'If you stand still, you lose it' - an interview with Lisa Goodwin-Allen of Northcote

We visited the Lancashire Michelin star restaurant for a champagne break with dinner and a chat to the Exec Chef about her career so far and upcoming restaurant plans.

By Kelly Bishop | Last updated 8 June 2023

Share this story

Lancashire restaurant Northcote has held onto its Michelin star for 27 years. Five years into that winning streak, chef Lisa Goodwin Allen joined the ranks at just 20 years old. The culinary powerhouse has now been a crucial part of that award winning team for two decades.

In 2017, when longtime mentor Nigel Haworth moved on to new adventures, Goodwin-Allen rightly became Executive Chef. When Northcote joined the Stafford Hotels group, Lisa also began to oversee the kitchen at The Game Bird and The American Bar at renowned hotel The Stafford in St James, London. We decided it was about time to catch up for coffee and a chat about her career so far and what the future holds.

But first, we were treated to a champagne break and five-course dinner from the new spring menu.

The bedrooms at Northcote are all unique and come with a teddy bear. Image: Northcote

Northcote staff are as northern and hospitable as a nice hot cup of tea. The second you arrive, off go your Bunyan-esque burdens along with your bags. The massive bedrooms have an old fashioned charm complete with a teddy bear, should you need it. If you’re on a champagne break, you’ll be greeted by a half bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne on ice in your room too.

The kitchen team at Northcote. Image: Northcote

In the bar, we sense some influence from some of Manchester’s acclaimed cocktail bars flickering over the drinks menu. We try a couple of garden-themed long drinks to cool us down after our morning of pottering around nearby Clitheroe and then move onto the hard stuff, a Salt and Pepper Martini with manzanilla sherry and celery bitters is a standout.  

Cheeks slightly flushed and sparkly frocks zipped up for dinner, we get comfortable in the dining room. A dairy intolerance we have pre-warned the kitchen about is managed with no discernible ruffling of feathers. Northcote’s signature cheese bread for me, my dairy-free companion is delighted with her sourdough with a whipped butter alternative that would convince even the fussiest of cats. We lie back on a soft cloud of hospitality as the food and drink flows.

A surprise standout dish was a veal sweetbread. Image: Northcote

My surprise favourite dish comes early on, a crisp fried, almost fast-food style nugget of veal sweetbread served over shiitake mushrooms and matched with a rich pinot gris from New Zealand. It seems almost daft to go on about how good the food is here but it really is impeccable. That calm confidence from decades of development brings a swaggering simplicity. The flavour and quality of such carefully sourced, seasonal, local produce is foregrounded on a backdrop of classic technique. But plates still have a twinkle in their eye and a Lancashire accent reminiscent of Goodwin-Allen herself.

As a food and drink writer, I’ve been lucky enough to try a lot of tasting menus with matched wines. It’s a great way to explore but matches can sometimes hit a bum note – yes, even in Michelin starred gaffs. Northcote’s is one of the best wine flights I’ve ever had with a meal – this makes sense, it holds many accolades for its wine cellar. A classic struck match scented Burgundian chardonnay from Pernand-Vergelesses slow dances with a fish course of wild turbot with a sticky smoked bacon sauce and crisp eel filled cigar. Later, a silky Bordeaux blend from “super Tuscan” megastar Ornellaia matched with a main course of intensely flavoured Herdwick mutton nearly makes us slide off our seats.

Herdwick mutton’s intense flavour matches beautifully with a super Tuscan. Image: Northcote

But no dinner is complete without a bit of cheese. Northcote’s cheeseboard is a sight to behold. Wheeled through the restaurant to the envious glances of fellow diners, a whole wooden cabinet of cheeses in various states of recumbence is presented as the resident expert helps you to choose five from a selection of styles (goats, hard, washed rind, blue and so on). We take ours up to the room to enjoy an hour or so later with a glass of champers. 

A dessert based on the flavours of Black Forest gateau. Image: Northcote

Next morning, after a Michelin-worthy breakfast, I catch up for a chat with the top chef herself.

At just 41, Lisa Goodwin-Allen is a true veteran of the UK dining scene. She trained at Lancaster and Morecambe college which at the time she says was “the best catering college you could go to”. Meanwhile, she did stages at “plenty of one and two stars” including Coogan’s favourite Holbeck Ghyll in the Lake District. At 18 she moved to Cheltenham and worked at the then two-star Champignon Sauvage before moving back up North and starting at Northcote, still only just out of her teens.  

It’s rare to see a chef stay at the same restaurant for 20+ years. “I was only going to stay here for a year and then I was going to move on,” she says.

I ask her if she was ever tempted to play the field. “I would have done if I wasn’t evolving because I’m a hungry, ambitious person that loves to learn,” she replies, “I took the reins at 23 as Head Chef, so I was learning there. I got the the opportunity of doing Great British Menu. The place changed from small restaurant with rooms to a small boutique hotel. We got a new kitchen. We got the private dining room. We got the cook school and that, again, was teaching me. We went from a brigade of eight to a brigade to 30.”

