It is this tenacity, this determination to make the very best out of every challenging situation, that has characterised Frances Atkins’ career: “I’ve had to learn the hard way. But I have learnt one thing, which is that you have to keep trying and you can never rest on your laurels. You’ve always got to forge on ahead and always have a positive attitude.” She has opened several restaurants over her long career, moving onwards and upwards with aplomb, starting in 1984 with Atkins Restaurant in Buckinghamshire, where she “jumped in feet first and made many mistakes”. Following on from this she moved with her second husband to Perthshire in Scotland, where they converted a dilapidated property into a country house hotel, Farleyer House. Whilst the restaurant went on to win a Michelin Bib Gourmand, Frances says this experience cemented for her that she “just wanted to run a restaurant”. Her next move was to London where she opened Tate & Lyle’s Shaw Restaurant in 1993, further building her reputation, but three years living in the busy capital reminded her why she loved Yorkshire so much. When Frances and her husband Bill saw The Yorke Arms – with its mix of history, character and stunning location – they knew they had found their permanent home: “We’re very settled” she told us, “I now find that I cook well and am happy in a country environment … it is very stimulating.”
It was in this ivy-clad, eighteenth century stone coaching house, nestled in Yorkshire’s outstandingly beautiful Nidderdale valley in the tiny hamlet of Ramsgill, that Frances Atkins and her husband won their Michelin star in 2003 – an award they have held ever since. Describing this experience as “the best thing that ever happened to us”, she saw the award as “recognition of an all consuming dedicated way of life” and has used this spotlight as an opportunity to “push standards higher every day.”
The food Frances Atkins cooks is shaped by her surroundings – “we let the ingredients do the talking” she says. Shaped by the produce she harvests from her almost self-sufficient kitchen garden, the wild greens and mushrooms that grow in the region, the lambs that pepper the green hills around the restaurant and the game brought in from the moors on the horizon. Frances Atkins doesn’t just use local, seasonal ingredients, her food is born of the landscape. She told us: “I’m naturally very creative, so I feed off the environment and therefore it is very, very stimulating. We’ve got an amazing garden, so we grow most of our own food. In this world now, where everybody is quite rightly concerned with healthy eating, to me it just makes sense because I am using the freshest ingredients that you can possibly have and local ingredients, pushing British food. At the end of the day, British food is right up there and if everyone is going to use the local food that they have around them, not only are we going to be impressive to our visitors, we’re also going to do everybody a lot of good at the same time.”
Largely self-taught, “I haven’t come out of a great stable, I’ve always had to do it for myself” she says, Frances Atkins combines technique, knowledge, creativity and spontaneity to make “free-spirited, innovative, classical” Yorkshire cuisine. She tells us: “Every flavour in a dish is paramount. The flavours all relate to each other and it doesn’t have to complicated, my food is not complicated”. Her talent for balancing stunning, colourful presentation and marvellous texture with bold, opinionated flavours makes for a memorable dining experience: “I don’t want to eat boring food, I don’t want to lead a boring life, so let’s put some interest into it … I want each dish to be perfect and exciting and I want to share my excitement with my guests.”
Frances Atkins has found time in recent years to appear on the Great British Menu, teach seasonal cooking at Yorkshire’s renowned Betty’s Cookery School and has visited India several times over the past few years, working to help children who are struggling against the odds to further their education. However she is still emphatically dedicated to being a chef – “I am a chef and will always be chef” she told us. And very glad we are of that too.