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Starting a new career is difficult at any point in your life.
But it’s important to remember that it’s never too late to start something new and follow your dreams.
Liz Cottam didn’t discover her passion for cooking until later on in life, which led her to a whirlwind experience on MasterChef.
Despite some mixed feelings after her encounter with the show, she decided to ditch the corporate world and dive head first into the hospitality scene.
It wasn’t a clear path for Liz, as she had to learn how to reject her fears of failure, change her perspectives and raise enough investment for her restaurant, HOME.
Here’s what we cover:
- Finding your passion later on in life
- Creating a sustainable workforce
- Your culture is what you tolerate
- Out of the corporate world and into the frying pan
- How a MasterChef experience turned into an unlikely business venture
- Ask for help and ask questions, it could be life changing—and save you money
- One derelict building, two months and £310,000 later…
- Feedback and funding
- Finding a career that feeds your soul
Finding your passion later on in life
Hi Liz. I’m so excited to have you here. How are you doing?
I’m great. It’s lovely to meet you. I’m looking forward to talking with you today.
And your background is so chic. I can see like 50 shades of black. Tell me about where you’re sitting. What’s special about where we’re recording today?
We’re recording from my restaurant, my flagship restaurant, HOME. It’s a theatre for my food.
So, there’s lots and lots of texture. Well, there’s lots of black, but we’re actually in a large round building with floor-to-ceiling windows, so there’s lots of beautiful light.
Yeah, it’s like my studio really, it’s like my creative place.
And I can’t wait to hear how you started building this nascent restaurant empire. But I wanted to find out first, how long have you had a passion for cooking?
Is it something that came to you later in life or have you always been nuts about food?
It definitely came later in life.
I just ate to live until I was about 20-21, and then I fell in love with cooking as a way of entertaining and socialising.
I really loved the creativity and what it looked like and right down to the plate that it was on and the environment I was creating, I was always obsessed with the details.
Yeah, I think I fell in love with it late, but the writing was on the wall that this was probably, well, a path for me that I was probably suited to.
Creating a sustainable workforce
And talk to me about the team, because anyone who’s worked in restaurants, hospitality knows there’s a high turnover of staff, usually.
It can be really tricky to hang on to good people.
So, how have you managed to find such great people, such team players and keep them in the business?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve got a really solid, stable team right now, but it wasn’t like that in the beginning.
So, in the beginning, the team had a small group of people who painted the walls with me, and they were fantastic and really focused. They weren’t the most experienced because they were all working in Michelin star restaurants, and then we had this additional team around us.
I just wanted everything to be perfect, which is crazy, but it’s what a lot of chefs try to achieve. And I think that’s why there’s so many crazy, drug-abusing chefs out there, because you’re chasing an impossible dream.
And crazily, what we were putting out there was 90% brilliant and there was this 10% that wasn’t right.
I just made the mistake where I lived my entire life fearful that the 10% was going to be the thing that put us out of business, the thing that destroyed my dream.
So, I spent all the time telling everybody what was wrong.
But you take a step back, and you realise actually, 90% good is a massive success, but I just spent the whole time telling the team how bad we were.
I was saying things like, “This bit’s wrong. This needs to be better. Why did this happen?”
Rather than, “Wow, look at what we’ve achieved and how do we make this better?”
It’s that flip and that negative mindset was making everybody leave, because where’s the joy in that?
And about eight months in, I’ve had a bit of word with myself, and I was like, “This is not sustainable.” I needed some help.
And I realised that people were leaving me, and I realised that life coaching and business coaching, if it was the right style, could be the thing that I needed.
And then, I discovered this wonderful life coaching resource that has completely transformed not just my business career, but my personal life as well.
Your culture is what you tolerate
Can you just give me one example of a piece of advice or a really smart way of looking at things that you talked through with your life coach, that changed your leadership style?
Is there one thing that stands out where you were like, bing, bing, bing, light dawns, everything is different now?
After the first couple, I was like, “I’m not sure this is for me. I’m really, really not sure.” And then on the third session, all of a sudden something clicked, and I think it was when she started talking to me about living in fear.
So, for the first two or three sessions, I didn’t really understand the topic of the conversation, but then it kind of made sense by the third.
So, this living in the 10% rather than the 90% was because that’s where the problem was that fear of failure and that fear of the business disappearing, that meant that I was living in fear.
I was constantly concentrating on all the things that could go wrong rather than concentrating on the things that actually prevented the bad things from happening, which was all the good stuff over here.
Because lots of things were happening with the staff, because we had this high turnover of staff, and she was teaching me about culture and how important the culture was.
