Frances Atkins speaks to Hannah Davies on how she broke out of a restrictive marriage to become one of the country’s few female Michelin-starred chefs.
ASMART, attractive woman, who would “really prefer not” to reveal her age, Frances Atkins is one of the country’s top chefs, let alone women chefs.
She is a fellow of the Masterchefs of Great Britain and is one of only six female Michelin starred chefs in the country.
Her passion for food has been with her since birth and has seen her through childhood, an unhappy marriage and now resounding success.
Frances has held her Michelin star, for current “restaurant with rooms,” The Yorke Arms in Ramsgill North Yorkshire, continuously for five years.
On Friday, Frances is one of five of the country’s most talented female chefs cooking for the Jesmond Dene House Great Women Chefs’ Gala Dinner, as part of its Festival of Food and Wine, which runs from tomorrow until Monday May 5.
Frances is not-quite Yorkshire-born but almost as good as.
She explains: “I was born in Maidstone in Kent, but I was moved to Ilkley in Yorkshire when I was a few months old.
“I’ve always loved cooking. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t something I was passionate about.
“I had a very good agreement with my mother where I made the family meals when I was very young, she smiles.
“It was great for my mother, but it was great for me too.
“She was creative and made clothes. I think that creativity was definitely passed on.”
After leaving school, there was no question in Frances’ mind as to what she wanted to do and she trained at Bradford School of Food and Technology. On finishing the course she then worked at the Box Tree in Ilkley, Yorkshire.
“I find cooking very comforting and still do, it is totally absorbing.
“My family weren’t big on food, but we always had fresh produce. I suppose my mother is a very artistic woman so it may have come from her, but it was the creativity and being able to produce something people loved which appealed to me.”
After the Box Tree Frances spread her wings and worked in Scotland before a move to Scandinavia.
“I went to Denmark in Copenhagen,” she recalls. “It was lovely, for a company that cooked for the royal household cooking pastries.
“I also learnt a bit of Danish. The problem was everyone over there was so good at English.”
Frances worked in Copenhagen for two years. She returned to get married at 23, and stopped working.
“I didn’t want to stop working at all,” Frances said.
“But I got myself into a situation where I wasn’t able to work. I married a man who found it socially unacceptable for me to work.”
Frances’ marriage to a prominent lawyer lasted 10 years before it broke down. And she couldn’t wait to get back into a professional kitchen.
She adds: “In that 10 years, I’d kept cooking because we did a lot of entertaining, but I was desperate to work again.”
Her first job was as a cook for a pub. She then ran her own catering company, which is also when she met her current husband Bill, all the time saving enough money to set up her first restaurant.”
Finally in 1984, Frances opened Atkins Restaurant in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
“It was fantastic. I felt that after having been held up for 10 years, I couldn’t wait to got going so I jumped in foot first and I made many mistakes.
“I was very fortunate to have the support of my current husband as well, he helped out with the front of house.”
After the success of Atkins Restaurant, Frances moved to a bigger building and staff at The Old Plow at Speen in Buckinghamshire, both restaurants winning accolades, and then, Frances and her husband moved to Perthshire in Scotland. Here, they converted a dilapidated house into a County House Hotel, Farleyer House, which went on to win a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
“It was very hard work,” Frances recalls, “and it taught me that I just wanted to run a restaurant.
“There were many different things to take care of running a hotel and it took me away from cooking.”
After her stint in Scotland, Frances wanted to get experience of working in a London kitchen.
The then chairman of Tate and Lyle, Sir Neil Shaw, decided he wanted to open his own restaurant and asked Frances to head it. Shaw’s Restaurant opened in 1993 and further cemented Frances’ reputation.
But three years of living and working in London taught Frances the reasons why she loved North Yorkshire so much.
“I felt constricted there. I missed the open spaces of the countryside.”
So Frances and Bill began a hunt for a place in Yorkshire where they could again run their own restaurant.
When they saw the Yorke Arms they knew it was what they had been looking for. It had the right mixture of space and character and the perfect location, which would also help Frances in the kitchen.
She explains: “If you are in a country situation then you have instant access to fantastic ingredients. We are very lucky in Britain with our local producers.”
Local producers and the changing seasons helped dictate The Yorke Arm’s menu from its 1997 opening.
“That’s simply the best way to cook,” Frances explains.
It didn’t take the couple long before the accolades began pouring in, Hotel of the Year 1999 in the Caesar Award Good Hotel Guide, Restaurant of the Year 2000 – Good Food Guide and through to their first Michelin Star in 2003 – which they have retained continuously since.
“Winning a Michelin star is of course fantastic,” Frances says, “but it is most wonderful for the team.
“Any chef knows if your team isn’t good enough, no matter how good you are, you can’t get a Michelin star. You need an excellent team to run a great restaurant and through the years that’s what we have developed.”
Bill runs the administrative side of the Yorke Arms, and Frances laughs at the idea they might get sick of each other: “That’s never going to be a problem, we work in the same building but don’t see a lot of each other. They are two very different workplaces, I’m in the kitchen and he’s in the office.”
With her free-spirited, though classically-based, style, Frances believes the most successful dishes involve “doing as little as possible to quality ingredients”, and it’s a policy which works.
“My style of cooking is free-spirited inspiration, backed by a thorough classical knowledge and technique,” she adds.
She comments: “I think if I had worked in one of the big kitchens it would have been easier for me to progress.
“I don’t think most chefs have any prejudices against women, but I do think men like to control the kitchen.”
One of the things she is sure has helped her in her career is the fact she has never had children.
“There is no way I could have done what I’ve done in this industry if I’d had children to look after.
“More women are choosing a career over children.
“If you look back through history it is the women who have been responsible for the evolution of food.”
Frances says she admires the French chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who last year became the first woman since the 1950s to win three Michelin Stars, and in Britain she says she admires Raymond Blanc in English cooking. “I think he’s been hugely important in the progression of British cuisine”.
Frances offers advice to any woman who wants to become a chef.
“We have a very determined girl who is an excellent example of how great female chefs are getting into the kitchen.
“To any woman who is thinking about a career as a chef, I’d say get into a good kitchen and experience the hours you have to put in and decide if it’s what you really want to do. If it is, that is fantastic.
“You need to go out and learn all of your basic skills, which takes a lot of time. Only after that do you get to the creative side of it. You have got to learn your skills first,” she emphasises firmly.
The Yorke Arms is at Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, Pateley Bridge, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, HG3 5RL. Tel: (01423) 755243, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.yorke-arms.co.uk