Elizabeth Haigh: Kaizen Comes To Mortimer House

The Notebook | 21st May 2019

The formidable experimental chef brings the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen to her unique culinary residency at Mortimer House 

Elizabeth Haigh is a formidable chef who has garnered a reputation not only for her immense culinary expertise but also for resolutely shaking up a male-dominated industry that has for far too long been represented as a mainstay of toxic masculinity. It is testament to her skills that she was the founding head chef at Pidgin in East London, where she guided the popular neighbourhood restaurant to a Michelin star barely a year after opening. The company Kaizen House she has now developed with her partner Steele Haigh is devoted not only to betterment in the kitchen, but in all things, being broadly based upon the Japanese philosophy of productivity called Kaizen, which is intended to enable one to continuously improve in all aspects of being, taking constant baby steps in continuous physical, psychological and spiritual improvement. Given the clear parallels Kaizen shares with Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation, Haigh seemed the perfect choice for the first of our guest chef residencies in the Living Room and Den, where she applies the philosophy in an experimental multi-cultural à la carte menu that gives everyone the opportunity not only to indulge in her unique blend of Singaporean and Anglo-French cuisine, but also find out the narratives behind each dish from the chef herself. Here, the formidable architect-turned-chef talks to us about multi-disciplinary creativity, sharing stories through food, and overcoming stress with quiet and thoughtful resilience.

I read that you initially studied architecture at Saint Martins before becoming a chef-what made you switch disciplines, and what are the parallels between the two?
I would say I love both disciplines. Working at Saint Martins was really challenging. It really pushed you to be more creative and think outside of the box. I just have an underlying passion to cook, though, so when I was studying, I'd spend all my time outside of the studio cooking, and, honestly, I found I just wanted to make a little bit of a leap to the other side. One thing I learnt from Saint Martins is that there’s being creative and then there’s using that creativity constructively–sort of like, challenging the norm, and pushing yourself. It’s also an extremely competitive environment, so I think that helped me in becoming a chef, where I’m extremely competitive. They're also quite similar disciplines in terms of the creativity–there’s time management, money management, team management, and both are about constructing something from scratch, and being involved in every stage of the process. In the kitchen, it's not about just knowing a recipe–you've got to know exactly how that recipe is broken down, and how it works; how to build the foundation of the dish.

Tell us about the philosophy of Kaizen, because it sounds as though it ties into our foundational principles at Mortimer House…
Kaizen is a process. It’s a Japanese philosophy for continuous improvement, so businesses use it a lot, you know, when they do a review, or something like that. They would say, what’s the Kaizen process? What can we improve on? As chefs, I believe we use this principle every day. We improve dishes every day, because, before you send it out, you taste it, to see if you need to add a little bit more salt, or if you could add more lemon juice, or vinegar–that’s the Kaizen process. It has a really nice symbiosis between business, food and everything that everyone does. My husband and I created the company, and we just thought it was very well suited to call it Kaizen House, because, for me, a restaurant is like inviting someone to my home, or coming over my threshold. The philosophy of the company is sharing stories through food.

When you say sharing stories through food, what exactly do you mean?
Well, everybody has lots of different stories. I’m talking a lot about my Singaporean background with this pop-up. When I bring the guests to talk about the Kaya Toast Ice Cream, for example, I’m talking about a treat that we have back in Singapore that we all love, but it’s actually eaten for breakfast there–whereas here, I’m serving it as a dessert. I enjoy being able to tell people the meaning behind everything I am serving them, and what it is, because if you’ve not come across it before, it’s quite nice being able to share that–even if it’s just a dish, it’s about telling a story, so it can mean something bigger as well.

The kitchen is a very male-dominated environment–do you think that’s changing?
I think in the past ten years, it’s definitely changed for the better. It's got a long way to go, and I think that every industry has got a lot of work to do to make it more equal and more sustainable, or fair. In the hospitality industry, it's got a lot better. There’s not so much swearing, or not so much bullying, as there once was. There's not so much physical abuse… To be honest, certain celebrity chefs have portrayed this very toxic masculinity image of what a chef should be. I've always tried to push what that is, and challenge it. I've worked hard enough to have a little bit of power too to make that change. So, my practice is to make sure everyone's treated equally, paid equally, not worked to the ground, and gets the opportunity to learn something and enjoy it. As a chef, It's a passion career. You don't do it for money, you do it because you love it, and if you do make money, then you’re lucky (Laughs).

Do you believe that stress can kill?
Stress can do that to anyone, yes. It can change people's personalities and personas very quickly, and over a long period of time that gets worse with mounting pressures. At the same time, you can’t project that stress on to another person because you need to reflect on yourself. How can you manage your own emotional intelligence, rather than taking it out onto somebody else? I want to make the kitchen a better environment for women, but also for men. I also think food has some element of affecting psycholgical wellbeing, or perhaps quite a lot. I mean, for me, I’ve always had the philosophy that I live to eat not, you know, eat to live. I strongly believe that when you eat something it reflects you, as well. Let’s say, you’re eating your mum’s lasagne, or something, you’re brought back immediately to those fond memories of being at home, or of something comforting. When you strip that away if you’re extreme dieting, or something like that, where are you going to get those pleasure sensors from?

Interview by John-Paul Pryor