Image of chef Frances Atkins in her kitchen garden

Kitchen garden chef's table at The Yorke Arms

by Nancy Anne Harbord 25 June 2015

The chef’s table experience at The Yorke Arms is something very special. Located in the heart of their extensive vegetable gardens, the dedicated tasting menu features fresh produce exclusively from the garden and is enjoyed around a roaring, toasty fire.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in high quality vegetarian food, Nancy has worked in Vanilla Black in London, as well as other kitchens scattered around Europe. Most recently, Nancy trained under Gabriele Bonci in Rome, learning to make his famous take on pizza al taglio, before taking the knowledge back to Stockholm to help open and run The Artisan pizzeria. She also writes vegetarian and vegan food blog, Delicious from Scratch, and is now a full time food writer.

The experience

The Yorke Arms, found in the stunning Yorkshire Dales near the spa town of Harrogate, is home to one of Britain’s top chefs, Frances Atkins. Holding a Michelin star at her ‘restaurant with rooms’ since 2003, she cooks colourful, creative, highly seasonal dishes with inspiration drawn from her kitchen garden and the surrounding landscape.

The chef's table experience at The Yorke Arms takes place not in the kitchen, but in the centre of their extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. Diners are housed in a beautiful, tented dining pavilion known as ‘the onion’. The sculptural steel frame is designed to stand bare as a focal point during the winter, with a purple, weather-proof canvas protecting guests during the Yorkshire summer nights. The flickering open fire, which sits in the centre of the round dining table, keeps everyone toasty warm.

Frances Atkins outside The Yorke Arms
Frances Atkins outside The Yorke Arms
The onion room in the kitchen garden
The onion in the kitchen garden
It’s called the onion because we grew some fantastic red spring onions that we were looking at making a dish out of. We put one in some water and it formed this shape and I said “wouldn’t it be lovely in the middle of the garden?” My husband’s son-in-law has a forge in Bath, so he helped me draw what I was trying to explain to him and we made it! I’ve always had a fascination for wood fires and cooking over wood fires, and originally that is what I thought I would like to do. But the onion got a bit grander than just a big wood-fired oven and it became more of a barbecue experience.

Frances Atkins

Chef Frances Atkins inside the chef's table room
Frances inside the onion
The table setting of the chef's table
The table setting
We had a few teething problems, with everyone who was sitting inside getting black faces, but now we’re bringing our guests a comfortable dining experience – something different. It’s quite magical when it’s lit at night and it gets intensely warm. You can adjust the canvas tenting to cool yourself down or heat yourself up as needed, so you are always comfortable and cosy. It’s something that is nice to do – it’s not something that we’re taking frightfully seriously. We take our food very seriously, but the onion is just a unique way of eating al fresco. The guests love it – it’s been hugely successful!

Frances Atkins

Food from the earth

All the dishes on the kitchen garden tasting menu use ingredients grown in the surrounding beds. Atkins says: ‘You are eating food from the earth in the centre of our vegetable garden.’ One of the courses on the menu is finished on the open fire. This could be a pre-dessert or an amuse bouche – something that can be held on a stick and popped over the flames.

Plants that grow wild, scattered near the kitchen garden and local village, also feature strongly in the menu, though for Atkins, their use is more practical than fashionable. She says: ‘I always think it’s a bit overdone, this foraging business. I don’t set out in the morning for a wander – I don’t have that sort of time – but there are tons of stuff growing, so when I walk into work there are plants on the way and by the riverbanks.’

The Yorke Arms is in the tiny village of Ramsgill and Atkins told us: ‘Ramsgill means wild garlic, ramsons, so we’re very big on wild garlic here. Last year we pickled the wild garlic seeds from the flowers – that was just amazing. We collected hundreds of wild garlic flowers and then picked out the seeds and put them in a pickle. We’ve just about finished using them. They were like putting little garlic peppercorns on food – it was really, really good fun.’

