"If you want to effect change, you need to do something big": Liz Cottam

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Chef and co-owner of Home restaurant in Leeds Liz Cottam on opening ‘four disparate foodie concepts’ in Kirkgate Market

Related tags: Leeds, Chef, Restaurant

The chef and co-owner of Home in Leeds is opening ‘four disparate foodie concepts’ with chef and business partner Mark Owens in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market.

Why Kirkgate market?
Our restaurant Home overlooks it and it’s the most beautiful building in the world – if it was in Venice they’d put a red rope outside it and charge people to enter. I’ve lived in Barcelona and have visited markets all around the world and I could see the potential it had, but we were not taking advantage of it. The final straw came when I was in London and I went to Borough Market and got annoyed that Kirkgate was nothing like it. Instead of moaning about it I thought about what I could do to change it.

Was it always part of your expansion plans?
At the time we were looking to open a second restaurant to Home called Essay. We had been looking at some beautiful buildings but it just didn’t feel right, so we decided to look at doing something else. I booked in a meeting with the market people even before I’d decided what I wanted to do. There is method in the madness. When I was a kid my parents owned a couple of pubs and we used to shop there on almost a daily basis. It was the 80s – it was not a case of it being like Borough Market, rather it was no frills, a bit like what people now seek at Aldi and Lidl – and it was really good produce. There was a great sense of community, and banter. In the 90s the supermarkets took over with more out-of-town locations and prettier food and the market suffered. I’ve seen it at its best and worst.

What challenges will you face?
There were so many reasons not to do it. Some of the locals don’t want change and are quite vocal about it. The opening hours are also tricky. But there’s a certain vibe and feeling I had about it. There are 99 reasons not to do it but the one big reason was that my heart was telling me to. I’m very emotionally charged.

You’ve got four different projects planned. Why so many?
I thought if I just did one thing I would be a bit exposed. If you want to effect change, which is really what I’m trying to do, then you need to do something big. In a way it is a safer bet than doing one thing and it will hopefully get people talking – there is safety in numbers.

What do you have planned?
I looked at what Leeds doesn’t have that I would want through the eyes of a customer. Fish & Game Row in the market has the best array of traders, so it was right to do something with a fish approach. An oyster seafood bar was a no-brainer – we’ll have oysters and champagne but it will also be open for breakfast and serve muffins and pastries, and then move over to seafood later on. We will have bottles of Dom Perignon under the counter for people who might want it but we will also have some great accessible sparkling wines. Opposite it we will open a café serving four to six simple dishes that will change daily. Both are in sections Q and R of the market so the seafood bar will be called Q and have 12 seats, and the café will be called R with 20 covers.

And you’re also doing a pub?
We will be opening a gastropub called The Owl on Fish & Game Row. The market has always had two or three pubs on site and The Owl will have a local pub feel to it. It will be a taproom with guest beers and we will be doing a collaboration with [Leeds-based] Northern Monk brewery, who I’ve worked with before. It will have champagne-style beers and wines on tap that we are getting supplied in bags to be more sustainable. We are also looking at growlers that can be refilled. Then there will be a 44-cover dining space for proper gastropub food, but we will try to be as creative as we can with it with starters such as wild boar and bone marrow sausages served on toasted brioche buns, with melted cheese and house pickles. The mains will be fish and game focused.

What’s the final venue?
Above The Owl is a space that has its own toilets – probably the only place in the market that does [the market has toilets], which means we can do something different. Here we’re going to create a 12-cover intimate dining space that will be tasting-menu based and extremely creative – there will be no dietaries whatsoever, but I might do a veggie night once a month once it’s up and running. It will feel organic and rustic in design but still feel comfortable.

Where will you be cooking?
Mark will be overseeing The Owl and I’ll be cooking above but we might work at one place and then move over to the other later on as they are all really close. We had been gearing up to open Essay so I brought Adam Rasburn from The Man Behind the Curtain to come over for that, but he will now take over the day-to-day cooking at Home. Mark and I are both in the role of executive chefs but we still roll our sleeves up, we are both ridiculous control freaks.

Could you do even more in the market in the future?
It’s the biggest covered market in Europe, so if I had the funding I would open a few more places. I’ve got a few ideas for others. Unfortunately, there are quite a few unoccupied units and the market is also occupied by too many of the same style of offer – there are probably two or three too many mobile phone unlocking shops, for example. But the council is starting to be more selective on who it is letting in and rethinking things when old leases expire.

What do you hope to achieve?
I’d like to help make Kirkgate Market attractive to other chefs, maybe those looking to test out a concept. Opening a small place in a market is a less expensive way to prove a concept, it doesn’t have to be a long-term thing but maybe an incubation project.

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the October issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here​.

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