Big Chat: Liz Cottam - Chapter 81
November 22, 2019

Big Chat: Liz Cottam

Take me HOME: Leeds’ Liz Cottam On foodie journeys, Leeds, and bringing a new lease of life to Kirkgate Market

Big Chat: Liz Cottam Big Chat: Liz Cottam
Words by: Phoebe Ryan

Elizabeth Cottam is a Leeds lass, born and bred. The daughter of a Sunderland publican and a glamorous Leeds event host, she came to public attention after her success on the 2016 series of MasterChef, when she soared through the rounds with her stellar culinary creations – until her long-term idol Marcus Wareing broke her heart on national TV.  Now the Founder and Head Chef of HOME restaurant in central Leeds alongside Mark Owens, her journey into high-end dining has been long, circuitous, and eventful.

HOME is bringing Leeds some of its best and most adventurous haut cuisine eating experiences, helping to completely revolutionise Leeds’ food scene, and its kudos as a foodie capital in its own right. We’ve been working with Liz on her new Kirkgate market projects.

The culinary journey

After “Staging” (work experience which allows promising chefs to travel around high-end kitchens) in several restaurants around the country, Liz found herself at Ilkley’s The Box Tree, where she met Mark.

“You have the opportunity to observe when you Stage,” she explains. It was an eye-opening introduction to different Head Chefs’ methods. “I saw very different personalities in the kitchen, from a Head Chef point of view”, she explains – “from the too-tight chef whites, tattoos, muscles and machismo look, through to Mark – a lead-from-the-front, no-job’s-too-small, we’re-in-it-together kind of ethos.” His hard work and egalitarian outlook won her over. “Some people direct from afar – Mark is a grafter”, Liz says. With similar approaches to cookery, and life, they found they shared common ground.

Big Chat: Liz Cottam

When Liz left her Stage at The Box Tree, she was headed for a two week residency at The Ellington – a fabulous kitchen (which almost bankrupted the hotel, it seems), specified by 3 Michelin starred chef Albert Roux. It had the best of the best, in every piece of equipment.

“Mark was like, ‘I need to come and have a look! Bloody hell, it’s better than mine!’ Liz says. “And that was my first professional kitchen!” she muses. “It was an amazing playground for us. Mondays and Tuesdays when Mark was off, he said he would come and help. He really just wanted to come and play!”

So they would cook together on Mark’s days off, and then Liz ran the restaurant residency on the Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; a challenging residency from the get-go, with fly infestations, lack of staff and cold relations with hotel staff upstairs. “I had to throw myself into being Front of House, Manager, Chef, Prep Chef – it’s not easy to get staff for a 2 week pop-up”, she remembers. They even did their own pots at the start, before they could find a Pot Wash.

Despite the hard graft, this residency is where the seed for HOME was planted. “Every customer I went and spoke to (and I spoke to every single person) would say, ‘you really made us feel at home’”, Liz recalls. “They’d say it felt  like being round my house for dinner.” And that’s the ethos that Liz and Mark conjure at HOME – the feeling that you are a welcome guest and valued diner around the table, in a highly-personalised environment.

A Home for HOME

Two years in, HOME has been extraordinarily successful. Customers tend to fall for the diverse tasting menu, which changes every single month to reflect the seasonality of local produce. With repeat custom and great reviews from critics and clients alike, it can’t be long until the high-end accolades flood in for HOME.

HOME was always destined for Leeds. Partly because Liz saw a gap in the market, that she was keen to fill – but also because “I was so sick of not having what I want on my doorstep!” Liz had faith in Yorkshire – despite plenty of pessimism from nay-sayers. “I want to put-paid to the patronising stereotypes people outside of the North put on the North,” she explains. “Everyone said ‘you can’t do a tasting menu, you can’t have a service charge – Yorkshire people just won’t wear it’. But I’m one of those people, and I travel to London for those things!” She exclaims.

