If you watch MasterChef, you may recall Liz Cottam for the tears. A fan of the show approached her recently, saying: “You were the one that cried a lot, weren’t you?” Sitting on her sofa, her whippet leaning against her leg, Liz wishes to correct this lachrymose picture. “No, I cried twice but I did cry quite passionately. But that’s what sticks in people’s heads.” So is she recognised often? “Oh yeah, all the time. ‘You’re not famous, are you?’” Her response is to say that, no, she is not famous but she did appear on MasterChef.
One woman who approached Liz told her she looked 10 years younger in the flesh. “That’s because I was so stressed out. It was awful, I wasn’t sleeping at all.”
In person, Liz is lively and engaging, bright-eyed and smart. She laughs a lot while also giving the impression of being focused on what she wants to achieve.
Yet that wasn’t how she seemed on television. Friends tell her they barely recognised her on MasterChef, saying she came across as manic and giggly. And that is not how Liz likes to see herself. “I’m quite a fun person but I’m not silly. It’s really terrifying having loads of cameras in your face and I think I was a little more nervous than I’ve ever been, which makes you giggle a bit.”
As she sits at home today in Gildersome, Leeds, not far from where she was born, Liz is buzzing with plans for her food-filled life after MasterChef. But that wasn’t how she felt when her dream of winning collapsed in the semi-final. She has yet to watch that episode and probably never will.
“At the time it felt like the biggest disaster that had ever happened to me,” Liz says. “Because in my head I was very serious about MasterChef being a stepping stone to a serious career, and again in my head I thought if I don’t get through to the final there’s just no chance of that. It felt devastating that I hadn’t made it through.”
Liz, 40, had been touted as a possible winner but it wasn’t to be. So how is life now? “Oh, it’s absolutely fine. There was a massive amount of disappointment and you replay every single thing that you did wrong. But in a way I think it’s worked to my advantage because coming out of the competition when I did, the pressure just disappeared.”
Thanks to the filming schedule, Liz knew she hadn’t made the final before last Christmas but was obliged to keep quiet until May, at least in public. How she ended up on MasterChef is a story of its own, with an element of personal sadness. Liz applied the previous year and was accepted, only to withdraw. She was worried about abandoning her digital marketing and communications business and was nervous about going on the programme. “I got really scared about being on TV and I just thought it’s not for me.”
Her mother was “super-super disappointed” when she dropped out, says Liz. “She didn’t make me feel bad about it but I could tell that she was looking forward to seeing me on TV.”
She entered for a second time last year, at a time when her mother had just been admitted to hospital. “She’d been taken ill for a couple of days, just with constipation. She was in hospital, and the longer she was in there I started to get worried. And I thought: ‘I’ll apply for MasterChef to cheer her up’. And, bless her, she died that night.”
So she never saw her daughter on MasterChef. Liz regrets this, but feels she was better prepared second time around.
“I’m really pleased I did do it,” she says. “It’s taken me a bit of time after being on the show to feel like that. It just felt such an exhausting experience. Straight after the show you can’t say anything for months and months while they do the edit – and you can’t really talk about it during the transmission.”
A TV competition needs jeopardy and MasterChef generates that from the show’s tight schedule. “It is about who can cook really quickly,” Liz says. So was she at home before the programme cooking against the clock? “Completely, yeah just going for it. But what I wanted to do is represent the style of food that I cook, which is not something simple. The style of food I aspire to is proper fine dining. It might look quite simple on the plate, but I like lots of process and lots of depth of flavour as well.”
Liz thinks fine food is not really suited to MasterChef. Still, she learned a great deal from the experience, as she had to teach herself so much in a such short space of time.
To step away from fine dining for a moment, here are two surprising foodie revelations about Liz. Food surprise number one: Until she met her husband, Richard, an accountant, she used to live off mashed potato and grated cheese and the occasional piece of chicken. “And that was about it,” she says, laughing. The cooking began when she had to repay a dinner invitation and entertain friends for a meal. She started by cooking Thai because she liked the food and understood the need for the right ingredients. And she has never stopped chopping and dicing, sizzling and slicing since then.
Foodie surprise number two: After hours in the kitchen creating fine dishes, Liz never knows what to have for tea. “I just don’t cook. I have no interest in cooking boring food,” she says. Instead she will suggest a takeaway or cheese on toast.
Being married to a chef presents other challenges for Richard, including the unwanted role of head taster. “He finds it difficult to say the right thing. A certain look on his face and I snatch the spoon away from him.”
MasterChef almost put Liz off her dream of cooking for a living. She thought she might like to write about food instead. Once the final had been transmitted, however, she set up a couple of food pop-ups in Leeds and held supper parties for paying guests at home.
Now she loves to cook again and wants to be a serious chef. To that end, today she will be cooking in the John Lewis Food Village at the On Roundhay music and food festival where she will show how to make her calling card dish on MasterChef, an elevated version of a chicken dinner.
After that, on September 29, she has a date during York Festival of Food and Drink at the Star Inn The City, where she will reinvent basic Yorkshire dishes.
Biggest foodie news of all is that from October 1, Liz will be taking over the kitchens at the New Ellington Hotel in Leeds for three months, fronting an extended pop-up restaurant. The hotel has a top-notch kitchen specified by Albert Roux, Liz says, but it has not been fully used for some time. “They have this amazing kitchen and they do breakfasts out of it and nothing else,” she says.
Her restaurant will offer private dining downstairs, with a grazing-style lunch menu upstairs in the bar from Monday to Thursday, a three-course lunch menu on Friday, with a four or five-course tasting menu on Friday and Saturday evenings.
That’s an awful lot of cooking. “Yes, cooking every day,” says Liz. “And if I can cook every day I can be one happy lady.”
Interview over, the man with the questions takes his answers back to his car. And the woman with the ingredients heads straight to the kitchen to start planning what will pop up on the menu of her new restaurant in Leeds.