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My first boss: Liz Cottam, serial restaurateur and Yorkshire chef

·6-min read
Liz Cottam spent 20 years in the commercial world as a business consultant for banks and digital companies. Photo: HOME restaurant
Liz Cottam spent 20 years in the commercial world as a business consultant for banks and digital companies. Photo: HOME restaurant

After reaching the BBC MasterChef semi-finals with no prior chef experience, Liz Cottam, 46, quit her six-figure salary corporate career and opened three restaurants in five years. All of them made it into the Michelin Guide within 12 months, financed with just £50,000 in savings and bank loans.

As the North Yorkshire chef and co-owner of HOME, opened in 2017, The Owl and CORA, the group predict £3.2m turnover for the year ahead. She credits her turnaround from near burnout to spending £30,000 on life coaching to balance out her management and leadership style.

The second chapter of where I am now is the most important to me, but the first 20 years prepared me in a very unexpected way in a different industry. The speed at which I am going is also testament to that.

I wanted to grow up fast and wanted a real job after art school and dabbling in photography. I worked for a completely unheard of company at the time called the Digital Agency, which was talking about the internet. I applied as an account executive and worked under the MD called Daryn Forster and we would walk into companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and tell them about websites.

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Daryn was always trying to understand the business problem and trying to come up with a digital solution. In my four years there I had touchpoints on forecasting, invoicing and cashflow and for someone so young it was an usual position to be in. Yet, it was an important path in how to run a business.

The digital industry in the late 90s was so young we were almost writing our own culture. The dotcom boom happened and coming from two relatively small businesses with no corporate stigma attached to them — there were no stereotypical views on young people or whether a woman was good enough — we got bought out by a big French company.

At the time, I was running a £4.5m portfolio in London and was under 30. This raised eyebrows with the new owners in the corporate world we now found ourselves in and one-by-one our team was ousted.

Liz Cottam reached the semi-finals of MasterChef in 2016 and went on to open her fine dining restaurant. Photo: HOME
Liz Cottam reached the semi-finals of MasterChef in 2016 and went on to open her fine dining restaurant. Photo: HOME restaurant

The way I then came into the hospitality industry several years later, this had prepared me to be a really good chef. I had learnt to be decisive, almost be masculine, make hard decisions and not be scared of tough conversations. Everyone would have thought this would serve me well, but it tripped me up.

Working at my first restaurant, everything was going well but only 90% was right. I was walking around trying to work out where the 10% was, rather than leading, inspiring and motivating.

Twenty years earlier, it was Daryn who had showed me to be bigger and better than what anyone expected them to be. I had forgotten all that. I was obsessed with perfection and the fear of it disappearing before my eyes overnight if it wasn’t. The fear of failure can be a motivator but it’s extremely stressful waking up on that.

In restaurant terms we were booked up from day one. I was striving for perfection and with a skeleton team it was a great achievement looking back. I wanted to improve just a little every day, a mantra which still holds true today at the restaurant, but it was always a battle of attrition. The business side was easy, the food was easy but to be a happy team it felt like I was holding it together physically and mentally every day.

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I was on the verge of burning out and dragging everyone along with me. I could feel the unsustainability of it all. We were losing staff and I was talking to teenage chefs who had never stepped inside a Michelin-starred restaurant about levels of service and sophistication of cooking. They had no life reference for any of this; instead of recognising it I didn’t have the perspective.

I listened to one brilliant Tim Ferris podcast, had a moment of clarity and knew I needed help in being a better leader. Having previously been stimulated by all these big thinkers in my old industry, I was introduced to the idea of senior level life coaching.

When I was a child, I once begged my mum for a puppy. She told me I should beg for a pony. I had used this philosophy in my business life when we pitched for million pound businesses. And so I tried to track down the best life coach, one I couldn’t afford on paper, yet it was the best decision I made to work with Carla Jones.

Liz Cottam co-owns Home with business partner Mark Owens, former head chef of Michelin-starred The Box Tree Inn, West Yorkshire. Photo: Chris Leah/HOME restaurant
Liz Cottam co-owns Home with business partner Mark Owens, former head chef of Michelin-starred The Box Tree Inn, West Yorkshire, the first restaurant she worked at. Photo: Chris Leah/HOME restaurant

After four sessions, she described who I was; a problem solver, balanced and the calmest person in the room. I had been quick to judge and strong arm every problem in a masculine way to drive me to distraction.

One example came at the start when one of my chefs reduced the consommé we needed for the whole weekend by two thirds. I lobbed a pan across the kitchen, the tension was fever pitch and the front of house came in. So upset was he by the energy I had created, that he dropped the tray. I decided to believe that being calm was a way to make things better.

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Currently I am the most tired, poorest and happiest I have ever been. Up until recently we went nearly four years without losing a member of staff after finally being stable and all pulling together. Recruitment is the biggest problem in our industry right now and my constant investment in protecting our culture is the reason why we are doing so well after the pandemic.

Daryn, who is still a close friend today, was always interested in everyone else and super curious. He believed in me, it was extremely empowering and he opened my eyes to the enjoyment you get from finding out about people and making no assumptions about our clients. That is something I still take through to every situation, every day.

HOME restaurant is now located on the banks of Leeds’ river Aire.

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