In the months when we celebrate Rockliffe Hall’s Festival of Food and International Women’s Day 2020, Elysia Fryer catches up with female food champion, Frances Atkins...

A picture-postcard country cruise into the depths of the Dales brings us to The Yorke Arms – leading the way when it comes to Yorkshire’s fine dining scene.

The Yorke Arms is about as unpretentious as it gets. It’s honest, it’s humble and it’s homely. And what I love most about the place is, it screams Yorkshire.

Like The Yorke Arms – a rural restaurant with rooms – Frances Atkins is honest and humble. And what I can only describe as a breath of fresh (Yorkshire) air!

In the year that Frances didn’t retain her Michelin star, which she has had in the bag since 2003, we’re catching up to talk lifetime achievements, doing good for young people and why she thinks the female force can drive the food world.

“I was one of six of the first female Michelin star chefs, and I was so very surprised when it happened,” says Frances.

“Then it kept happening year after year, and I was delighted. It hasn’t happened this time around – which of course is disappointing – but in actual fact, it doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me.

“I think because of my age I have that status anyway, so it doesn’t worry me.

“What does worry me is what we put on the plate every day and the reception it receives from our guests. That’s the important thing.

“People can’t take away knowledge and style. It’s not going to change at all – it’s only going to get better with time.

“We’re going down a different road at the moment at The Yorke Arms – with the new owners and all – and it’s a very exciting time for us.”

The restaurant continues to flourish under Frances, with new opportunities opening up in the culinary world.

“We come up with new dishes every day,” says Frances.

“And now we’ve got the flexibility to be able to experiment a little. We’re constantly feeding our kitchen garden produce on to the menu, and we’re introducing one or two new avant-garde dishes.

“We’re having fun in the kitchen, but our backbone focuses on texture, flavour and of course, presentation. That is never going to change.”

The local, national and global food scene is ever evolving, with chefs taking flight and finding inspiration from all four corners of the world.

Being recognised in such an industry can be quite a daunting thing, but for Frances it’s about keeping things simple, celebrating what you love most and finding your forte in the foodie world. Luckily for us, Frances’s forte is Yorkshire – and boy, she does it well.

“I’m originally from Ilkley, so Yorkshire is my bread and butter, if you like,” she smiles.

“I’ve very much come back to my roots here. It’s what I love most, and therefore professionally, it’s what I do best. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Sitting comfortably with a hot pot of tea by the roaring fire in the lounge, Frances and I rewind a number of years, starting at chapter one – where it all began…

“My first job was at The Box Tree in Ilkley – many years ago. That was my launch pad, if you like.

“I’ve had five restaurants throughout my career, moving around several times from Great Missenden, to Buckinghamshire, Scotland and London.

“You have plans in life, but seldom do they come to fruition. It’s good to have plans, but sometimes you just have to go with it and see where it takes you.

“Luckily for me, my path brought me back to Yorkshire.

“When the time came and the opportunity arose, I was very pleased to be home.

“And now here we are at The Yorke Arms. We’ve recently sold the business and now I’m just cooking and enjoying what I do best.

“I’ve been here for 23 years now. We lived above the restaurant for some time, but then decided to build a house on the hill in the village, so we’re very much ensconced in Ramsgill.”

Home is where the heart is – and that is evident in Frances’s food offering here. As soon as you kick off your wellies and step through the door, you get the feeling of settling into someone’s home. A warm welcome awaits, you’re served seasonal food with a smile, and you leave feeling as though you’ve got a friend in Frances.

Frances works closely with suppliers and gardeners behind-the-scenes, but also likes to introduce herself in the restaurant environment, following up with a good bit of guest feedback.

That’s the difference when it comes to this place. There’s no chef hiding away in the background… she’s very much involved in the whole process. Top class cooking with proper Yorkshire service.

With new menus on the horizon, as well as welcome editions such as the wonderful wine cellar in the restaurant’s basement, there’s lots to get excited about at The Yorke Arms this year.

Again, much of what the place does comes back to Yorkshire heritage, championing local people and produce.

Another success story, Frances tells me, is with Dunesford Wines – part of the restaurant’s vibrant new wine offering.

“Ian Townsend and his son James have created this amazing English wine in Upper Dunesford, and I’ve just been completely blown away by it,” says Frances.

“English wines aren’t always the greatest. There’s not always much to shout about, if I’m honest; but when you taste this, you just think, ‘oh gosh, this is rather good’ – and it’s made right here in Yorkshire.

Frances is proud of home and is engrossed in what surrounds it. This is evident in everything she does – from sourcing local wine producers, to growing crops in the grounds and getting out and about in the food circuit.

“I’m very pro-Yorkshire and love everything it has to offer. In terms of food, we’re so very lucky. York is blossoming with great restaurants. I think it’s important to explore and enjoy what our region has to offer.”

