Yorkshire’s only female Michelin starred chef may be on the move, but Frances Atkins isn’t going far. She talks to Catherine Scott about life after the Yorke Arms.
It is hard to imagine the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill in Nidderdale without Frances Atkins at the pass. But if the Michelin starred chef gets her way that is exactly what is going to happen. The Yorke Arms, one of Yorkshire’s six Michelin starred restaurants and the only one headed by a woman, was created by Atkins and her husband BIll, and is now up for sale with a price tag of £1.75m.
“My husband’s been the mainstay of the business. He’s kept the show on the road and it’s down to him that we have survived. I am just the mad chef. It takes an awful lot to run a place like the Yorke Arms and now he is retiring the time is right for us to try something new. It was a hard decision and I will miss everything about the Yorke Arms and I am sure I will have many sleepless nights, but it is just time for someone else to put their stamp on it.
“One thing about being a creative person is that you are always ready to move on to the next thing. The Yorke Arms is a very traditional and I am now looking to do something a little more exciting.”
Although exactly what Atkins will be doing is a closely guarded secret, lovers of her food needn’t shed too many tears just yet.
“I’m not leaving Yorkshire,” she says looking shocked at any suggestion that she might be. “I’m not even leaving Nidderdale.” The plot thickens.
What she will say is that she, along with her two most senior staff at the Yorke Arms, have been thinking of doing something together “for some time” and that as soon as the Yorke Arms is sold The Yorkshire Post will be the first to know what that is.
“I can only do one thing at a time,” she says. “I am a perfectionist and I need to be in my kitchen. Although we have been doing working in some private houses. To me it is all about creating an experience, from the ambience, to the service to the food.”
But Atkins, who doesn’t disclose her age, says she is ready “to have more time to myself”. Last year her 92 year old mother moved in with her and Bill and she says she needs more flexibility than running the ‘restaurant with rooms’ allows. There’s also a book she’s been writing for years to finish.
“I want it to be ‘go to reference’ book. Not just a cookery book that sits on someone’s shelf or coffee table,” says Atkins, who grew up in Ilkley and began cooking while at school. “Once I started I never wanted to do anything else.”
As a little girl she dreamed of having her own cafe which eventually morphed into a desire to have a fine dining restaurant. After completing a hotel management course at Bradford College, she cut her teeth in the male-dominated environment of the Michelin-starred Box Tree in Ilkley before moving to Scotland and then Denmark where she lived for two years.
But when she married her first husband, libel lawyer George Carman at the age of 23, her career came to an abrupt halt. Carmen didn’t believe in women working.
“For 10 years I didn’t work,which was terrible, it just wasn’t me. My marriage was a disaster,” she recalls, saying instead she would throw lavish dinner parties and try to learn from eating out at high end restaurants.
When her marriage eventually broke down she started running an outside catering company from home to earn enough money to open her own cafe. During this time she met and married Bill and finally in 1984, opened Atkins Restaurant in Buckinghamshire. A move to a bigger premises followed and she recalls a memorable evening when David Jason had booked for dinner.
“I didn’t really know who he was but he was incredibly rude and I went out and told him that I wasn’t going to serve him. I really can’t believe I did that. Anyway the next day he came back in and said ‘Frances please cook for me’ and apologised. Of course I did and we became good friends.”
Moves to London and Scotland followed, but Atkins craved returning to her Yorkshire roots and the couple started their search for a suitable premises, eventually finding the Yorke Arms in Nidderdale, which was initially far from fine dining.
“Historically it was well known for its pub food and so we decided to keep it that way. It was catering without the stress,” she admits. But Atkins is a creative, spontaneous chef at heart and she couldn’t suppress that side of her nature for long.
“I’ve always been passionate about using the ingredients around me and I’m inspired by my surroundings. I like to go with the seasons.”
She developed an impressive vegetable garden at the back of Yorke Arms so much so that the restaurant is almost entirely self sufficient in that department. It is also home to a quirky edifice Atkins calls ‘the onion’ where she holds her chef’s table events.
“We were in Morocco and it inspired me to create this,” she waves her hand at the onion shaped structure. It is eccentric and very different from the traditional interior of the Yorke Arms. It also give a little glimpse of Atkins’s desire to create atmosphere and a total dining experience for her guests.
It is this creative vision and ability to transform quality seasonal ingredients into incredible dishes that saw Atkins awarded a Michelin star in 2003, six years after opening, an accolade she has maintained ever since.
“I think I had resigned myself to never having one which was fine. I was just concentrating on cooking good food and earning my living doing something I loved. Getting the star was the best day of my life.”
Despite this and many other accolades some friends still refer to her fine dining restaurant as a pub, something which clearly irks her and getting and keeping a Michelin star can be a double edged sword. It is great for business but it adds pressure to fulfill the added expectation of guests. It isn’t clear whether she will be able to keep her star in her new venture - it is up to Michelin - but she is hopeful.
“The Michelin star is reviewed when a chef changes direction,” she adds.
Although she loves her profession she is not a chef who likes the limelight. A spell on the Great British Menu and other shows are not for her she says, preferring to stay behind her stove. She says although there are some very talented female chefs up and down the country, she remains frustrated that many people still see it as a male profession. She is also passionate about investing in the chefs of tomorrow.
“I am very involved with Middlesbrough College and there are some incredibly talented young chefs there, we just need to make sure that we inspire and nurture them so that they stay in the industry,” says Atkins, who believes one of the keys to long term success is experience.
“I don’t understand how people can appear on a programme like MasterChef and then be offered a book deal and then open a restaurant and expect to survive in this industry. You need experience.”
Well if success really does depend on the amount of experience you have, whatever Frances Atkins does next is bound to be a winner.