Only if you feel a burning desire to head down to the gym at 6.30am every morning before embarking on a double kitchen shift would you fully appreciate what Northcote Manor head chef Lisa Allen does to stay at the top of her game.
But building her stamina to last a busy service is just one example of how the 28 year-old chef has fought for a place in a very much male-dominated industry. Speaking from the dining room of her Michelin-starred restaurant, a modest Allen told Becky Paskin how her fierce ambition and passion for northern produce is keeping her heads and tails above the rest.
“It’s a little bit harder for a woman to succeed in this industry, but you’ve got to get out there and prove yourself, and once you’ve gone and done that you’ve just got to keep on doing it,” she said.
Even whilst studying at college Allen knew she had to work hard to make a name for herself. Whilst studying a three-year NVQ she secured a part-time position as commis chef at the Michelin-starred Holbeck Ghyll Country House Hotel in Windemere, and said the long hours were what prepared her for the tough life of a chef.
“I think at that age it's quite daunting coming out of college because you don’t understand all the ins and outs of the kitchen. But it gave me a good understanding of what to expect in the real world, as well as a good grafting, and made me realise what kind of catering I wanted to go into.”
Poking fingers in pies
During college Allen also found time to work with Nigel Haworth’s outside catering company as well as complete a couple of stages at the two-Michelin starred Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, where she impressed executive chef David Everitt Mathias so much, he gave her a full-time job as commis chef.
“Without a doubt David was a fantastic chef, and the skills and ethical way of working he taught me was incredible,” she said. “But after a year I felt it was time to move on from Le Champignon. I’m a northern girl at heart and I really wanted to move home. I got in touch with Nigel and he offered me a position as demi chef de partie at Northcote. I was 19 then, and I’ve been here ever since.”
In 2005, after four years at Northcote, Allen became one of the youngest female head chefs of a Michelin starred restaurant at the age of 23, but she says the achievement was a natural transition, claiming she ‘just slipped into place’.
“When I first came to Northcote it wasn’t intentional for me to stay on so long; I thought I’d just do a year or two and then move on, but because the company was always motivating me and doing something exciting the time just flew by. So when I became head chef at the age of 23 I thought it was quite incredible really. Being so young it was quite daunting at first but I fought forward, and now here I am.
“I think a company needs to keep a chef striving and passionate and keen so they don’t get bored, but it’s also important for the chef to keep themselves stimulated. For me, it’s talking to other people about new ideas and stumbling upon new products, as well as the many exciting things going off in the company.
“We’ve got our own gardens here at Northcote which we’re expanding at the moment. It’s incredible to see the way things grow and I think you appreciate it a bit more when you see where something’s come from. I love walking around the garden in the morning to see what I have growing – it’s so inspiring and gets your mind stimulated.”
It was Allen’s passion for home-grown food that won her the title of Best Chef of the Year at the 2008 Northern Hospitality Awards, a title she modestly accepted as ‘fortunate’. But despite winning just the one award in her career (Allen came third in the Young Chef Young Waiter competition, and twice made it to the final of the Roux Scholarship), she isn’t enthusiastic to add any more trophies to her collection.
Allen’s work ethic keeps her more focused on serving meals than being in the spotlight, but when you’re working in an industry surrounded by equally determined males, Allen says she has to stay on top of her game.
“Sometimes there’s extra pressure to perform if you’re a woman in this industry, and you have to learn a lot quicker to stand up for yourself than anyone else would. But if people think what you’re doing is really good, and as long as you’ve got happy customers on the other side of that room that’s the biggest thing. For me, it’s when someone walks away saying what great food they’ve just had; that’s what makes my day fulfilling.
“I think more women are coming into it and hopefully more and more will. I have two girls in my kitchen at the moment, and they fit in very well here. The boys really look after them. There are big female inspirations out there like Angela Hartnett, she’s really something for people to aspire to. She’s fighting away for what she deserves.”
Perhaps a recurring theme with female chefs is the fight to gain recognition amongst their male peers, and Allen is certainly doing that. If she continues to demonstrate her dedication and passion for food, keeping her eye on the ball and building her stamina not just to get her through the working day but her entire career, Allen may see herself recognised as Britain’s next great female role model.