Lisa Goodwin-Allen uses tweezers to achieve plating precision. Image: Northcote

Just as she started to think it was time to move on, Nigel Haworth announced he was leaving and Goodwin-Allen got the chance to really put her stamp on things as Executive Chef. This move has been crucially important to the chef. 

“You want your own identity. I worked with Nigel for such a long time. I’d learned so much [but it was] good to have my own wings to fly. It was quite an honour, really.”

At the time of our visit, the restaurant has finally reopened seven days a week for the first time post-covid. Northcote’s dedicated local following as well as its nationwide reputation keeps it busy week in week out but it’s not just tasting menus. You might not realise Northcote also does a stellar Sunday roast. At just over an hour on the train from Victoria Station Manchester to Langho (or hop on at Bolton if that’s nearer) it’s a very feasible day out for a lavish Sunday dinner.

The restaurant at Northcote. Image: Northcote

With such an established brand, some might rest on their laurels a bit, but Goodwin-Allen is passionate about pushing forward. I ask if she worries about maintaining that long-held Michelin star.

“Oh yeah, I think you’d be silly not to. It’s an absolute pleasure and a great achievement to have a Michelin Star. But to keep them it’s just as hard. Your heart stops until the guide comes out, because you just never know. It’s a big team effort. 

“The thing about me is, I’m always wanting to learn something new and discover new things. I think that’s what keeps these guys energised, and myself, really. You don’t want to stand still because if you stand still, you lose it.”

Wild turbot with eel cigar. Image: Northcote

Working at the top end of the hospitality industry for 20-something years, she must have seen a lot of change.

“That’s the thing about a journey, isn’t it? You sometimes reflect on what you’ve done and where you’ve been. If you look at the food we’re doing now and what we did 20 years ago, it’s massively different. That just shows you how the world evolves,” she says, “It’s the same with the decor. You’ve got to keep changing because it’s about the next generation and bringing them in. And it’s the same with the teaching methods in the kitchen. A lot of things changed since COVID with working patterns. I believe that we hold a good working ethic for the people in the kitchen and they enjoy working here.”

Has the increased awareness and concern around allergens proved challenging?

“I’ve got a serious shellfish allergy myself,” she says, “It’s important that people come enjoy food, and if you’ve got an allergy, we change it. But it is quite difficult. Naturally there’s more and more [allergies and dietary needs]. The world’s changing isn’t it? That’s why we run a vegetarian menu running alongside. The [vegetarian] clients are getting the same value.”

A chicken liver parfait snack. Image: Northcote

Goodwin-Allen tells me that with age and experience, she has taken on more of a “less is more” approach choosing to keep dishes to three prominent flavours. She still values the “artistic licence” that comes with fun plating but says “it’s got to taste of what you say it does”. Seasonality and sourcing are a crucial part of enabling that kind of simplicity. Does she worry about the crisis and the effect that inflation is having on restaurants? “It’s astronomical,” she says, “But it’s about teaching the younger ones in the kitchen about respect of ingredients. The way you can make things out of the whole ingredient.”

Having won Great British Menu in 2010 and awarded the privilege of cooking for the now King Charles III, Goodwin-Allen is now a well established judge on the programme . What is it like to have to give criticism to fellow chefs?

“It’s completely different to [competing as a chef],” she says, “Being a judge, you hold people’s expectations in your hand. You know yourself how much hard work goes into them creating menus. But it’s a joy to watch people progress in the way I did.

“I think it’s about being structural with what you’re delivering. Not just knocking them down. It’s about giving them faith. And it’s only my opinion. Other people might think differently. It’s hard because you know what they’re going through but [criticism] doesn’t mean to say that you’re not an amazing chef. It just sometimes doesn’t happen for you on the day. I’d encourage people to [enter competitions] though because it builds confidence. We enter quite a lot of ours into the smaller ones and if they don’t win, they don’t win. But they learn something from it.” 

Lisa Goodwin-Allen’s next move is her very own eponymous restaurant on the grounds at Northcote. Image: Northcote

It’s exciting times for Goodwin-Allen and Northcote as they look to the future. As we speak, a new restaurant is being prepared to be built “on the lawn” – set for completion in 2024. This will be a custom built restaurant to give Goodwin-Allen a platform from which to shine even more.

Meanwhile the restaurant and kitchen that we currently call Northcote will be revamped and remodelled into a more casual, brasserie style affair. For a restaurant so adored locally, evening tables are often fully booked up months in advance with hotel guests and visitors. Northcote values its local fanbase and wants them to be able to have a seat at the dinner table too. Not only will the new restaurant provide a star platform for Goodwin-Allen, it will mean more covers across the two restaurants. Plans for expansion also include adding around 20 more bedrooms and a spa facility to the hotel’s offering. We’d be more than happy to go back and try that out when it’s built.

interviews Restaurants