A banker quit to become a chef and saw his bank balance drop to $230. Despite burnout and a pandemic, he would never go back.

Juma (second right) at work.
It took Philip Juma seven years to open his first restaurant.

  • Philip Juma left a career in wealth management to follow his passion to showcase Iraqi food.
  • He had no formal training but spent 7 years running pop-up kitchens and working in restaurants.
  • Juma told us about his tough journey and why, despite the pandemic, a 9-5 holds no appeal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Food has always been part of Philip Juma’s life.

Growing up in London to an Iraqi father and an Irish-English mother, he remembers bringing Iraqi-inspired dishes into school for his friends to try. Food was Juma’s calling, yet he entered the cold, logical world of finance.

He achieved a 2:1 in economics for business from Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, before taking a job in the City, first for a series of wealth management startups, then for UBS.

He was comfortable – earning a salary of around £2,500 (around $3,500) a month aged 24 – but he knew he wasn’t happy.

Working through the 2008 financial crisis took its toll, and food still held a certain fascination.

“I was in a world that just wasn’t aligned with my morals, wasn’t aligned with who I was as a person,” Juma, now 37, told Insider.

He would spend vacations and weekends working shifts in top restaurants, but didn’t feel like he was able to make the jump. He also didn’t want to disappoint his parents.

You convince yourself that this is what people want from you,said Juma of his high-flying finance career.

It took six years to finally make a change.

Juma worked restaurant shifts alongside a consulting gig

He left finance, becoming an account manager at an energy consultancy. It involved fewer hours and meant that he could earn a wage while honing his experience running occasional supper club pop-ups, working freelance as a chef for hire company and covering shifts in restaurants.

To the dismay of his Dad, in 2014 he quit his job in consulting and decided to start cheffing full time – despite being unable to afford cookery school.

“My Dad said: ‘You’re going to quit a well paid job in finance to become a dishwasher?’,” recalls Juma. “It was hard, I hadn’t worked out anything, but knew that I just wanted to put Iraqi food on the map.”

He spent the next seven years in various cookery roles: running pop-up restaurants, cheffing at events, working as a freelance chef, and a stint managing a Lebanese restaurant in London.

A post shared by JUMA (@jumakitchen)

Pursuing his passion meant a serious dent to his finances.

His income dropped from a take-home of roughly £2,500 a month after tax – to taking home around £300 ($500) after he’d cover the staffing, venue, and food costs of his once-monthly pop-up – which would be three days full work.

His income wasn’t always so low, but was inconsistent, based on wedding seasons or on a job-by-job basis.

“It’s very alienating because it makes you ask whether you’ve made the right decision. ‘Of course I should be out for dinner with my friends tonight – but I can’t afford it’,” said Juma.

By the time January 2019 came around he said that he experienced burnout. He had £167 ($230) in his bank account, no savings, and “nothing to show for it.”

Opening at a famous London food market was a breakthrough

But when the doubts crept in, something would generally happen to give him motivation.

Out of the blue, he received a call to train chefs on a Saudi royal yacht. Earlier in his career he’d been offered a column in the Evening Standard newspaper.

Then in mid-2019, he was given the chance to finally make a consistent income. Borough Market, the famed London food market,was looking for new blood. Juma applied, and was accepted.

Borough Market
London’s Borough Market.

Juma Kitchen, his first permanent site, opened in December 2019. It gained momentum, and Juma estimates that he worked between 14- and 16-hour days.

Then COVID-19 emerged, and restaurants had to close their doors.

“Borough was my first opportunity to make a consistent income, and it’s been taken away from me,” said Juma.

He said that he has suffered burnout during the pandemic. Being open on social media about his need to slow down – and the support he received in return helped him find a better balance and learn that it’s okay to step away at times.

Juma Kitchen is open again, but takings are roughly 60% on what they should be. He’s optimistic that when the tourists and office workers return it will “shine”.

In the meantime he’s been able to build his reputation, appearing on the BBC to cook his food, which has received rave reviews, being invited to cook at festivals.

Make the change slowly – don’t jump all in

Despite the challenges, Juma says he would never go back to the stable comfort of a city career, and no longer suffers doubt about his career choice. He says that his parents are very proud.

Nonetheless, he has advice for anyone considering leaving the stability of a full time career: Don’t jump all in straight away.

“Have a mini earner on the side or cut down your hours so you get some income,” he said. “Structure your life so that you’ve still got the safety net that pays all your overheads, but gives you time to pursue what you love.”