I was saying to her that my culture was all about nurturing belief and creativity, but what I was delivering was something very, very, very different to that.
And also what I was tolerating was other people in the business that weren’t subscribing to that. One of the things she said was that, “Your culture is what you tolerate.”
I was fearful of losing a pair of hands and holding on to people that were at odds with what I was trying to create.
I had to be brave, and I had to protect what was important, and that was the culture.
And also, I had to start really walking the walk and being brave enough to jump out of the fear, which was the shouting and the demanding and drawing everyone’s attention to what was wrong, and I had to believe in the good stuff and believe in people.
I love that perspective where culture is not like a poster on the wall saying, “Believe blah, blah, blah.”
It’s actually, culture is what you tolerate. It’s almost like what you allow to fester or foster in your business. That must have been tough, but wow, what a result and what vindication for that strategy.
Out of the corporate world and into the frying pan
But food was not your profession till, I mean, relatively recently.
Can you tell me what you were doing as your career previously? What path did you go down?
So, my career started right at the beginning of the internet, and we didn’t have email addresses back then, nobody knew what websites were, and we were selling websites to the likes of Coopers & Lybrand before it turned into PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ferrari, and Slush Puppy.
We were getting conversations with all of these people because there wasn’t anyone else asking to sit down with them and talk to them about this wonderful new media.
At the end of my career, 21-22 years later, I was working with a lot of financial institutions, banks, public sector organisations, the MOJ [Ministry of Justice], the MoD [Ministry of Defence], and with the BBC as well.
I was in charge of digital transformation projects of multi-million-pound amounts.
So yeah, it was very corporate, but I really felt like I needed more creativity in my life, and I wasn’t getting that from the corporate world.
So, is that what led you to apply to go on MasterChef?
You thought, “This’ll be a great creative outlet. I’ll get to indulge my passion, which is food.”
What made you fill out that application and take a punt on that show?
It’s a bit of a long story, the whole path to MasterChef.
I was cooking for friends at weekends and doing my own version of mini tasting menus for 10 to 12 of my favourite friends almost every week. My husband was like, “This is a very expensive hobby, entertaining all of our friends.”
I was also really lucky because I had a good expense account.
So, midweek, I was going out to one, two, and three-star Michelin restaurants and getting really inspired for things that I wanted to try and attempt to recreate at home.
I got to a stage in my life where I was relatively, well, very successful, I suppose. You don’t like saying that about yourself, but I think I was, and I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled, so I decided that I needed to do something different.
I was pushing 40, and I just wanted the second part of my life to feed me in a different way to the first part. I also knew that if I did it half-heartedly, I probably wasn’t going to get anywhere fast.
So, I decided I was going to resign from my job and throw myself into the future and that’s exactly what I did.
At that time, I was going back to my creative route. So, when I left school, I went to art school and I loved painting and charcoal drawings, and I also loved photography.
So, I picked up my camera, and I was just going out, shooting things that I loved and going on a few photography workshops with street photographers across the globe.
And at the same time, some friends persuaded me over a few bottles of Chardonnay, to put an application in to MasterChef. I was cooking for them midweek, and they were like, “You should do this.”
So, I did.
And it was very, very close to the end of their application process, but I’ve got a phone call from them and yeah, the rest, well, it’s not history because we’re talking about it, but yeah, on the back of that, I ended up auditioning and getting on the show.
I am so bowled over by the fact that you quit your job, you went two feet in. You weren’t just like, “Oh, I’ll just do a side hustle or something.”
You were like, “No, I’ve got to draw a line under everything that’s gone before and start again.”
That’s amazing. That takes courage. But I suppose looking back, was it madness?
Do you know what? It’s really strange because it didn’t feel like I had a choice.
I came to this realisation that life is short and obviously at 40 I knew I wasn’t getting any younger and I just had this internal, I suppose, pressure to do something that I loved.
I suppose as well, I did have the cushion of a husband who had a great job, and I had the cushion of having a good career.
So, financially, there was a little bit of a comfort blanket there. There was a safety net.
I budgeted a time period for myself to be able to go and explore, what next? I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been relatively financially secure.
How a MasterChef experience turned into an unlikely business venture
No, that makes sense.
And then, tell me about the MasterChef experience.
Yeah, it’s so much more intense than what you expect, and I think it does a good job of showing you how stressful it is in terms of the edit when you watch it, but personally, for me, it was about a million times worse than anything that I expected.
It was just, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself as well. I think the mindset that I was in back then was, if you’re going to do anything, you have to win.
