Frances Atkins is one of only a handful of female chefs to be awarded a coveted Michelin star. She tells Catherine Scott about her life, The Trip and why she is teaming up with Bettys cookery school.
Frances Atkins always wanted to cook.
“I started cooking properly when I was at school,” says the Michelin-starred chef and co-owner of the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire. “Once I started cooking I never wanted to do anything else.”
To appease her father, however, she took a hotel management course a Bradford College and “loathed it”. She cut her teeth at The Box Tree in Ilkley, which was an eye-opener to say the least for a young Frances.
“It was a very male dominated scene – in fact I was the only female,” says Frances, who is renowned for her cool head and even temper in the kitchen.
“I just kept my head down really, agreed to everything so that I could stay there and tried to learn as much as I could do. It really was a trail- blazer at the time. We would cook with rabbit when no one was using rabbit. It was amazing. They used to take us to the Savoy Grill on Sundays.
“Then one day they were a chef short and I was able to get in there and get on with it.”
As a little girl, Frances dreamed of having her own café and as she grew older her dream career changed.
“I always thought it would be wonderful to have my own fine dining restaurant,” says the Ilkley-born chef.
But when she married her first husband, the libel lawyer George Carman, her career came to an abrupt halt.
“My first husband didn’t believe that women should work,” she says ruefully.
“For ten years I didn’t work, which was terrible, it just wasn’t me. My marriage was a disaster.”
Instead Frances would throw dinner parties and try to learn from eating out at high end restaurants.
When her marriage eventually broke down and the couple divorced, she started running an outside catering company from home.
“I was working to try to get as much money as possible together so that I could open my own café,” she says.
“It wasn’t just about the cooking, I wanted a place where I could serve people good food and give them pleasure. That’s pretty much the ethos I still have today. I am all about coming up with recipes and cooking food that people want to eat.”
Frances holds one of Yorkshire’s six Michelin stars and is one of still only a handful of women to achieve the coveted accolade.
But no one was more surprised than Frances when she was awarded “one star” in 2003.
“I had done my time in London and never got one,” she says with a smile. “So 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.
“Then a friend of one of my chefs rang him at six one morning, and told him that we had been awarded a Michelin star. He thought he was joking and told him that if it was a wind up there would be trouble. He came into work and that’s how I found out.”
Frances has maintained the star at the Yorke Arms ever since and her reputation as one of the country’s top chefs has grown.
She discovered the Yorke Arms 19 years ago with her second husband Bill.
“We had been running a place up in Scotland but I decided that I wanted to live in Yorkshire. A friend of mine said there was this place that was looking for a management team.
“We didn’t even look around it. We just loved it. We managed it for a few months and then we were offered the first option to buy it. I’d done my London stint and this was very much what we wanted.”
Initially the food at the Yorke Arms was far from fine dining.
“We did good pub food and we did it well. Historically it was well known for its pub food and so we decided to keep to the steak and fish and chips. It was catering without stress,” she admits, although the late Earl of Harewood was a regular.
But Frances Atkins is a creative, spontaneous chef at heart and she couldn’t suppress this side of her nature for long.
“I have always been passionate about using the ingredients around me.”
She developed land at the back of the Yorke Arms into a vegetable garden and often creates dishes on the spur of the moment, encouraging her dedicated team of chefs to do the same.
“It doesn’t always work,” she admits. “But it is better to try something and admit failure than just to keep churning out the same old menu.”
It is this generous spirit which means that staff turnover at the Yorke Arms is minimal. Her key staff have been with her for years. Her reputation and that of her “restaurant with rooms” has seen her in demand from television companies.
She found her appearance last year in the BBC’s Great British Menu challenging.
“I was out of my comfort zone. They kept interrupting me every five minutes and wanting me to criticise the other chefs. It just wasn’t me.”
She found the Channel 4 series Cook’s Questions much more enjoyable and later this year she will open the doors of the Yorke Arms in Frances Atkins’ Autumn Feasts, a one-off programme for Channel 4.
But surprisingly it was The Trip, the programme which saw Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalised versions of themselves on a restaurant tour of northern England, which brought more attention to the restaurant.
“It was five years ago and yet we still get people following the tour of The Trip and visiting us,” laughs Frances. “It’s been one of the most successful things we have been involved in.”
Bettys award-winning Cookery School is holding an exclusive series of seasonal demonstrations with the Michelin-starred chef Frances Atkins of The Yorke Arms – nationally recognised as one of the country’s top restaurants.
Frances, a fellow of the Master Chefs of Great Britain, and one of only six female Michelin-starred chefs in the UK, will be presenting her first class with the support of tutors at the Harrogate-based School, on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
The demonstration, called “Cooking and Conversations with Frances Atkins – Spring,” will feature a Michelin star main dish with versatility, created with local, seasonal ingredients. Running between 10am and 2pm, the class includes lunch of a taster plate designed by Frances, followed by a Bettys dessert.
Three further demonstrations are currently planned with Frances for Summer, Autumn and Winter at the School on June 23, September 15 and December 1, priced at £95 per person.
For more information www.bettys.co.uk