Frances Atkins

Frances Atkins

The unique beauty of the rolling Yorkshire Dales frames Frances Atkins’ creative cooking, offering a stunning backdrop to her creative, spirited and beautifully executed food. Based around the unique ingredients of the region, found in her large kitchen garden, the green hills around the restaurant, the local moors and hedgerows and both Yorkshire coasts, her food is characterised by bold flavours, seasonal spontaneity and colourful finesse.

A love of cooking and crafting handmade food has been with Frances Atkins throughout her varied and accomplished life. Growing up in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales she now calls her home, she has 'always cooked'. Baking with her mother, cooking the family tea in exchange for clothes, harassing her parents into throwing dinner parties so she could experiment with dishes such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon – she says 'there was never any question in my mind that I should do anything else with my life'.

Her first job in the catering industry was working in a local deli. Having spotted a business opportunity, she began supplying the shop with her own handmade cheeses – produced with the knowledge she gained from reading a book, and aged in the basement of her parent’s house. 'I was very young and I loved it, it was a very creative thing,' she says. 'I could make cheeses because my parents had some cellars, so I made cheese down there and sold it to the local delicatessen and it became quite a good source of revenue. That was really what I was interested in at the time and I got a bit of a thrill out of it.'

After a brief spell waitressing at the Michelin-starred Box Tree restaurant in her home town, Frances became the first woman to get a job in the kitchen there, aged only seventeen years old. Despite the very male-orientated scene there, she says 'I just loved the atmosphere, it was so sophisticated'. A spell in Scotland was followed by a move to Copenhagen where she worked for La Glace – the oldest confectioner in Denmark – learning to make beautiful cakes and pastries. 'It is still going today,' she says. 'They were sort of the Fortnum and Mason pastry shop of Copenhagen and I had an amazing time there. I learnt so much. It was a great experience for me at the time, working nights and learning everything there is to know about pastry. So that was an amazing opportunity for a young person at that time.'

Returning from Denmark to get married aged twenty-three, this move signalled a ten-year hiatus in Frances' cooking career, married to a man 'who found it socially unacceptable for me to work'. During this difficult time for her, she kept cooking 'because we did a lot of entertaining', but the whole time she was 'desperate to work again'. The end of this marriage afforded Frances this opportunity, not least because she was now starting again from scratch. 'It was a ‘needs must’ really, because I had to start from nothing and I didn’t have any money at all.'

It is this tenacity, this determination to make the very best out of every challenging situation, that has characterised Frances’ 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 says. '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 and her husband won their Michelin star in 2003 – an award they held until the release of the 2020 Michelin Guide. 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 cooks is dictated by her surroundings. She doesn’t just use local, seasonal ingredients; her food is born of the landscape. '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.'

Frances combines technique, knowledge, creativity and spontaneity to make 'free-spirited, innovative, classical' Yorkshire cuisine. '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 and Bill put the Yorke Arms up for sale in 2017 and planned to leave to enjoy their retirement, but when Yorkshire-based businessman Jonathan Turner stepped in to buy the business, he convinced her to stay on board. The restaurant has since undergone a huge renovation, but perhaps most importantly of all, their crown jewel remains in the kitchen, still cooking to an extraordinarily high level.