It ended up spanning probably about eight or nine weeks.
It was really, really hard. And then you’ve also got some normal life going on in the background as well that you’re trying to keep on top of, and a lot of people had full-time jobs, which they were very, very worried about leaving for so long.
I think my mindset where the only option was to win just created this additional layer of pressure that wasn’t particularly enjoyable to play out really.
Was there a part of your brain that was like, “Oh, this could be a great platform if I do want to go and open a restaurant or become a food entrepreneur afterwards.”?
Or was that like, it didn’t even occur to you?
Well, so they ask you repeatedly all the time about what you’re going to do with your MasterChef experience, and they do ask if you want to go into cooking as a profession.
And I was like, “Hell no.”
But that’s it, you’ve got to tell me, how did you go from, “I wouldn’t be seen dead starting a restaurant,” to, “Hey, I’m going to open three.”?
Well, I hated the studio. I couldn’t stand the studio.
I was really wanting to cook food that I really loved and that I was inspired by, which ordinarily took me three or four days of different preparations for different elements.
So, instead of putting a different recipe together for TV, I just was like, “No, I’ve got to be authentic to myself and cook the type of food that I’m really proud of.”
But that was obviously another factor why there was so much pressure because I was trying to do so much. So, I really didn’t enjoy the studio experience whatsoever.
Then, they put me into a professional kitchen, and I think this is the point where everyone really (beep) their pants. And I went into this situation, met all the chefs and something just clicked.
It was really strange, because I’d had so much anxiety and I just felt so like a fish out of water in the studio, and then suddenly I just felt like I belonged there.
I remember Greg coming over to me and saying, “This is strange, this is where we see people lose it and freak out.” And he said, “This is the calmest that I’ve seen you in the last few weeks.”
And I was like, “Yeah, no, I’m really looking forward to this.” And yeah, I did.
I loved the preparation, we spent all day actually preparing all the food. I know on television you think that it’s all made for you or made easy, it’s just not, it’s not like that at all.
So, we were in there at 6.30 with the full team at the restaurant that I went to, and we prepped everything together, and I got to know the team, and then we were planning service, and it just felt really, really, really good.
I think I just loved being part of the pack and I think I am a natural pack animal, and there was just something about that running with wolves environment, the preparation for it and then the actual service, that it was just a really, really wonderful experience.
And yeah, obviously won that. I became really addicted to from the minute I experienced it.
Those pop-ups that you did initially, did you just go to these restaurants, speak to the chef, and say, “Can I do a takeover for a weekend?”? How did you manage to have those little test beds?
What were those conversations and how did those pop-ups look?
I literally just reached out on Twitter to local restaurants, and it was the owners rather than the chefs actually, and just said, “I’d love to come to your restaurant,” and like you say, “do a takeover.”
I did a Friday and a Saturday night at the first one and then a Saturday night at the second one.
And yeah, they were really receptive. I think, MasterChef does not create opportunities, but what it does allow you to do is to knock on a door and get answered.
So, I think, with the brand of MasterChef behind me, when I approached these local restaurants, they were really up for a bit of PR and doing something different.
I think regardless of the level of restaurant, there’s still a need to be creative and I think collaborations are really exciting ways to do something different, and I think they recognise that.
Ask for help and ask questions, it could be life changing—and save you money
And then when you moved on to the residencies, that was when presumably you had a team around you, and everything clicked.
So, you weren’t on your own trying to do everything yourself, which was lonely and high pressure, but you had the buzz of the team, you had the buzz of actually creating, as you say, you’re a pack animal, creating that team.
So, from those residencies, were you like, “Right, I’m ready. I am going to take the plunge and do the most high-risk startup imaginable and open a restaurant.”?
I mean, so the residency lasted four months. I think because of my corporate background.
I got in touch with a billion-pound company and spoke to the senior team on the corporate commercial side of the business and just said, “Right, I’m looking for a disused restaurant, and I’m going to bring you some PR, and I’ll give you a percentage of the turnover.”
So, we found such a thing, which was an unusual thing to have kicking around in a portfolio of businesses, but they did have one in a hotel.
I created a brand, I created my menus. I went out there and begged, borrowed, and stole staff, because it wasn’t running in a full-time capacity, we were open Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
So, I hustled, and I went to a number of different restaurants in the city that I was usually and ordinarily a guest of and spoke to the chef and the front of house people and said, “Look, is there any way you can help me?”
And do you know what? It was absolutely amazing, because what they did was lend me glassware, cutlery, staff. I mean, you name it. These people were just so supportive.
