Lisa Goodwin-Allen on her plans for the future of Northcote's menu
PUBLISHED: 13:00 21 March 2019
Lisa Goodwin-Allen recently celebrated her first year as executive chef at Northcote with a stunning masterclass at the Obsession food festival. She spoke to Roger Borrell
When they come to write the history of Northcote, the family tree of chefs who learned their trade at the Ribble Valley hotel before making their names in kitchens around Britain will read like a Who’s Who of culinary over-achievers.
In recent times old boys have included Mark Birchall, winner of two Michelin stars at Moor Hall in Aughton, Tom Parker who has just bagged a star for his dining pub, The White Swan at Fence, and Hipping Hall’s Oli Martin, a rising star who made the final in the latest series of MasterChef: The Professionals.
There is one notable exception – the one who didn’t get away. Lisa Goodwin-Allen pitched up as a fresh-faced young woman in Nigel Haworth’s kitchen 15 years ago. ‘I’d planned to spend a year here, learn as much as I could and then move on,’ she says. ‘It didn’t quite work like that.’
Her boss recognised a star in the making and Lisa, who had previously been at Holbeck Ghyll in the Lakes and Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham, became Nigel’s protégé. At the tender age of 23 she became his head chef and, just over a year ago, she was given the executive chef’s jacket. This modest but determined woman is now a quietly confident queen bee in the Northcote kitchen.
If there were any concerns about the changes they were quickly dispelled when Lisa and her team retained a Michelin star for a remarkable 28th year running at this Ribble Valley institution.
Anyone still to be a convert to the Lisa revolution should have been at the opening night of Northcote’s Obsession festival. It was a masterclass in elegance and taste and her dishes drew admiring comments from some of the best in the industry.
Lisa has grown as Northcote has developed from a cosy country house hotel into a luxurious destination. ‘I’ll always be grateful to Nigel,’ says Lisa. ‘He pushed me forward but he also gave me the time and space to learn and grow and to develop my own style. He was a great mentor, who kept me on the straight and narrow.
‘It means that when I became head chef I was ready for the step up. I got encouragement from everyone, especially Craig Bancroft (the managing director) and Craig Jackson (general manager) so we had a really great transition. Taking over from Nigel was a pleasure but also a great honour.
The style of cooking has changed under Lisa, who has brought a light touch. ‘I believe that everything that is written on the menu should be tasted on the plate and I want the chefs and the customers to be able to know what they are eating blindfolded.’
She talks passionately about the need for customers to be ‘constantly blown away by the standard’ at Northcote.
‘I believe that less is more in cooking and I like using unusual cuts that give you the best flavours, things that make you salivate. I really concentrate on flavours but the look on the plate is also very important – people eat with their eyes as well as with their tastebuds.’
While Northcote has never been prone to fads, Lisa is aware of the need to cater for changing tastes. ‘We now have a plant-based gourmet tasting menu,’ she says. ‘It has taken off well and is even enjoyed by people who aren’t vegetarians. Times are changing and people are eating lighter, they’re going meat free a couple of days a week and we need to respond to that.’
As well as developing the hotel, Nigel and Craig also recognised that they needed to create their own succession plan to create the chefs of the future.
‘The apprenticeship scheme we have here is a great way to go,’ she says. ‘College courses can be very good but I don’t think anything beats working in a kitchen. If you really want to understand the place and the business, you need to live it.
‘Our apprentices do four days in the kitchen and one at college. And they don’t just stay in the kitchen, they get involved with front of house so they understand each part of what we do and how we expect them to deliver excellence in every aspect of the job. We don’t just want them to be able to cook, they have to be able to meet and greet people coming through the door.’
While life in a kitchen is still a tough gig, most enlightened head chefs now recognise that young people require a work-life balance if they are to keep staff.
‘How far you go in this business depends on how much you want it and how much time you are willing to invest. I was 23 when I became a head chef. I suddenly found myself in charge of people who were older than me, and mostly men. That meant I had to grow up very quickly.
‘Happily, we have invested in the team here and we have great talent. Now I am the mentor and that’s a real honour to be able to pass on my knowledge.’
Lisa isn’t exaggerating. Northcote sous chef Danny Young is a local lad who has been crowned National Young Chef of the Year for 2018, head chef Matt Sherry has vast experience while the cook school is headed up by another Northcote favourite, Jason ‘Bruno’ Birkbeck.
‘We all work hard but we make sure everyone has got a life too,’ she says. ‘These days, the job is more about brain than brawn. People need to come to work refreshed rather than exhausted from the last shift. We have a great work ethic but we want to get the best out of people.’
Part of that philosophy means that Lisa makes time for her four-year-old son, Teddy-Ray. And he seems to have followed in his mum’s footsteps, enjoying his visits to the hotel kitchen and helping at home to make a pretty mean cottage pie.
Could this young man one day be part of that Northcote family tree?