“You need to be ready for a level of discomfort that is interrupting what we always think is the norm.”

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We love these sturdy, colorful aprons used by chefs – right now you can get one for 50% off during the brand’s mystery box sale

If you buy through our links, we may earn money from affiliate partners. Learn more.

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  • Hedley & Bennett is an apron brand created by a former line cook.
  • Hedley & Bennett’s aprons are made from durable, breathable, beautiful materials, with thoughtful details.
  • Right now, you can save up to 50% on select aprons during the brand’s mystery box sale.

Mystery Box (medium)

When shopping for your kitchen, it’s easy to get caught up in what cookware and kitchen appliances to buy, or which cookbooks to stock your shelf with. But you can’t forget about the simple accessories that have a big impact on your cooking experience.

Take, for example, the humble and hardworking apron.

An apron bears the brunt of kitchen chaos, protecting your skin and clothing from oil splashes, errant flour, and more. An apron with pockets is even better – that way, you can store tools like pens and kitchen scissors for easy access as you prepare and cook your meal.

The apron brand created by a former cook

Not every apron is created equal, something that Ellen Bennett realized while working as a line cook in Providence, a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Los Angeles. The aprons there were cheap, unbreathable, and rigid, and they were holding back rather than helping the kitchen staff.

Armed with her field knowledge of what professional cooks really want in an apron and her interest in design, Bennett set off in 2012 to craft sturdy, comfortable aprons made with colorful, higher-quality materials.

She called her company Hedley & Bennett, and business took off within the restaurant industry. Within the year, she was outfitting places like Bäco Mercat and all of Rick Bayless’ restaurants.

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Since then, Hedley & Bennett has outfitted more than 6,000 restaurants worldwide, selling over one million aprons to industry professionals and tens of thousands more to home cooks. It has also expanded past aprons into other chefs’ apparel.

How Hedley & Bennett’s aprons are different

While the brand’s roots are in professional kitchens, Hedley & Bennett has also become a consumer favorite because its aprons combine utility, comfort, and style.

Materials and construction: The brand uses high-quality materials, including raw American denim, lightweight cotton twill, and British natural waxed canvas for the apron bodies, cotton and leather for the straps, and brass hardware throughout. Pockets and straps are reinforced for extra durability.

Should your apron have weak stitching or broken hardware, you can send it back to the brand for free repair (within one year of your purchase).

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Comfort: Since the aprons have adjustable straps made from soft materials, you’ll be able to focus on the cooking task at hand, rather than any shifting garments. The long waist straps let you create a snug, customized fit so the apron practically feels like a second skin.

Style: Hedley & Bennett’s aprons come in many sleek and appealing styles and colors, whether you want a neon apron or a vintage-style, pinstriped one. The brand also occasionally drops limited-edition collaborations, like this recent Santa Fe inspired pattern designed by Modern Family actor Jesse Taylor Ferguson. You can even create custom bulk orders for your company or restaurant.

Features to look for in an apron, according to a chef

Michael Poiarkoff, the culinary director and executive chef at The Maker Hotel, recommends that you pay attention to the material, number of pockets, and neck strap design as you shop for aprons.

On material: “When looking for an apron, I try to find something with a nice combination of form and function. I prefer an apron that is closer to blanket size, hitting below my knee and wrapping around me as to almost touch in the back. A heavier, tight-knit material is preferable so that water wicks away and the apron can be easily cleaned; anything light and loose has a limited number of wears in a professional kitchen.”

On pockets: “I like two pockets. One breast pocket large enough for five writing utensils (pencil, pen, dry-erase marker, permanent marker, highlighter), and one side pocket large enough for a paring knife and a snack. I try to make sure all of my aprons have the same pocket set-up as not to confuse my hands when things inevitably get hectic. Too many pockets leave room for fumbling around and increases the risk of getting caught on refrigerator handles, door hinges, and counter corners.”

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On neck straps: “Most culinary aprons have an adjustable strap that loops around the back of your neck. With this style of apron, the strap often jumps up over the collar of my chef’s coat and annoyingly rubs my skin all day. While the behind-the-neck strap isn’t a deal-breaker for me, a cross-back apron is preferable. With a cross-back apron, the straps go directly from shoulder to hip with nothing hitting the neck.”

Do Hedley & Bennett’s aprons fit the bill?

Mostly. They’re large and made from heavier materials, and they have at least two pockets. Many of the brand’s aprons have an adjustable neck strap, but Hedley & Bennett also has a whole section for cross-back aprons.