It’s interesting that idea that, you don’t know until you ask, right? But we very Britishly, very rarely put ourselves in a position where we could ask too much.
I think this is a really important lesson that I’ve learned, is that you might ask 20 questions and the 21st one is a yes, and it can be a life changing yes.
And that stuck with me all the way through the last five years. That 21st question has been such an important thing to get, to give me that extra impetus to move forward.
You can call it luck, but you have to be brave enough to ask, and you have to be compelling enough with what you’re asking as well.
And I have to say, Liz, oh my goodness, what a great strategy to go, rather than trying to find a restaurant, and you’re competing with other brands, and you’re trying to find footfall, and you’re going through all that palaver to go to a massive company and say, “Which assets are you under-utilising? What properties have you got that you’d like to make a bit of money on?”
That is so smart, because then you’re not competing with anyone, the pressure is off, because they’re already making zilch from that property and don’t know what to do with it. That’s really smart.
Thank you. Yeah, I mean, for me, it was all about minimising my exposure to long-term costs.
So, to go into a restaurant in Leeds, you’re looking at a minimum of a 10-year lease or a 15-year lease with five-year breaks and things like that.
But the idea behind the residency was that I needed to see whether or I could do it. I needed to see whether or not the market enjoyed what I was doing on a larger scale to the pop-ups.
I had to learn about the business and see whether or not I was really cut out to take the plunge to do something long-term. And boy, did I test my resolve of whether or not this was something I wanted to do, because everything and anything went wrong.
I mean this disused restaurant, it was specified by Albert Roux, so it had the most amazing equipment, but it hadn’t been used for a really long time and grease traps exploded mid-service. I didn’t even know what a grease trap was.
So, it was gruelling. It was like 12 to 14-hour days for the majority of the week and even longer on the Friday and Saturdays.
But somehow, I still wanted to do it at the end of this residency. I was like, “I’m really, really, really not enjoying just how hard this is, but I don’t want to give up. This is definitely the profession for me.”
Feedback and funding
And so, you came out of this residency, you got this amazing experience, which really showed you the authentic side of being a restaurateur and yet you still wanted to go ahead.
So, then what was your next move?
I had fantastic feedback from day one from everybody, and it was always fully booked. So, that was great.
I knew that I wasn’t enjoying how hard things were, but when you break it down, running a residency with a skeleton staff, where you’re shouldering most of the work yourself, I knew that I could control that.
And if I got a good team around me and was in a more permanent environment where I could offer people full-time jobs, I knew that I could take that down a few notches. So, that told me that, if I’m still enjoying this like this, I can make it better for myself. This is the right path to be on.
The customers were telling me how much they loved everything that I was doing. So, market tests for four months, that’s a big tick. Everyone was enjoying what I was putting down. They were picking it up and going, “Yes, we want more of this.”
And because we were fully booked, the marketing engine, although it was very small and from a small dataset, it was growing and people were coming back, but then we were selling out every weekend, and we had some wait lists and things like that going on as well.
So yeah, so I knew the product was good.
I knew that I wanted to do it no matter how hard it was, I was still wanting to do that, so I was convinced of that. So, my next step really was to think about what this next thing was going to be.
I had formed a really good friendship with the head chef at The Box Tree, and he was looking for something else at exactly the time that I came to the end of the residency.
And he’d actually helped me out a little bit on his day off, coming and giving me a push with preparation and sharing some recipes with me, showing me how to sort out the grease trap, things like that.
We both enjoyed the same style of food, we both had the same work ethic. I was writing a business plan, and I was looking at what I needed in terms of skill set, and I was looking at where I wanted to go in terms of the positioning of the business.
Although I was very happy with what I’d been putting out, I wanted to do much higher end food and I wanted the experience to be the next level up from where I was. So, I knew that I needed some experienced people on board to help me do that.
So, I started to speak to Mark about him coming on board and also from his little black book, he had people that he’d worked with. So, what came with someone like that was a network that I currently didn’t have, coming from a different industry.
I put together a business plan and as I was putting that together, because the purpose was to go and speak to some high network individuals and see if they wanted to invest, but my absolute, real top priority was trying to get this funded independently.
So, I put together a good business plan.
I secured Mark to come, not just as an employee, but as part of the business so that he had an investment in helping me make this happen.
It wasn’t a salary thing where he could hand his notice in and disappear overnight, he was going to be locked into the business with shares. I decided that was the right way to go.
With that then went to the bank and asked them for the money to start the restaurant up.
