Lisa Allen Head Chef Northcote Manor

The Staff Canteen

Lisa Allen, the 2010 Great British Menu winner, is head chef at Northcote Manor, Lancashire under Nigel Haworth. 

Her stature as a chef obviously took a huge publicity boost after her victory in the Great British Menu but many commentators also focus on the fact that Lisa is one of only a handful of female chefs to reach the top of the industry.  Lisa Allen has maintained a Michelin star standard in her time at Northcote Manor and she has been kind enough to talk to The Staff Canteen about her exploits.

Can you talk us through your daily role and your responsibilities at Northcote? 

I joined Northcote nearly ten years ago as a demi chef de partie. You know that angle when that when you're young, I was only 20 years old, that I was going to stay here for a year, a year and a half, then move on, but a position was opened up for me and people started to leave and I got taken under Nigel's wing. So by the age of 23 I took over as the head chef. The responsibilities are very heavy. Every head chef is expected to do the day in day out of running a kitchen and making sure the food is up to standard. Monthly stocks, all the ordering making sure your team is working correctly and getting the best out of your produce. It's been an incredible, exciting time for me, especially being around the area with so many producers on your doorstep. Lovely game in the game season, all the cheese producers, vegetable suppliers, and it's been real honour to work with some of the finest produce. Also its not just you in the kitchen; you've got all your team behind you, it's about them as well; its also about the producers out there working so hard to get the finest produce that you want to get the best out of it.

So at the age of 23 and being a woman, did you find it tough? 

I think at the age of 23 and obviously being a woman was tough because the hours are hard. You have to keep up with the standards; you have to deliver at the end of the day. You're the peer in that kitchen, you want the people underneath you to respect you and also you've got to get the respect out of them. When you're in a kitchen you are treated as one of the lads. To me I don't think you should be treated any differently because you are a woman, especially when you're demanding the best out of other people. It's good fun, but at the same time you expect everyone to get their heads down and get on with it. I think you know in there, I've got an incredible team. There are some young boys coming through and some young girls coming through.

Are you a hard taskmaster; someone hard to please?

I think as a taskmaster every chef wants the best out of their food and their team in the kitchen. I respect them, they respect me. We try and get the highest quality food possible. We're always wanting to up the game and our standards and we'll deliver on some of that. Food is where you can release that passion within yourself. I think food is an incredible journey because the trends change, the cooking methods change like the water bathing as well as going back to the old processes. New stabilisers coming out, but you've got to keep within the boundaries that you believe in. You use those things to enhance your style of food; enhance what you believe in and what your food is about.

So what do you like about the new techniques and technologies that we see on the TV like the water baths and foams?

Yeah, I think the water baths are an incredible piece of kit. They were in and then they were out and now they're in again. You can use then to the best of their ability; slow cooking something for so many hours, it increases the flavour, tenderises at the same time. I think they're very clever. And foams and stuff like that; you can use them to your advantage if you're going to put them on the plate because you want everything there for a reason and not to be a gimmick. Especially with what you can do with food these days, but really keep it true to yourself.

That's good to hear and the fact that you use local produce is a big bonus as well. 

Yeah it's incredible. Even last year when I was on the Great British Menu, it was about the producers; it was a fantastic experience because they gave you  an area to research around and you couldn't go outside your boundaries. I was very anal and drew a ring around the map and was going to research around within that area. There are so many family run businesses that put everything into producing some fantastic produce that ultimately, when you see it in the ground or running around the ground, you want to get the best out of it. You really want to create something special. When you're cooking it, it's not just about you as an individual, it's about everybody; it's about the team and the people who producer the food. Let's face it, without them you couldn't do it.

How have you developed and improved as a person over the years from the wee girl that turned up?

Yeah, from the shy girl that turned up at the back of the kitchen. I think I'm very true to myself. I love what I do at the end of the day. I'm a person that will always try and try harder to succeed or if something's not quite right, you always want it to be right.

That comes across when we see you on Great British Menu, we can see the passion there.

Oh without a doubt. You're clawing at it, the passion is always there. For me cooking is really special, you can express yourself in so many different ways. I think it makes you grow up quickly as a person. From 23 and having to run a kitchen, the organisation and everything that's going on, you ultimately have to stand up and take the reins. It's made you more mature and again I never go away from who I am, the style of food I like to cook is very honest but there's some really good flavours going on, hopefully.

And how are you coping as a manager of people in the kitchen? Because obviously being a head chef you have to manage the guys in there.

Managing people, I don't think there's a day when there's not a problem, either one's calling in sick or another's fallen out with his girlfriend and he's in a bad mood or one's squabbling. I think being a manager it's a tough job in itself, but also a rewarding thing to know at the end of the day you're organising a kitchen to run methodically, getting out some of the best food. Ultimately you want everyone in your kitchen to enjoy it because that's what cooking is all about; getting in there with your passion and really producing some fantastic food. I think being a manager is a tough job but I enjoy it.

How are you finding it working underneath Nigel?

I've worked with Nigel now for nearly ten years. I've grown up underneath his wing. I have my style and Nigel has his style and we paste that together. He's one of my peers in the industry, I've got a lot of respect for him, I work incredibly well with him, we're like right arms really. It's definitely exciting and I think the thing about it, is that here and why I've stayed so long. is that they've given me something to grab hold of. You're always in charge of something, you always have to achieve, there's something there like a carrot dangling that will always keep you interested. I think that if chefs are going to stay with you for a while then that's what it's about. They want to know that, as a young person, they are progressing and their career is progressing. Nigel and Craig Bancroft, who is the other managing director, have given me that. I've got the utmost respect for them both. I think they are incredible people and we work well together.