Preserving nature’s abundance enables Atkins and her team to use plants from the garden and environs all year long. Atkins told us: ‘I’m big into preserving. We make sloe dust, we make pine dust… Everything in the garden is used – we’ve got tons of fennel, so we make a load of fennel pollen and we’ve had oceans of sorrel, so we preserve it somehow or we dry it. Salting and drying are just fantastic things to do because the flavour is so intense... It is these things that makes one’s food stand out because you get such a great taste in your mouth.’

Onion growing
Onions grown in the garden
The Yorke Arms land
Land around The Yorke Arms

The garden

The garden was built on land that had laid fallow for the previous 70 years. Atkins told us: ‘Originally that piece of land grew potatoes during the war and hadn’t been used since – it was just beautiful land waiting to be used. It hadn’t had fertilisers and sprays put on it prior to that, so it’s a special piece of land and, like everything else, it needs to be treated with respect.’

The garden is run organically and Atkins says they ‘don’t use anything that might affect the vegetables or the taste’. She continues ‘we don’t use slug pellets and things, so we just have to put up with the slugs chomping away and put tea bags and things on them. So from that point of view we are making things very difficult for ourselves all round.’

The space is immaculately kept with raised beds, essential rabbit-proofing and hardly a weed in sight. Atkins told us: ‘We used to have a gardening rota and the chefs had to do it. I thought that was quite healthy, because they could appreciate where the food was coming from and not be quite so ready to chuck it away or to make the wrong cut. But that was a bit idealistic; we all got quite tired. So we are now very fortunate to have two ex-farming boys from Poland (Stan and Valdeck) who tend it and they are just such strong young men, they just whizz through the work – it’s quite a relief really.’

Lettuce growing

When we visited, there were all manner of exciting edibles being grown – trees and bushes bearing fruit such as gooseberries, plums and apples, alliums like onions, shallots and garlic, salad leaves and lettuces, as well as various types of kale and cabbage. Their radishes were prolific at the time, popping up in all kinds of guises on the menu, and other favourites like potatoes, cucumber, fennel, beetroot, peas, sweetcorn, courgettes, pumpkin and carrots were also growing away happily. Atkins told us: ‘We had awful trouble with our cucumbers, but when we finally got them going (I don’t think our soil was quite right for them) they were quite spectacular and we used them for lovely cucumber and melon gels.’

There were artichokes and asparagus trying their best to grow under the Yorkshire sun, but at the end of a chilly June could only be enjoyed in the first flush of their youth. Atkins says of the climate: ‘There are a lot of problems – frosts and wanting a bit more warmth. But for every gardener, the weather is never right, is it?’

Image of young asparagus
Image of artichoke
Last year we grew borage for the first time and we found that we could use the stalks as a vegetable – that was exciting!

Both the flowers and leaves of the many herbs in the garden flavour and decorate Atkins’ plates at dinner – mint, rosemary, sage, nasturtiums, thyme and coriander, to name but a few. They are also growing borage this year and Atkins says of this: ‘Last year we grew borage for the first time and we found that we could use the stalks as a vegetable – that was exciting!’

They decide as a team, what gets planted in the garden. She says: ‘Everybody is interested, so we do it collectively. We don’t always get it right, but it’s nice. We grew some perilla last year that we were immensely proud of, so we have grown things that we really haven’t used before. That becomes exciting, because you start wrapping things up in leaves and cooking them – we just have to be a bit careful that we check it out thoroughly first before putting it on the menu! I think that is the joy of dining out too, having something that you would not necessarily have at home – so we are striving to do that now.’

There is a brood of glossy, healthy-looking hens on hand to supply the restaurant with the freshest of eggs, but they are the only animals being raised on the premises. Atkins told us: ‘Last year we had pigs, but we soon went off that. We got too soft and they were a lot of hard work. We had two, but one got sick and then we had huge, whacking vet bills. When they did go to slaughter, I gave all the meat away because I couldn’t bear to think which one I was eating. The whole thing wasn’t very comfortable, so we’ve just stuck with our chickens – they die naturally!’

Image of Chef Frances Atkins with a brood of chickens
Frances Atkins with her chickens