So, what happened, did you manage to raise finance from private investors, or did you go with the debt option, or did you end up putting all your savings in?
What route came good in the end?
I basically went to the bank and told them how much money I wanted from them, and they told me how much stake I needed to raise.
At that point, I coppered up and had a look at how much money I could raise and yes, it was enough. It was enough to secure the investment from the bank.
There were three or four private individuals lined up. I had plan A, which was the bank and I had B, C, D and E.
If you take investment from an institution other than a bank or an individual, then the interest rate’s going to be higher as well.
So yes, I wanted control, but it also made good financial sense to get the cheapest money possible, and that was definitely from the bank.
One derelict building, two months and £310,000 later…
And can you tell me, how much does it cost to open a fine dining restaurant? Can you give us a number?
Ooh, well, I mean, what it’s cost me to open the second incarnation of HOME is a hell of a lot more than what I managed to do it the first time around.
The first time, we took over an almost derelict building, so there were no electricity boards in there, the wiring needed completely redoing, there were crumbling walls. I mean, it was a bit of a project to say the least, but the rent was really good.
So, £250,000 (€290,000) was the amount that I raised to open the first version of HOME and then the second one is three times that.
I think at the end of the day for me, I did a lot of the project management on the build for the new restaurant because I could, and that was a lot of cash that we were saving.
I also did this thing where I went around trying to find free money.
So, doing deals with suppliers and allowing them to give me cash upfront. So, in addition to the £250,000 (€290,000), I raised £30,000 (€35,000) worth of supplier contributions.
I also did a deal with the landlord.
So, I took on this derelict building that was sat there for seven or eight years without a tenant. I told him what I was going to do in terms of improving the building and I got him to throw £30,000 (€35,000) into the pot as well.
That’s really clever, just all the ways that you could claw back budget just by finding partnerships and by making one of those win-win deals where someone can’t say no.
I knew about the partnerships, because I saw on your Instagram that you had takeovers and I think there was a beer brand, and you were posing, and I was like, “That’s smart, because that must be sponsorship money that’s coming in, and it’s a cool brand and why not?”
Yeah, you can become more selective once you’ve got a brand, you’ve got more leverage.
But back in the day it was just a case of pretty much any supplier that was going to give me some money, I would consider taking it and stocking their products.
And do you know what? I mean, I’d do the same thing again. It was really useful.
They definitely got something out of it, like you say, it was definitely a win-win situation, and I didn’t have an interest rate to pay it back.
Nothing is ever for free. Obviously, they’d factored in that cash upfront into the prices we were paying and what have you, but it just was a very, very strategically important thing that we did to stockpile cash in that way.
And how patient did you have to be? How long is the process?
So, you found this derelict building, but how many months was it before you were open, and you were making money?
Well, you’re going to think this is absolutely crazy, but we got the keys on 8 June, and I opened the restaurant on 18 August.
Yeah, I know. I know.
Did you sleep at all during that time?
No. And yes, did I tile. I did indeed. Well, I mean we painted.
I mean, honestly, it was just full on and the team that I pulled together for opening that restaurant, I was selling this dream of creating a wonderful environment for people to work in and doing something important on the Leeds food scene, hopefully on the UK scene, and then beyond.
I don’t know whether I’m a fantastic salesperson or whether I was really lucky with the people that I met or a bit of both, but these people really, really, really got excited by what I was trying to do.
When I say I was painting, and I was tiling, alongside me was this fantastic team of people who, literally three o’clock in the morning, we were all, for weeks, not just the one night before we opened, for weeks on end, they were slogging their guts out for my dream, which was so humbling.
It was amazing.
Finding a career that feeds your soul
And Liz, just one final question.
You said that after your 20-year career in digital, you reached your limit, and you just wanted to do something in your forties that fed your soul and fed your passion.
Do you feel like you have achieved that as an entrepreneur and a serial restaurateur, are you there, are you feeding your soul?
Yeah, I’m definitely feeding my soul.
I have this thing that I say, especially to the people who came to my original pop-ups, who come to the restaurant now, and I say, “I’m the poorest, the tiredest, and the happiest I’ve ever been.”
It really, really, truly is about, if you love what you do, you never do a day’s work in your life.
And I love what I do. I’ve got a fantastic team around me, and we do things with passion and love, and my environment now is one of nurturing.
We haven’t lost anybody in three and a half years. We’ve got a solid team here at HOME, and I’m just loving what I do and who I do it with. What more can you want?
Oh yeah. What beautiful message and what a great place to end the podcast.
No, thank you. It’s lovely to speak to you.
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