As a role model and foodie figure, Frances is the perfect example of where passion and determination can take you.

“What I have found is that young people today have this sort of pseudo confidence impregnated in them, telling them ‘this is what you have to do’. They feel the pressure, say yes to everything, and then can’t deliver,” she explains.

“What I’m trying to tell them is, it’s ok to ask questions and to be unsure. For me, it’s very, very rewarding helping youngsters work out what they’re good at.

“It’s lovely to be able to give bright young people the opportunities and the practical experience they need to lead them on their way. And with that, we also get new ideas in the kitchen. We are learning from them too.

“I’m seeing young people who are just flowering and becoming really confident because they have something to be proud of.

“I mean, let’s face it, this is the best part of the country. And I am a huge believer in the honesty that we have up here. We’re not trying to kid anybody. We do a good job and we do it well; therefore, the people from here really benefit from having a mentor who can get the best out of them.”

What strikes me about Frances is, not only does she champion local business and produce, she is also driving the food world forward by encouraging new, local talent, with the work she does at Middlesbrough College.

“I’m working with Middlesbrough College to try and raise the bar for the North East food scene.

“I get a huge buzz out of mentoring budding chefs,” she smiles.

“The students are very hungry to succeed. I’ve got a girl working on pastry at the moment. When she came in, we wondered how we were going to manage because she was very, very nervous. We altered her hours slightly, so she was working longer shifts, four days a week. It gave her the chance to get stuck into it and be creative – and it’s worked brilliantly.

“I have high hopes for her, I think she will be a very successful pastry chef. It really is the best thing to see!”

There’s no doubt about it, the food world is dominated by male chefs. We’re seeing more and more female fronted kitchens, but, as we discuss the return of International Women’s Day, it’s something we can certainly improve, says Frances.

“It’s a very male-oriented industry at the moment – it always has been. Together with Middlesbrough College, the plan is to get the standard across the board. We’re hoping to see a few more female chefs heading up kitchens.

“It is definitely changing, but historically it has been male dominated. Admittedly, it was very tough coming through the kitchens as a young woman, but hopefully I can demonstrate the hunger to succeed.

“It’s like anything else, if you really want to do something, be confident and do it!”

“Also, us women have a better palate,” she adds.

“It has been proven – we certainly have a more sensitive palate. When I’m tasting things with male chefs, sometimes I may find things over-seasoned or too sweet. It’s very interesting. Our style is slightly different.”

A female force is always a good thing in the kitchen, and this is something our friends at Rockliffe Hall are celebrating as part of the resort’s Festival of Food 2020.

Ladies Night: The Fashion of Food will see Frances reunite with her previous protégé, Ellie Richmond, to take foodies on an eight-course journey through the changing fashions of food.

“Ellie was one of my first chefs here at The Yorke Arms,” says Frances.

“We first met at Judges near Yarm over 26 years ago. She came to us shortly after. We had an all-female team at the time, it was great – we had a load of fun!

“So, the Rockliffe Hall dinner is all about ‘now and then’. It’s a culinary journey looking at the fashion of food over the years. We’ll be looking at the dishes that we worked on together when we first started here, and how the dishes are translated today.”

2019 was a busy year for Frances – and she shows no signs of slowing down since losing out with Michelin. We’ve seen her on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen and she has many more exciting fixtures in the pipeline, we’re pleased to hear.

“Watch this space,” she smiles.

“I can’t say what’s going on just yet… but what I can say is that it is all very, very exciting!”

Keeping busy both in the background and front of house is what makes this female food hero tick, but it’s equally as important to find that balance between work and downtime.

“It’s lovely to come in here and work – because it really does feel like home – but then to be able to retreat over the road and switch off completely, is just wonderful.

It’s the healthiest way to work. It’s all about jumping into a different frame of mind. “I’ve been so conscious about it that I’ve got a cottage that I use as my personal studio – it’s where I work from when I’m not in the kitchen.

“I’m writing a book at the moment, so I’ve got my computer, a workspace and all the rest of it, but then I can put the pen down, shut the door and leave it for next time.

The life of a chef is very fast-paced, and I’m learning a lot from Frances as we catch up over tea and treats.

“I’m the type to just jump in with two feet and then have to swim like mad, wondering why I’ve done it,” Frances laughs.

“But I think if you’ve got the right personality and determination, you can succeed in whatever it is you do.

“Food is part of my DNA. It’s who I am and what I do… but that doesn’t mean to say there are no regrets and difficulties along the way.

“For me, it would be that I didn’t have a family. I chose work. And that, later in life, is a sadness for me. But having said that, I’ve been so focused on work and it’s what I enjoy. It’s just one of those things. You can’t alter who you are and what you are. Food matters to me, and that’s the path I’ve taken.

“I’ve always been very focused and I remain so, simply because it brings peace and contentment for me.

“I’m rather a restless spirit, and food keeps me grounded.”


Related Stories