Ultimately, the best apron for you will still probably come down to personal preference. In general, however, you’ll want to make sure your apron is sturdy, comfy, and something you won’t mind wearing every cooking session.

In our experience, Hedley & Bennett’s aprons fit all these criteria. And more than something we wouldn’t mind wearing, they’re the aprons and chef’s gear we’re actively excited to put on every single time.

Find our individual reviews of three Hedley & Bennett products below.

A striped denim apron

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Hickory Classic Apron, available in one size

I love how sturdy yet comfortable this denim apron is, and it definitely gets extra style points. Its chest pocket is nice because it has two layers, so you can store pens and your phone or any other tool up there and nothing will get scratched up. Meanwhile, there are two more deep pockets by your hips to let you store anything else.

The straps are made from soft cotton, with the neck strap being adjustable. Even after adjusting the neck strap, I found the one-size-only apron a bit big (I’m 5’6″ and a women’s size medium, for reference), though I know many professional chefs prefer large aprons. It’s 33 inches long and 30 inches wide, which means you’ll get full coverage and protection for your clothing, but I personally wish it was just a little shorter so I could move my knees around easier.

In the end, I’m not making mad dashes around my kitchen like I’m playing a level of “Overcooked,” so I still really liked the apron overall. It’s much more durable than the average apron and can be used for many years, making it a great investment for yourself — or as a gift for an avid (and style-minded) cook. —Connie Chen, senior home and kitchen reporter 

A twill cross-back apron

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Bordeaux Crossback Apron, available in one size

As someone who went from microwaving takeout leftovers to cooking three meals a day during the pandemic, this apron has come in handy preventing oil splatters, sauce splashes, and more. 

The cross-back design is more comfortable to wear than the traditional bib apron with a neck loop. There’s no strain or weight around my neck, and when combined with the generous but not ridiculously-large cut, the apron is more like something I look forward to wearing as opposed to something I have to wear. 

The deep chest pocket holds my phone comfortably unlike others that are teeny-tiny — I never worry that my phone is going to slip out and fall into my pasta. The large bucket pocket is also roomy enough to hold a dishtowel, oven mitts, or other accessories I need when cooking so I’m not constantly searching for them around the kitchen. Aprons aren’t the prettiest things, but the deep red shade with cream straps is actually really nice. The dark color also comes in clutch to hide stains. —Jada Wong, senior home and kitchen editor 

A chambray work shirt

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Speckled Chambray Long Sleeve Work Shirt, available in sizes XS-4XL 

Editor’s note: the Hedley & Bennett Work Shirt is currently out of stock, but the brand makes a collection of similarly-designed apparel items for chefs. Right now, it’s featuring the Work Shirt in a short sleeve style. We’ve left our review of this shirt up, since long sleeve styles are likely to come back into stock in the cooler months.

Hedley & Bennett’s Work Shirt is about as well-thought-out a work shirt as any for any purpose, though, I suppose it could use a few more pockets. That being said, the details on this shirt are immense, while still keeping the aesthetic of a presentable button-up dress shirt with a pocket sleeve.

And it might look like a fairly ordinary shirt, but it’s built — handmade in Los Angeles, at that — with particularities in mind: a brass snap in the collar for your apron snap, and a hidden loop diagonally sewn into the breast pocket for your pens (or sunglasses, if you’re cooking outdoors). Speaking of the collar, it’s lined with darker fabric to hide perspiration, as are the cuffs. 

The fabric — 99% chambray and 1% mystery elastane or elastane-like synthetic polymer — is exceptionally pleasant to wear, if a little coarse (think of a rougher and rawer but studier linen). Regardless of what you’re looking to do in this shirt, it’s fit for anything. —Owen Burke, senior home and kitchen reporter 

Other chef-recommended aprons to try

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Christine Lau, executive chef at Kimika, recommends the Contra Chef apron from Tilit:

“That’s their waxed canvas apron. It has a leather clasp for the neck strap. And I like their Recycled Work Chef apron — the material is light, it has a pen pocket, and I appreciate the use of recycled material. I’m hoping Tilit will add a pen pocket to the Contra Chef. That would be the perfect apron.” 

Ken Addington, chef and owner of Strangeways, recommends the aprons from Bragard:

“I am old school on aprons and wear Bragard aprons, as they are simple and timeless. Bragard is solid and made sturdy, which is great for professional use as well as personal. It’s not overpriced, but it’s still elegant.” 

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