As restaurateur Elizabeth Cottam continues to show Yorkshire what good food looks like, Bethan Andrews discovers what’s in store for 2023 and how she went from corporate giant to TV chef
It’s impossible to leave a chat with Leeds born and bred Elizabeth Cottam without feeling like you’ve just sat down with a long lost friend. She is full of a fiery passion, full of giggles and expletives, and full of a sense of honesty and determination that can be difficult to find in people. Those who have followed her whirlwind journey into being an incredibly successful restaurateur and chef might not be surprised by this. After all, it takes a pretty special kind of person to change their career path entirely post-40, find yourself on TV multiple times, and have each one of your three new restaurants make it into the Michelin Guide within the first year.
Not one to do things by half, Elizabeth found herself completely reevaluating her life at the age of 40 and decided to throw herself into feeding her creative soul. So, six years ago, Elizabeth – who owns Yorkshire restaurants Owl, Home and Cora – wasn’t even a chef. “I started out my career in digital marketing and business strategy and management consultancy, so I worked with big brands doing lots of large scale and detailed projects,” she says. “It was creative in the sense that we were solving challenging business problems, but I decided I wanted to get back to where I started with art school and feed my personal creativity. I was in a lucky position that I didn’t need to earn the type of money I had been earning, and jumped headlong into finding what was next.”
Elizabeth found herself dabbling in photography and picking her paintbrush back up. But it was ultimately the sad passing of her mother and a passion for cooking at home that really changed the course of her life. “Two years prior to this, I’d applied for Masterchef and they invited me to go on the show. I didn’t have time, but my mum was really up for me going on that show,” says Elizabeth. “I was due to go and see my mum when she was taken ill and taken into hospital, so I cut and pasted the Masterchef application, threw it back in and thought I’ll cheer my mum up when I go in to see her tomorrow. That was midnight and then at five in the morning, my phone rang, and it was my sister who said that my mum had passed away. I got a phone call from Masterchef that same evening inviting me onto the show and I decided it was significant that the timing of it meant something, and it felt as if something was pushing me to go on the show.”
Although going on Masterchef was ultimately the turning point in Elizabeth’s career, she certainly didn’t love the whole process. But, once she moved through the contest, out of the studio and into the professional kitchens, she found that she thrived in that atmosphere. “It’s exactly what I needed to grieve at the time, and I could justify spending 10 hours cooking a day. It gave me a weird purpose,” says Elizabeth. “Everyone else fell apart in the professional kitchen, but that’s where I relaxed! The judges kept asking me if I wanted to be a chef and I thought, no way! I’m the kind of person who has an expense account and takes my clients to restaurants, but life is probably having a chuckle at all of that now.”
Once Elizabeth left Masterchef all she wanted to do was cook more and so she tried working on pop-ups on her own, but she didn’t fall for it and she realised that she wanted to be back in a kitchen, surrounded by other people and to have that whole atmosphere again. Naturally for Elizabeth, she took things into her own hands. “I went and negotiated a residency at a disused restaurant in a five-star hotel and pulled together a small team for a two-month residency that ended up being five months,” she says. “It was a baptism of fire! Lots of things went wrong, but I learnt so much in a very short space of time. I decided to pull together a business plan, borrow some money from the bank and do it for real. A lot of my guests had said how much they loved the dining experience, how personal it was and how at home I made them feel. When a group of people are saying that’s what they love, you hang onto that.”
Enter Home, Elizabeth’s first restaurant that she set up at Kirkgate five years ago before moving to Brewery Wharf 12 months ago. Of course, a second site was always in the business plan, so Elizabeth opened Owl in Kirkgate Market (now housed at Mustard Wharf) a year later and then, post lockdown, in order to connect with her family roots, she opened Cora in Boston Spa.
Despite her clear individual successes, Elizabeth is a self-professed pack animal and, once she had a bit of time to look over a whirlwind couple of years starting out, she invested £30,000 of her own money on life coaching in order to understand more about herself and her management style. She really rallied around her team throughout the pandemic, too, and invested every last penny in keeping the businesses going. “Luckily, the furlough scheme happened and it was like a reprise for us,” she says. “It was a heartbreaking thought to think we might have to stop, so during lockdown it was a case of keeping the team together. It gave us all time to develop recipes again, so when we came back together, we had new dishes and a new purpose. We’ve gone from strength to strength.”
We laugh through stories of chaos as she tells me how her appearance on Great British Menu came next, alongside doing a whole house renovation, opening Cora and moving two restaurants. In an unsurprising turn, Elizabeth doesn’t want to just stop at becoming a success in her own right, and a big part of what she is doing with her restaurants is about changing the culture of the restaurant industry. “I’m really proud of our culture in the team and it’s about nurturing and inspiring,” she says. “I think that’s very rare. I interview people and they tell me about restaurants in London where people are still being dragged across the kitchen by their ears and there’s still a lot of sexism going on in famous restaurants. We’ve got a wonderful ultra-feminine vibe, and that doesn’t mean weak, it means we have a lot of pride, praise and we don’t belittle, scold or blame. As a team, we fiercely protect this.”
With a bit of time for reflection, I wonder what it is that Elizabeth loves the most about being a chef. “I just love how it forces you to be in the moment,” she smiles. “I also love how every single day can be like a blank piece of paper. It’s like turning up at an easel with a giant canvas and deciding what you’re creating, there’s endless possibilities for innovating, for change and for creating something new. The Yorkshire food scene is exciting too and great at showcasing Britishness and showing that British food is all about local produce and good service.”
So, after a hectic couple of years, what’s in store for 2023? “This year has been really hard, with the looming doom that has been hanging over us all,” she says. “But just as we did in the pandemic, we’ll try to use the times to inspire us to innovate and come back stronger.”