Barnstorming idea: Strawberry fields for dinner

Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson
Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson
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Front rooms have been given over to fine dining, family kitchens turned into secret tea rooms and, with the trend for pop-up restaurants continuing, Katy Holmes tells Sarah Freeman how an old storeroom became the Hay Bale Diner.

When Katy Holmes first had the idea to launch her own pop-up restaurant, she knew the ideal location – a redundant storeroom on the former strawberry farm run first by her father and then her uncle.

Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson

Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson

Close to Harrogate, it wasn’t too remote for people to get to and she knew that many in the surrounding area already had happy memories of Birstwith. There were just a couple of problems – firstly not only had Katy never run a restaurant, she had never even cooked commercially; secondly the barn, which had lain empty for some time, wasn’t exactly brimming with rustic charm.

“There were countless reasons why it wouldn’t work, but I’m a great believer in going with your gut instinct,” says the 30-year-old. “It took a bit of blind faith to see what the barn could become, but once I have an idea in my head I find it difficult to let it go. One way or another I was going to open a restaurant there.”

Before Katy decided to go into the restaurant business, she had a career in the fashion industry. She had moved from North Yorkshire and was living in London working as a pattern cutter.

“That’s what I’d always wanted to do, but it wasn’t long before I became a little disheartened by it all. Living in London is hard, particularly when you’re freelance and the more I kept working in the fashion industry, the more I realised that were parts of if which were pretty vacuous. I knew it wasn’t for me, but the question was what to do next?”

Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson

Chef Katy Holmes has set up a pop-up restaurant at Birstwith Strawberry Farm near Harrogate. Pictures by Tony Johnson

At the time Katy was living in a converted warehouse alongside various circus performers and it was there that the seeds of the Hay Bale Diner were sown. “They would be hired to provide entertainment at various events and pop-up restaurants and that’s when it all fell into place. There are so many pop-up restaurants in London, but back then the idea was only just starting to take off up here and even then it was largely confined to the bigger cities.

“I really wanted to bring the concept home and give North Yorkshire its own pop-up restaurant. I’ve always been an enthusiastic cook, but even I knew that being able to rustle up dinner for a few friends isn’t the same as running your own restaurant. I’m all for taking a few risks, but I reckoned that before I went it alone I should probably get a bit of experience under my belt.”

Some might have headed to the local catering college. Not Katy. Instead she decided to head to the Alps and more specifically to Val d’Isere. Securing a position with the hospitality company YSE, she found catering work in one of the company’s ski chalets.

“They put me through my training and it was a massive learning curve. At the chalets we provide guests with breakfasts and an afternoon snack, but the main focus is dinner. Every night we’d cook a three-course dinner, but you also had to be able to adapt to individual tastes. I had a great time, skiing during the day and cooking in the evening. It was the perfect foundation and it really gave me the confidence that I could go it alone.”

At the end of last year’s ski season, Katy decided she was ready to launch her own venture and, having a recruited a small army of willing helpers, returned to the strawberry farm of her childhood.

“It was pretty derelict and if you’d have seen it beforehand there was no way you’d have thought it could have been turned into a restaurant in such a short space of time. The first thing I had to do was get rid of a wasps’ nest, but once that was done it was just a question of a lot of scrubbing and a bit of painting. It took us less than four weeks which was pretty good going and really before I knew it we were getting ready for the first night. The response from people who live around here was just amazing and from day one I knew I would be back again next summer.”

Open on weekends until the end of June, this year’s Hay Bale Diner is a slightly new and improved version. The menu for the three-course set dinner for £25 a head still changes each week, but the number of covers has increased from 30 to 55 and Katy admits it’s a much slicker operation. “I’ve learnt a lot in the last 12 months and because we’ve increased the number of covers, I’ve also been able to increase the number of staff, so now there are two people helping me out in the kitchen and three front of house.”

Katy forages for wild garlic, basil and elderflower on her family’s farm and in a nod to the imminent arrival of the Grand Départ, there has also been a slightly French theme to this year’s dishes, with miniature croque monsieur and asparagus tarte tartin both making it onto a menu.

“Last year people didn’t know what to expect when they came here. I think a lot of them were surprised that we pulled it off and this year the number of bookings has been incredible.

“People keep asking whether I’d like my own permanent restaurant, but I’m not sure that’s where my heart lies. What I’d really like to do is take the Hay Bale on the road and tour the local area, popping up in different places. Quite how that would work I’m not sure, but I’m sure I’ll find a way.”

Before all that though is the Grand Départ itself. When the Hay Bale Diner closes its doors for another year at the end of this month, the old strawberry farm will be turned over to the Nidderdale Bikefest where Katy will also be providing the catering. “I suspect I won’t see an awful lot of the event itself as I’ll probably be stuck in a barn manning a barbecue. It should be good fun though, as well as the race itself we’ll have a big screen also showing highlights of Wimbledon and the World Cup and, if the sun shines, Yorkshire should be a pretty good place to be in July.”

• The Hale Bay Diner 2014 at Birstwith Strawberry Farm is open until June 29 with sittings from Thursday to Saturday at 7pm for 7.30pm; Sundays, 12.30pm for 1pm. Tickets cost £25 which includes welcome cocktail, canape, three- course set menu with coffee and petits fours. www.thehaybalediner.com, 07770 713793.