Farmer’s son cooks up a storm in Ampleforth

Chris Kirk at work in the kitchen of the coffee shop and kitchen in Ampleforth.
Chris Kirk at work in the kitchen of the coffee shop and kitchen in Ampleforth.
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There’s something tremendously endearing about people who talk with passion and that feeling is multiplied when you see that they’re also walking the walk.

Chris Kirk is a farmer’s son from Kilburn who grew up helping his mum and dad Wendy and John at Manor Farm part of the Newburgh Estate. He had his own flock of Herdwick sheep as a young lad, but has found his way in life through another stage in the food chain - embarking on a career a chef.

Four months ago Chris and his wife Lizzie, currently expecting their first child in just five weeks, opened up Kirk’s Coffee House and Kitchen in the lovely village of Ampleforth, best known as home to one of the county’s top boarding schools. It’s far from being simply another café but the couple are certainly not aiming for something too flighty either.

“We had to be somewhere rural and we’re so spoilt here for really nice people. This front window just makes it for us. You can come in, sit and read the paper, have a coffee, a bite to eat and watch the world go by. That’s kind of our view on life too, providing somewhere that people feel comfortable without it being a restaurant setting.

“The classic ways are the best, simple, honest good value food using really fabulous ingredients. Our slow roasted lamb we get from farmer and butcher Geoff Thornton’s Camshead Farm between Oldstead and Byland is the most wonderful, tasty, flavoursome tender lamb you’ll ever have. You can’t get any better than that and supplied from less than four miles away. I always use lamb shoulder.

“My youth was all about farming. I loved being on the farm and helping. At 13 I’d be lambing sheep with mum and dad until four in the morning and then going in to school. The livestock were always my thing. We had 70-80 cattle, 250 sheep and at one time pigs, as well as 200 acres of arable crops. Mum and dad are still farming but now only have around 30 cattle on a smaller acreage.”

Chris’ career as a chef started from humble beginnings.

“I was a pot washer for Malcolm Wride at The Gables in Birdforth and then went on to work with Graham Raine at Oswald’s in Thirsk. I went through my apprenticeship at York College while with Graham and worked with him for five years. At first when I started it was probably if I’m being honest just a job but it’s become a real passion. I like eating and if you like eating you’ve got to cook.

“I suppose my upbringing being on a farm works hand in hand with what I feel about provenance. It’s great to know the man who has bred the meat you are using and to be able to pop down and see Geoff for a coffee and take a look at how he cares for his stock. Having that knowledge is also important to customers. We’re also using pork from the Wilsons of Waterloo Farm near Helmsley.”

A big surprise has been the demand for Chris’ bread.

“It’s such a humble thing that everyone needs and we hadn’t realised how much people like to have it freshly baked. I sold eight sour doughs yesterday and I’ve sold bread when I haven’t made any because people just keep coming asking for it.”

Chris and Lizzie’s first new business idea was a mobile café that they started two years ago after purchasing a 1970 Citroen H van.

“Most people probably start with a café and branch out but we’ve done it the other way round. We’ve attended a lot of weekend events with it from weddings to shows.”

Up until March Chris was still a chef with Wilson Vale who specialise in quality meals for boarding schools and law firms. Kirk’s Coffee House & Kitchen was then brought alive from what had been a fish and chip shop and the couple opened in June.

“We’ve had a good first four months. We have lovely regulars who pop in every day and even when we’re closed, we’re not closed. If we’re here and someone comes before we’re ready to open we will always look after them.

“Up until three weeks ago it was just me in the kitchen. We’ve now taken on Johnny Little who’s 17 and works alongside me. He’s really hard working and we both have to be. Once that A-board is outside we’re open!”