Former Masterchef semi-finalist Elizabeth Cottam has just opened her first restaurant in Leeds. Chris Bond reports.
IT’S been a remarkable 18 months or so for Elizabeth Cottam. Up until then she had been a high powered executive running other people’s businesses.
But following her appearance on the BBC’s hit TV show Masterchef last year, when she reached the semi-final, she’s been bitten by the foodie bug and become a chef and now a restaurateur.
“When I went on Masterchef I said I never wanted to work in a professional kitchen, because they always ask you that question. But life being life the thing that was on the bottom of my list came out at the top of my list,” she says.
“I came out feeling most at home in a professional kitchen but didn’t know whether I’d be cut out for it in the real world.”
Since then Cottam’s honed her cooking skills doing ‘pop-up’ kitchens in and around Leeds and some private dining, which she didn’t enjoy.
She also contacted several top restaurants in West Yorkshire to get some work experience and it was while at one of these, The Box Tree, in Ilkley, that she met Mark Owens, who was working there as head chef.
Last year she secured a residency at The New Ellington hotel in Leeds, working with Owens as a consultant, and now the pair have teamed up to create an ambitious new restaurant, called Home, in the centre of Leeds.
The city’s culinary scene has mushroomed in the last few years with all manner of restaurants - from tapas joints to burger bars - opening up, and their new restaurant, which has just opened in the Kirkgate area, is housed in a building once home to everything from a dance hall to a billiard club.
Home is billed as ‘fine dining, reimagined’ and the new restaurant revolves around monthly set menus ranging from seasonal three-course lunches to a 10 course tasting menu at £70.
The 65-cover restaurant also has a bar area and the duo are aiming to make a splash on the high-end dining scene in the city. “After MasterChef I knew I wanted more from, and for, the Yorkshire restaurant scene,” says Cottam. “Encouraged by the judges’ recommendations that I had professional potential I sought out more experience, and met Mark at The Box Tree where we quickly found we had lots in common with our approach – not least our shared passion for great food, and even better service. It really got Mark and I thinking that there could be a place for something else in the Leeds restaurant scene.”
The name of their new restaurant stemmed from dinners’ comments at The Ellington about having created a homely atmosphere, which forms the basis of their new venture together.
“We’re coming at this with a ‘Home by name, home by nature’ approach and our monthly-changing menus will be a true celebration of everything Great British produce has to offer. We’ve spent a lot of time working together on our first menus and I know that we’ve found the very best that the country has to offer.”
There’s a big emphasis on quality ingredients and to this end they’re growing some of their own produce at Harewood House. “We love good British food and neither of us interested smoke and mirrors,” says Cottam.
“We want to create somewhere that people want to come for high-end food and at the same time enjoy the best service there is.”
As well as eschewing food trends they want their tasting menus to offer something welcoming but different. “We want to curate an experience rather than someone coming in and allowing themselves to order what they always do.”
It’s been a steep learning curve for Cottam who has had to balance being a chef with running a restaurant.
However, she and Owens have a close-knit team of chefs who have bought into that ethos. It is, they say, a partnership where the pair take it turns to run the team at the hobs, while the other is on the pass monitoring what goes out and ensuring that it matches their exacting standards.
“It’s a very collaborative process and even though I’m new to this I’m very confident and relaxed in the kitchen, nothing really phases me. I’ve run huge project management projects so I know how to plan things and how to manage people to make these things happen.”
Given that Leeds has a burgeoning food scene and it’s where Cottam comes from, it was the obvious choice for their restaurant.
“I’m a Leeds girl born and bred, I live here and I think there’s a gap in the market. Which is why I’m really pleased to have found a place with such a rich heritage, and it’s now a part of the city that has been given a new lease of life thanks to recent developments like the Victoria centre.”
As well as being a welcome addition to fine dining in Leeds it’s also part of a longer term business plan that Cottam and Owens have. “We’ve got a six-year business plan in place and Home is the first venue of three,” says Cottam, though she can’t reveal any more details at this stage.
It’s a sign not only of her ambition, but also her passion for this new chapter in her life. “Although I’ve only been doing this for a year we really know what we want. We want to do amazing food and at the same time stay true to our core values,” she says.
It’s the latest stage on a journey that Cottam is relishing. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.”
To find out more go to www.homeleeds.co.uk