Carol Emmas talks to the former Queens head chef about her future plans and THAT review
“Isn’t it every chef’s dream to have Jay Rayner walk into your restaurant and sit down? Maybe, it isn’t, but I think so,” says Livia Alarcon. Seven years on from when Livia began cooking professionally, to the day that the notorious Guardian food critic walked into Queens Wine Bar & Bistro was one of those sliding door moments where it could have been a different story.
Hospitality and the kitchen, in particular, is not portrayed as a glamorous job.
“It was bizarre really,” says Livia. “It was a quiet period and I was just on my way to do some office work upstairs.
“I saw him, turned around and walked straight back into the kitchen. I said to our other chef, actually, on second thoughts, I’m gonna stay. Let’s do this - this is our moment.”
Queens opened in 2019 and the restaurant on Queen Avenue had already made a name for itself when Rayner visited. But it was nothing to the chaotic demand that followed when the Guardian review came out in March this year.
“Off the back of it, every single day was chokka, like we’d never seen before. It was bonkers,” says Livia.
“All we’d hear when in the kitchen from customers would be, Rayner, Jay Rayner, or they’d mention something about reading the review in The Guardian.”
After two years as head chef at Queens, the 26-year-old has decided to move on from the restaurant to do a supper club and series of pop-up events. The Jay Rayner experience was the catalyst that finally prompted a career move, but it was something that had been at the back of Livia's mind for some time.
“At the beginning of the year, I asked myself, is this still where I want to be and what are my goals for the next year?”
“I started young and I’ve been cooking now for seven years. I’ve gone through some great experiences, and not so great. When I got the job at Queens, I felt it was the confirmation I needed.
"Now I feel with the experience I’ve gained, I have enough of what it takes to be able to support myself and I feel really positive about that.”
Livia’s hospitality career began at Salt House Tapas, where she worked while studying at Liverpool College. After graduation she rose to management quickly and at Maray went from junior sous chef at 18 to head chef by the age of 21.
“Maray was brilliant. Professionally, I was taking a massive leap. Jay Rayner had just reviewed Maray too - so as a restaurant it was really relevant. I never thought I’d get to head chef as quickly as I did.”
Doors continued to open for Livia after Maray and in 2019 she was approached by the BBC to take part in the reality TV programme Chefs’ Brigade with Michelin Star chef Jason Atherton. She lasted the entire series and on the back of it was offered a job in Atherton’s Pollen Street Social.
“I went to do a trial,” says Livia. “However, it wasn't for me, unfortunately. It just didn’t feel it was the right time to relocate from Liverpool to London.”
With a couple of false starts and stops in lockdown - including Inver on the shores of Loch Fyne and Six by Nico in Glasgow - the opportunity at Queens fortuitously presented itself. Livia says she was given a good amount of autonomy to make the role her own.
“Queens were a small team and really respectful of my CV. It meant they were relaxed in allowing me free rein. As time went on it evolved and we got busier and it was great for me, as it’s always good to see things are working well.”
She says it was a nerve-racking following couple of weeks at Queens waiting for Rayner’s review to be published, but it all came good.
“The review landed on Mothers Day - so it was a beautiful gift to give my mum,” says Livia. “I was super proud, it felt like the best pat on the back you can get.”
The number of female chefs in the UK is on the increase, but a gender divide still persists across the hospitality industry with the majority of senior roles taken by men. Livia says that she was never put off from a culinary career because it was just the path that she wanted to follow.
“But as females, lifting ridiculously heavy objects and working long hours is what we are still not educated to do,” she says. “Plus, hospitality and the kitchen, in particular, is not portrayed as a glamorous job.
”We’re definitely improving in trying to create a better environment for women to be in the industry - but there is still so much work to do. I also think it’s something that’s unfortunately still more prevalent in the North West than London.”
In terms of style, her experience is diverse; from Mediterranean at Salt House Tapas, to Middle-Eastern at Maray, and European at Queens.
“I’ve dipped my toes into a lot of styles, but I wouldn't necessarily say my foods fit into any type of cuisine in particular,” says Livia.
“I like to cook with classical flavour combinations and classical techniques. For me, it’s about moving it past that. So I’m not reinventing the wheel, but I am looking at what kind of modern interpretation I can take on a particular dish. I like to break it down, bit by bit and then reinvent it in a new way.”
Livia is keeping future plans close to her chest for the moment, but says that to own her own restaurant in Liverpool is her ultimate imminent goal and she’s currently looking for a property.
“It’s about finding the right place and they don’t come along often.”
Follow Livia Alarcon on Instagram: @liv.eat.cook
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