she can cook anything without the need for recipes.

Was it difficult to set up the business in Spain?

I have a great accountant!

Seriously though, it would have been difficult to do it without him, and not just because my Spanish was so poor. I just don't know the system here.

What I find tricky in Spain is getting simple advice.

Also, I don't have the patience to sit down and find out the finer details of how things work.

I certainly don't want to complain though. When you come to another country, you have to except how things are.

What do you like most about working in Spain?

My work is sporadic. It's not 9 to 5, and I enjoy the flexibility.

So in that sense, I love the lack of pressure.

You are also a qualified sherry educator. How did that come about?

I've always loved sherry: my grandmother introduced it to me when I was about 12.

But when I came to Vejer, I didn't actually realize that this was part of the famous Sherry triangle (an area in Cádiz province bordered by Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María).

When I did find out, I applied to do a course at the official Sherry Academy in Jerez.

This involved writing a letter justifying my application, and I had to persevere but I was accepted for one of the just 22 English-speaking positions on the course every year .

And what was your involvement in the first-ever World Sherry Day held recently? 

World Sherry Day was the brainchild of fellow sherry educator German Wolfgang Hess.

He spoke to me about the idea and I put him onto fellow Spain residents, the Australians Michael Stratton and Chelsea Anthon Penas.

Michael helped with the website while Chelsea was amazing and she really helped make the day such a large success.

We had over 300 events in 29 countries ranging from Mexico to Russia to Japan. It was such a success we are now planning World Sherry Week for late May 2014.

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