So they've given you free reign in the kitchen as to how the menus are developed.

I put a lot of menu developing and things into it. We'll sit down together with Nigel because we want to bring the area together. We like to focus on what's around us. The garden we're bringing on and is a big emphasis in what we're cooking now.

I had a wander round earlier on; it looks lovely.

It is isn't it? We're really trying hard to and we want to grow some new things. We've got a new gardener and it's exciting that we can sit down and the two of you together can create some fantastic things as well as bringing your own things to the table. I organise the kitchen, get all the menus together, do the tastings and then it goes live. I'm pretty much 100% involved in all that.

You seem very comfortable in your own skin?

I like to think I always go in there to be in control of what I'm doing; show people respect, they show me the respect. For me to work long hours and then at the end of the day, for a guest to say to me that was absolutely fantastic, that's the icing on the cake. That's what you are there to achieve is for people to enjoy what you're doing.

So what's your biggest single professional challenge while you've been here at Northcote?

Everyday's a challenge; having to manage a kitchen, get the food up to its best potential. Keep evolving as a person, keep food moving. Also with competing on GBM there are added pressures on the side and it's been a phenomenal experience for me. Without a doubt something I've never regretted doing. To win last year and to get to the banquet again this year and being the only woman in the final again was just amazing. You sit back and never would I have thought a three or four years ago I'd be doing something like that.

Three or four years ago would you have envisaged that you would have had a Michelin star?

No, no! To be able to retain a Michelin star is, again, an incredible experience. We got the 4th rosette last year as well. That in itself just keeps you motivated. To keep moving on and keep pushing forward and the experience for me here has just been an incredible journey.

Are you the youngest female chef with a star under her belt?

I'm not too sure if I'm the youngest actually. I may have been the youngest when I retained the star for Nigel when I was 23. There are only a few women, I think, who have got Michelin stars.

It's always nice to see women chefs at the forefront, much maligned in my opinion.

There's a lot of inspiration out there. Angela Hartnett, she's the leading light in the country, isn't she? She works incredibly hard for what she's got. She's a very big inspiration to me. To see her before and eventually she's got her own place; you hear a lot about her. When you speak to her, her passion and her enthusiasm about food is obvious. Again, another lady keeps very true to her roots; keeping that Italian feel to her. I think it's incredible.

And how much importance do you place on training and development, not only for yourself but your team?

In the kitchen at Northcote we run an apprenticeship scheme. We've always got younger people coming in. They go college one day a week, take two days off then, so they are in the kitchen for four days with us. Again it's up to you to be able to teach them, to progress them as people to come on. Instead of going to college full time, they took the option to work here for three months and then go round to the other pubs that Nigel and Craig run. So by the time they finish their apprenticeship here, they really have got an understanding of what kind of   food they want to go into. Whether it's really good pub food, whether it's fine dining or the mass catering that we do at Blackburn Rovers. It's a great opportunity for those young people. And also you want to be able to pass your skills on to all those youngsters. I've got one lad in the kitchen now that is just about to finish his apprenticeship; another guy who was with me for quite a while, he's out of his apprenticeship by two years now but he's still with us. Again if you keep someone enthusiastic, you keep teaching them and that's a really important thing. They've got to feel as if they are learning and also it's an exciting thing to do to pass on your knowledge to others.

Do you see yourself as a nurturing chef?

Nurturing? Yeah. You want to show people correctly because ultimately you want staff that, when they do leave here, to go on and say they learnt from Nigel Haworth and Lisa Allen. And that it's the correct way and done professionally, that's the thing about it. I love to teach people and be able to progress your food within the kitchen itself.

And have there been any lads and lassies that have crossed your threshold that you think, I can see the potential in you and you'll go far?

We've got one lad with us now who has been with us for about five years and he's actually got to the  junior sous level and he's very talented who works incredibly hard . His skills are impeccable and people like that you want to see. Last year he entered Young Chef and Waiter for the first time and he came third. He really put his focus and energy into that. Putting someone forward for the competition, we'd come in early in the morning and give him a surprise basket. We'd go through different things with him, give him questionnaires. Again it keeps them excited and gives them something to drive forward for.

Is that the way to do it, through apprenticeships?

There are a lot more people doing them now. That way you're creating a path for people to come into the kitchen and learn about what you do and what you experience. They can then pass it on when they move on. Le Manoir and places like that are training their own people.

What are you looking to gain from Northcote in terms of development and your future career opportunities? Will you have your own restaurant in five years time or will you still be here or would you still like to be here?

I've been at Northcote for a long time and they've given me great opportunities to progress my career here. A lot of people ask me the question of what you going to do in five or ten years time, have you got this big path? I think to when I started and I had a path of going abroad and stuff, but things just kept being dangled in front of me and you see yourself progressing which is why I've stayed. I work really well with Nigel and Craig. Other things in the pipeline for the future? I'm not too sure, maybe; its things you'll talk about and one day I maybe like to see myself in my own restaurant or running a kitchen that is just completely my name but then again it depends. I'm just a person who loves what I do and when that opportunity arrives, I'll look at it then.

By Lea Allen

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 5th July 2011

Lisa Allen Head Chef Northcote Manor