As surprising as it might be to some viewers, Masterchef 2016 contestant Liz Cottam had never done any cheffing prior to appearing on the show. She spent twenty years in the commercial world as a business consultant for banks and digital companies before deciding she needed a break from the corporate lifestyle.
Liz had already applied and rejected an offer to appear on the show, when her mum was suddenly taken ill. Liz’s mum would have ‘loved to see her daughter on TV’ and had been disappointed when Liz turned down the show, so she decided to enter once again. Sadly, Liz’s mum passed away, but when Liz got the call from the production company she ‘had a feeling it was meant to be.’
Two years on from the first studio filming, Liz has opened Home, her own restaurant, in Leeds. Despite what others may have assumed, she had never wanted to be a chef when she applied. Having always enjoyed hosting dinner parties, and combining that with her love of art and photography, Liz was actually planning the launch of a new lifestyle magazine. One of the most important parts of a dinner party for Liz was ‘dressing the table’ and this creative passion for style is evident in the chic yet welcoming interior at Home.
A woman with many strings to her bow, Liz had also been offered a shadowing experience with a photographer in Berlin when the Masterchef opportunity came up. With the idea of launching a magazine, she had hoped that the Masterchef experience might help her break into the industry. However, she didn’t enjoy the studio environment. “I felt like a fish out of water. I’m someone who would spend a whole week preparing food for my dinner parties – so I don’t know why I ever thought I’d enjoy having to rush it in half an hour!’
Although Liz had run companies with high turnovers in the past, there’d always been a process, with time for a considered response. In contrast, the studio kitchen was a pressurized environment requiring instant decisions. But the professional kitchen was different and this is where she found her calling. She says she’s always considered herself as something of a ‘pack animal’. She loves ‘teamwork’ and where other contestants crumbled under the pressure in the kitchen, Liz thrived.
With her business acumen behind her, Liz knew that if she wanted to open a restaurant she needed to be ‘more than just a chef’. She believes many chefs fail in making the jump, as it’s important to be confident with the business mechanics before launching. Liz decided to ‘take some baby steps’ after the show and see if cheffing was going to work for her. She began with supper clubs, going from just 16 guests right up to hosting 40 diners from her home. Although Liz ‘loved the personal side of the service’ she didn’t enjoy working alone in the kitchen. She took on work experience at Crafthouse and The Star before ‘talking her way’ into The Michelin starred Box Tree at Ilkley. This is where Liz met Mark, head chef at The Box Tree, who later became her business partner at Home.
Liz then took up her own residency at ‘The Ellington’ where in her words, she ‘begged, borrowed and stole’ staff and ‘cobbled together’ a successful restaurant with a tasting menu. She says that although there were many hurdles, ranging from exploding drains to broken kitchen equipment, she left the residency with an even stronger desire to open her own restaurant. And then came Home.
Nestled inauspiciously above Poundworld at the top of Kirkgate in the centre of Leeds, Home feels like an oasis away from the street below. The interior is classy and hospitable. It’s easy to sense Liz’s love of design and why her dinner parties were so successful. The concept and name for Home was germinated in The Ellington dining room where Liz says customers told her she, ‘made them feel like they were at her house for dinner and felt comfortable asking whatever they wanted.’ Liz is driven by service and she and Mark spent a lot of time choosing ‘fantastic staff who care about the customers and don’t work from a script.’ The open kitchen where diners can see the chefs preparing their food complements the homely feel to the fine dining restaurant and attracts customers who appreciate the ambience. Liz sums it up,‘ All our customers are from different parts of the world, with different ages and budgets – but if everyone was sitting together, they’d all get on.’
It’s not just the customers who get on at Home. Liz says the team ‘love working together and there’s a family feeling that you could never design.’ Although Liz’s and Mark’s desire for the restaurant to be the best had enabled them to bring ‘fantastic people’ on board, they have taken on some ‘baby chefs’ from college. Originally, the plans were to take on one college leaver but they ended up meeting three who impressed them.
Liz believes, ‘you can give experience but not attitude’ and Home is all about atmosphere. Despite this there is ‘no margin for error’ in fine dining and she’s not afraid to be tough on the youngsters. On her own journey, Liz has learnt the importance of establishing an endpoint to get through the tougher starting aspects of the industry and she has imparted this to the young chefs. Each one has grown a lot in the short time the restaurant has been open and their futures are looking bright.
Aside from her team, Liz’s favourite part of running the restaurant is the creativity it allows her. Almost unheard of in the fine dining market, Home changes its menu monthly and one of Liz’s main motivations is the excitement of creating new dishes. Even as they serve a new menu for the first time, the team is ‘looking forward to creating the next set of dishes.’ Liz relishes the challenge and innovation this allows and it also helps to keep the menu fresh and seasonal.
‘There hasn’t been a day’ that Liz hasn’t spent at the restaurant but she says it’s all worth it to see the satisfied customers and to get such a good review as the recent one from the Sunday Times. Liz cried when she read the glowing review which would have been a huge achievement even for a well-established, big name restaurant.
Although Home is the ‘hardest thing she’s ever done’ its also been the ‘most rewarding.’ It’s a good thing that with such little spare time, Liz finds cooking one of the best ways to relax. She says she needs to be ‘in the moment’ to switch off, and cooking provides that release. Beyond the kitchen, Liz will be taking a well-deserved two-week break in January. She will be heading to South Africa to visit the restaurant’s wine suppliers (never completely switched off from work!) and indulging another passion of hers, snowboarding. Even life on the slopes is fast paced for Liz who favours ‘off -piste’ and tough terrain boarding. Aside from that, Liz enjoys portrait photography – she attended art college.
If you’d like to treat yourself to Home’s amazing culinary experience, move quickly as the restaurant is fully booked on Saturday evenings for the rest of the year and with good reviews pouring in, the momentum shows no sign of slowing.
You can search for availability and book your table here tocktix.com
Esther is a contributor for Leeds Living, covering events all across the City, on topics such as eat/drink, retail therapy and culture.