Before 2016, Ms Cottam had never been in a professional kitchen and used cooking as a way to cope with her mother’s death. Now, she is the owner of three Leeds-based restaurants with an incredible group turnover of £2.3million and all of which have made it into the Michelin Guide, saying about her success: “It doesn’t feel real to be honest”.
Ms Cottam had spent the majority of her life in the corporate sector, with a high paying salary and work she enjoyed but found herself lacking fulfilment.
While she did enjoy cooking, she had never been in a professional kitchen before Masterchef and had no intentions of going into the culinary industry.
She told Express.co.uk: “When I was going into MasterChef I didn’t want to be a chef! They asked what I wanted to do with the experience, if I actually wanted to cook and I was like ‘No! That sounds really stupid. Why would I want to stand on my feet all day, earn no money and be shouted at by a chef?’ I knew it was the highest risk industry so you have to be crazy to consider that.”
Shortly before getting onto the show, Ms Cottam had lost her mum and used cooking on the show as a distraction, a tactic that worked well on both fronts as she made it to the semi-finals.
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She did, however, note the extreme intensity of the MasterChef kitchen: “Cameras in your face, knowing that this is going to go out to millions of people, having a tight time frame, working in a small kitchen set up that isn’t your own, it was bloody terrifying. Then I’d look across the studio and other people are laughing and joking and I was like ‘This is awful!’.”
As soon as Ms Cottam was placed in a professional kitchen she found herself not only at ease but also getting true satisfaction from what she was doing, saying: “It wasn’t a decision for me, it was a calling. There was no alternative for me.”
Upon leaving MasterChef, Ms Cottam had a reinvigorated passion for cooking, and began doing pop-ups but soon found herself in a hotel basement, opening her very own restaurant.
This was where HOME would be created, rather accidentally, as Ms Cottam explained: “I decided that every detail was going to be looked at. From the table to the interaction that we had and things like the playlist. Everything was exactly how it was at my house when I had friends over for dinner.
“I would write down recipes at the end of the meal and email them to people. It was the sense of being made to feel like home, which is where the idea for the branding and the name came from.”
She started home with a £200,000 bank loan, and her corporate connections saw many people wanting to invest in the business, to which she declined.
“With my background I know how decisions are made and conflicts of opinion on culture and strategy and all of that, I really wanted this to be an extremely clean sort of business.
“Especially because I was leaving something fairly lucrative, I needed to tick all of my own boxes, which is to be in control of my own destiny entirely. I made a really big decision that the first six months were about survival because I had no idea if this was going to work. I did have a bit of smoke and mirrors here and there to leave as much cash in the business as possible.”
The success of HOME allowed Ms Cottam to follow her passions to two new restaurants, The Owl and CORA, all within five years whilst battling a global pandemic in the middle which she said was “the best thing that ever happened to me”.
She added: “It was actually really scary for us before that big announcement. We used to work as a team quite rapidly going through new menus and in the pandemic everything slowed down. After the initial few weeks I sort of fell into a pattern of cooking and being outside and basically found a new creative process where I was so much more connected.
“When we reopened, the menu and how I felt about the creative process was completely transformed. I’m smiling as I’m talking about it now! It was super scary but something really amazing came out of it and I don’t think that would’ve happened without it.”
Ms Cottams’ husband has now also joined her culinary venture, although she added that it may not just have been for the food: “There isn’t a social and family life, everything is about the restaurants. My husband left his really great job and came on board and worked with me. He had to or else he was never going to see me. It’s brilliant to have him working by my side.”
Although the restaurant group is turning over millions, Ms Cottam has still tried to keep as much of it in the business as possible, giving herself just enough to stay above the breadline until the restaurants were stable enough.
She recalled: “My husband and I had really good jobs before we did this. I say to everybody: ‘It’s the poorest, the most tired and the happiest I’ve ever been.'”
Now the happy couple have bought their own home, and are in the process of renovating it, as Ms Cottam explained: “We are in the position where we can do that now. In the beginning our lifestyle had to completely change. My salary was half of our household income but at the same time, I was so focused on stuff like ‘I want the holiday, the car, the handbag’ but none of it made me happy. Once I started on this journey and the satisfaction I got from it, it was all worth it. We realised our expectations of what life should be and it changed for the better.”
And it’s not just financial and personal satisfaction that her new career offers, but the chance to meet “the best of the best” from all walks of life.
She exclaimed: “ For example, I am from Leeds, I’ve been a Leeds United fan my entire life, and the CEO from Leeds United is a good friend of the restaurant. Obviously personally I feel amazing! We get really inspirational and wonderful people coming into the restaurant.”