Bolton School Former Pupils
Rachael Gasper (née Matthews, 1992-2003)
Rachael’s PhD studies have revealed an interest in all things medieval and this has inspired her to start up her own business …
What were your favourite subjects and who were your favourite teachers at School?
Reflecting on my years at Bolton, I didn't really have 'favourite subjects' per se; it was more that I had favourite moments or experiences, which in turn made subjects more fun or more memorable: when the penny (eventually) dropped in trigonometry, for example, or when I finally reached the hallowed position of being able to exhibit my GCSE artwork at the back of the Great Hall! Modern Languages and English literature were probably my strongest subject areas. I received a huge amount of encouragement from Mr Eccles and Mrs Lowe in English, and Madame Hutchings, Mrs Lowe, Mrs Patterson and Mrs Shafiq in Modern Languages: I still think very fondly of lessons with them, and am grateful for the discipline and work ethic they forged in me!
What further study have you undertaken since leaving School?
After leaving Bolton School I took a gap year, where I studied Spanish in Salamanca and Barcelona, before starting a BA at Durham University in French and Spanish. I graduated with First Class Honours and was lucky enough to be awarded Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to continue my studies in medieval and renaissance literature at MA-level. This, in turn, led to the award of a Durham Doctoral Fellowship, which allowed me to complete a PhD on the subject of cognitive metaphor theory and medieval mystical writings. Studying languages at Bolton School opened some amazing doors: I've worked as an intern in real estate in Paris, given papers at conferences in America and Canada, and edited manuscripts in the Biblioteca National in Madrid ... all resulting from those hours spent on the B corridor!
What does your job involve and how did you progress to your current role?
Whilst completing the PhD, I developed an interest in medieval recipe collections, and had to eat humble pie when I discovered how colourful and tasty medieval food could be! I was fortunate to be involved in the discovery last year of what is thought to be the earliest recipe collection in the West: a manuscript written in Latin, around 1175, for the monks of Durham Cathedral priory, and am now working to commercialise these recipes by building a start-up company, Eat Medieval. Making the move from academic to entrepreneur is proving to be an interesting and exciting challenge!
Who/what influenced your career choice?
I've been fortunate to work with, and learn from, some great people whilst completing my studies and starting the business: academics who leave no stone unturned in trying to solve a problem, business people with amazing drive and determination, and social entrepreneurs, who are wholly committed to bettering the communities we live and work in. Deciding to continue studying to doctoral level, and then to start a business in artisan food production, has been a slow progression of always being encouraged to follow my interests and my instincts - even when they appear slightly unconventional!
Who/what has been your biggest inspiration?
That's a tricky question to answer. My husband, a historian, has an amazing capacity for having ambitious ideas and seeing them through to completion! He is very good at bringing people together to solve questions creatively, and that's certainly been a major influence on my decision to start Eat Medieval.
In terms of 'what' inspires me, I am driven to find and develop ways to bridge the divide between the worlds of university research and of business and commerce – in my case, taking the work being done on medieval recipes, and using it to inspire new food products which showcase forgotten flavours and ingredients. The characteristics of medieval food production are remarkably similar to our modern day food concerns – medieval foodstuffs were, by their very nature, organic, sustainable, and seasonal, and both grown locally as well imported around the globe - and, most importantly, taste good!
Which skills do you consider to be essential for your job?
Creativity, organisation, the ability to multi-task, stubborn perseverance and an incessant need to question everything!
What do you like most about your job?
Starting my own business gives me a brilliant blank canvas to work with: I love the flexibility it brings, and the opportunities it gives me to be creative, developing new flavours, packaging ideas, and researching the recipes and their medieval context. Working for yourself demands a lot of motivation, but I never get bored: every day is different and comes with its own highlights and curve balls!
What is your biggest challenge in your current role?
Staying focused. When you're working to establish a business, especially one with a creative element to it, there's a temptation to want to keep exploring different creative avenues and losing sight of the main objectives. As a start-up, you have to become a jack-of-all-trades too, mastering the basics of accounting, marketing, manufacturing, and customer service. Having to wear so many hats can be a bit daunting at times!
What do you consider to be your greatest career achievement?
Receiving the doctorate was a pretty good feeling and felt like a significant milestone. Now that I'm starting Eat Medieval, the achievements are different: stabilising a new recipe, making a new contact, or developing a bit more of the brand's identity are all small steps in bringing the business to life, but I'm no less triumphant when something comes off!
How did Bolton School help you to be successful in your chosen career?
Bolton School gave me the opportunity to explore and develop lots of different skills, experiences and responsibilities: music, community work, and Duke of Edinburgh are just a few that leap to mind, as well as providing me with a rich and varied curricular education. Learning to get the most out of everything and to staying open to challenges and new opportunities was the best platform I could have wished for.
What advice would you give to our pupils interested in your field of work?
Have confidence in yourself and your decisions, keep your options open, and follow your instincts. It's easy advice to give out, but not always easy to follow!