Luxury Lancashire hotel and restaurant Northcote runs one of the most admired kitchens in the country. FEJ met with executive head chef Lisa Goodwin-Allen in the midst of its annual Obsession programme — in which, over the course of 18 consecutive nights, a renowned chef takes over the kitchen and produces a unique menu for the evening — to discuss motivating a brigade, designing the perfect kitchen and what she looks for in new equipment.
Lisa, your role changed recently and you were made executive head chef at Northcote. What does the change in position mean for you?
It’s an achievement I am proud of and if anything I think it is the next step for me really — I’ve now got the opportunity to try and put more of my stamp on things. I am very ambitious and I like to see myself and my team moving forward, so a position like this for me is great. I have been here for 14 years working with Nigel [Haworth, now an ambassador of Northcote] and we have always worked well together, but now it is my time to be able to pull my philosophy through a little bit more within food and the kitchens here at Northcote.
How big is the brigade at Northcote?
There are about 29 of us, so it’s a big team. It’s a seven-day-a week operation, whereas when I first started 14 years ago we were lucky if there were eight of us in the kitchen. Running a team of 29 has its challenges, but it is great to be fair. The systems we have put in place and the structure that we have got now in the kitchen work extremely well for the things that we produce.
You mentioned the opportunity to your stamp on things. What are your plans over the next 12 months in that respect?
I’d like to change things up a little bit more, to drive forward and to progress the team because at the end of the day you can’t do anything without a great team. There are some fantastic people in here and we all work really well together so it is about becoming one. We are looking at creating more of a structure to get suppliers in to carry out demonstrations and things like that, to keep the guys energised and learning. Education is massive thing.
Who has been your inspiration over the years — are there any particular styles of cooking or chefs you would single out?
There are a lot of different people. Obviously Nigel [Haworth], who I worked with; David Everitt Matthias — I worked with him. And I would probably say Angela Hartnett as well, because she is the leading lady and what she has achieved has all been through hard work and determination.
The last big kitchen refurbishment you went through was four years ago but it transformed the operation, didn’t it?
Yes, the size of the kitchen was basically a third of what it is now. It had a stove with six gas burners and a solid top and it was pretty much not working by the time we finished. Moving to this all-singing-and-all-dancing kitchen with amazing equipment changed the dynamics by allowing us to become a lot more organised and a lot more clinical in what we do.
Moving to this all-singing-and-all-dancing kitchen with amazing equipment changed the dynamics by allowing us to become a lot more organised and a lot more clinical in what we do”
In terms of the space and size, it is certainly not typical of a luxury hotel kitchen, which are generally a lot smaller. What’s been key to the design?
I am passionate about what we do but I am also a bit of an organisation freak so I like to know where I am, where the steps are and that everyone knows what they are doing. That leads to the way the kitchen is organised because down the back area we receive all the goods in, so all the dirty stuff, all the prep and all the butchery goes on down the back. The front of the kitchen, where the service is, is like your theatre where it all comes together. I think that is massively important because it has given us much more structure and organisation within the kitchen. I am a big believer that if you organise things properly, and everything has systems, then your food is going to be much better and your theatre work will be much more cleaner. At the end of the day every dish that goes out has got to be perfect.
I noticed at the front of the kitchen you have a marble pass, which is quite unusual. What’s the thinking behind that?
The pass is very long and that is the kind of pastry area, so everything is cold. We actually used to have an island where you’d have to go around instead of walking right along the pass. My biggest thing is that I don’t like shelves in kitchens because if you give people a space they will dump stuff. But we had to have the gantry, so that’s the only space we have got for that. The ideal thing is that we can stand at all four points of the kitchen and we can see clearly across. That is vital for when people are plating because all the different sections have to work together.
Which equipment is most central to your work?
All our ovens are really important because day-to-day they do a lot of things. I also think the Electrolux blast chiller we have is massively important. That is a good piece of kit. Appliances such as planchas and induction are all central to producing food. To me they are more efficient, they work a lot quicker and ethically it’s cleaner.
Are you looking to bring in new types of equipment now that you are executive chef?
I think you are always looking at bringing in new bits of equipment and there will always be things out there that will come into focus. You can change things pretty dramatically with a piece of equipment so we are always looking at developing new things and it is also important for keeping the team inspired and energised.
My biggest thing is that I don’t like shelves in kitchens because if you give people a space they will dump stuff”
Is there anything that catering manufacturers or suppliers could do from an equipment point of view that would make your life as a chef easier?
More self cleaning and equipment that doesn’t break down as often — an anti-destruct button! To be honest I think that if people pay a lot of money for a kitchen then they expect to get longevity out of it. What you pay for is what you are going to get and I think that is what you should expect really. If I was going to buy a new piece of kit then the first thing I would probably do is go to a kitchen where that kit is, speak to the person using it and get as much information about it as I could. If it costs a lot of money then you need to make sure that you are 100% sure about what you are going to buy.