A passion for food needn’t force you to travel to London these days, with some of the UK’s most highly-rated restaurants dotted across the North, from Cumbria’s L’Enclume to Sat Bains in the Midlands to Darlington’s Raby Hunt and The Star at Harome. People are ready for high-end dining in Leeds, Liz stresses. “We will happily do it, we will understand it and we will enjoy that style of dining.”  Maybe ten years ago they were right, she concedes. “Look at Anthony’s – all those things in the Corn Exchange – it was probably ahead of its time. In fact, it was ahead of its time. I understand that we haven’t been here for very long; wanting this style of dining. But we are definitely here now”.

Big Chat: Liz Cottam

Chicken in a Basket, anyone?

As mentioned, Liz’s parents were publicans. You’d be wrong if you thought this is where her love of food began, though. “These were the “‘spit-and-sawdust’, booze-centred pubs we all knew in the 80s”, she explains. “The food wasn’t home-cooked – think chicken in a basket!” She laughs. “So yeah, my early years were more of an entry into hospitality than into food. My aunty had hotels and pubs, mum and dad were publicans – it’s in the family.”

When we think of chefs leading the vanguard in creating the most exciting and inventive dishes, we might think they were natural gastronomes, born guzzling oysters and foie gras from before they could walk. This certainly wasn’t the case for Liz. “I was alone a lot as a kid, and there was no one policing what I ate. I was never forced to try anything, and I ate what was downstairs (usually chicken in a basket)!” It took several more years before Liz discovered any desire to cook and eat well. “I had a weird relationship with food,” she admits. “When I met my husband Rich at 21, I ate to live. I would buy mashed potato and grated cheese! I was tiny; 7 stone “wet through”.” But meeting her husband opened her eyes to new foods – he “had a middle class background;” she explains; “his family cooked and ate together, went out to great restaurants and drank fab wine.” Not that this was particularly welcome, or comfortable, for Liz at the start. After being exposed to all sorts of new dining experiences with her future in-laws, and nervously and awkwardly having to declare the many things she ‘didn’t like’, Liz and Rich began to be invited around to friends’ houses for dinner parties, too. She felt obliged to return the favour. And so Liz’s experimentation with food, beyond pre-cooked mash and grated cheese, began.

“Green Peppers or Red Tomatoes?”

Suddenly, Liz found herself having to conjure up meals to pay back friends for those dinner parties. “I bought a Ready Steady Cook! Recipe book, and decided to cook from it. I cooked every single recipe – anything with a picture, anyway –  cover-to-cover, in a two month period.” I always made it look like the picture, as I didn’t know how it was supposed to be otherwise.” Her passion for food had been ignited. She may not have started young, but when she finally discovered great food, she found her element. “I fell in love with food at 21, discovering really simple things that I should already have known. I’d try recipes and ingredients, and try doing stuff to them to make me like them. I self-taught myself all the basic things I should already have known at 21.”

A Passion for Food Begins

After art college in Blackpool, Liz moved back to Leeds and fell into marketing, and agencies. Then she ran agencies. She ended up running top-end projects. “I worked for Capita, the ministry of defence, the BBC – massive projects. They were digital transformation projects these big businesses were going through.” Nevertheless, the sensation of success is one that remained foreign to her until she embarked on her culinary journey. “I was quite successful before, and everyone used to tell me I was  – but I never felt it.” 

Now she truly glows with the success she is reaping from her hard work at HOME. Not that heading up HOME is the most lucrative move she’s ever made. “I’m literally the poorest and tiredest I’ve ever been,” she laughs “ – and the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“I’ve found what I’m supposed to be doing,” she smiles. “You need to be in the right place at the right time, for the right reason. We know why we’re doing it, and what we’re trying to achieve. It all makes sense.” 

She is under no illusions about the precariousness of the dining world, though. “It could change at any point – I’m making hay whilst the sun shines!” she says.  “I’m a bit pissed off it’s taken me 40 years – but at the same time, pleased I eventually got there! There was probably lots that I needed to learn in life first. And you need enough time  – if I’d have spent only five minutes not been content, I wouldn’t be appreciating what this means to me now.”

Big Chat: Liz Cottam Ben Bentley

Finesse - in food, design, and experience

From her initial discovery of food at 21 up until her application to MasterChef, Liz had continued experimenting in the kitchen. With a decent job and healthy salary, her passions spilled out from her own kitchen, and into dining out in some of the UK’s best restaurants.

But it wasn’t only the food Liz had fallen for; it was the act of caring for guests, and bringing them together around the table, which made cooking magical for her. “I was really into the styling of the table. I love the ceremony,” she tells me – “you can take the same people, but take away the table they gather around and they hive off into little groups. Around one table, you have these big conversations all together.”  She also admits, “I love dressing up for dinner parties”. Perhaps there is more of her glamorous mum’s dedication to hospitality (she ran Leeds’ famous club Majestic) in Liz than she might think.

Liz’s dinner parties were not about bunging a shepherd’s pie in the oven and cracking open the wine. Her first culinary passion, after cooking her way through her Ready, Steady, Cook! book, was for Asian dishes. “Tracking down ingredients became part of the challenge,” she remembers – “half of the things I was trying to cook with then just weren’t available. It became a research mission, weeks in advance.”

From Asian food, she then began to emulate some of the best chefs in Britain, and beyond. “I discovered Marcus Wareing, Shaun Rankin – Daniel Clifford… I was so excited to look at the style of food they were putting out, all of the methods and equipment, and recipes. I could track down the ingredients and cook the dish, then make a reservation and taste it for real too!”

She finally visited Wareing’s The Berkeley restaurant a month or two ago. She was surprised to find herself underwhelmed. A culinary superstar has become a peer, with different approaches and different methods.

A chef who remains her idol to this day, though, is “Grant Achatz from Alinea (the focus of episode 1, series 2 of Netflix’s Chef’s Table series) – that story astounded me. He inspires me so much with his approach to life – it’s similar to mine,” Liz states. “The best gift my mother ever gave me was believing that anything is possible. I have no fear of failing.” She shrugs. “But what a brilliant thing – I learn so much from every failure I make. If you keep going and you don’t mind falling over a few times, you will eventually find a way. The spirit that Grant Achatz embodies – he is constantly trying. “Let’s make food float”, he said. And he did. I love that.”

At HOME and beyond

Liz’s passion for Yorkshire is boundless. “There’s nowhere like Yorkshire – it’s the most beautiful, inspiring place. I’ve always thought that. I just don’t want to be anywhere else. I want to be here!”

“I have no interest in doing ventures in London. It goes back to that purpose I feel, and doing things for the right reasons. I could probably go make a lot of money in London, but for me that’s the last reason to do anything. You’ve got to feed your heart and soul.”
Liz Cottam

This year, Liz and Mark embark upon some new projects in a venue very close to Liz’s heart – Kirkgate Market. Initially they considered just one project there – but decided they wanted to maximise their impact. “I thought, one thing won’t change the Market,” she goes on, “so I thought I would try to do as many things as possible – so there are many reasons to go to the Market, and it represents a significant change there.”

And they really have gone for it. With a gastropub called The Owl, as well as three more ventures soon to be revealed (including plans for an amazing chef’s table experience, as well as a champagne and oyster bar and an espresso bar), they truly will be filling the market with new life.

The Owl

The outdoor market began in 1857. Then in 1875, they built Fish & Game Row and Butcher’s Row (historically the ‘beautiful’ bit of roof from the outside) – then they covered the middle hall, between them, in 1904. Fish & Game Row and Butcher’s Row, therefore, are the oldest structures in the market. Liz and Mark will be siting “The Owl” gastropub in the top right of Fish & Game Row. Its name comes from the ancient owl carvings you can make out in the stone arches above.

“The Owl’s going to be a tap room, in collaboration with Northern Monk”, Liz reveals, “and I’ll put Estrella in there as well, who sponsor me, as well as lots of changing guest beers, with a third of the seating around the bar.”  The rest of the seating will be around the kitchen, where they will cook…you guessed it! Fish and game. They will be doing lots of simple, hearty fare, using the best of the produce around them, cooked simply and to perfection.

Despite being exhausted from a work event the previous night, Liz is all smiles. She is clearly ready to take on her next challenge – and we are all ready, fork in hand, to dig into whatever she serves up. The Owl is now open, with bookings open online.

(originally printed in C81 printed Journal Issue 1) 

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