Interview with an Innovator

The Yorke Arms’ Frances Atkins: ‘Chefs should pay more attention to superfoods’

The first female British chef to win a Michelin star chats with Sarah Sharples about her love of vegetables and why it’s a privilege to eat game.

26 July 2019
chefsmeatvegetablesrestaurants

Atkins on Paper – CV

  • Kicked off her career in the kitchen of Michelin-starred Box Tree, before a move to Copenhagen, where she worked at the oldest confectioner in Denmark, La Glace
  • Opened Atkins Restaurant and a hotel in Scotland, later moving to London to open Tate & Lyle’s Shaw Restaurant
  • Bought The Yorke Arms, winning a Michelin star for her cooking there in 2003

Frances Atkins is the first female British chef to win a Michelin star, an accolade she continues to hold today for the restaurant with rooms, The Yorke Arms. In 2017, she sold the Yorkshire restaurant and was set to embark on a new adventure, but hit it off with the new owner and decided instead to stay. She’s now been at the stove there for 16 years.

Before it was even trendy, Atkins says she loved cooking seasonally with local produce, particularly game and the vegetables that are grown out the back of the restaurant.

“For me, a great plate of vegetables is the best; something that is quick, that is not going to take too much messing about, with lots of flavours in. I’m really a big vegetable queen I think,” she says.

She is also a huge fan of so-called ‘superfoods’ and wants to see more young chefs cooking with them, along with less common spices.

Working in kitchens since the age of 17, she shares her knowledge about letting ingredients guide dish development and searching for the best flavours.

 

My grandmother used to have a larder with great big bottles of fruit. She used to bottle raspberries, gooseberries – she grew and made everything – and I think as a child it was all the different colours of the fruits I used to find very pretty. Then, as time went on, I was encouraged to cook at home, and it was something I always wanted to do.

Getting my own restaurant, getting a Michelin star and still being at the stove today – those are my three career highlights… Getting a Michelin star was an acknowledgement of a lifelong passion and skill that I have.

The Michelin star certainly gives you pressure, because you have to make sure that the appearance is a certain style, a certain way, rather than in so many magazines and television programmes that you see where you have a fantastic conglomerate of ingredients, and it absolutely tastes wonderful, and they are hurled on the plate. People’s expectancy when they come out to a Michelin-star restaurant is to have something that they can’t do at home and to have some new experience, and so therefore that is the pressure – it’s the production of the new experience.

As a chef, you are creating things and experimenting with new flavours, textures and taste. The last dish has to be the best dish always.

It’s the summer, so we are using lots of vegetables. For one dish, we steam celeriac and cut it very, very finely and then mask it in salsa verde; then we wrap up other vegetables in it and put a nice turmeric sauce or a bit of spirulina with it – all the time we are very much into superfoods and plant-based foods.

I think the food at The Yorke Arms is extremely seasonal and local. I know it’s a trendy thing for all chefs to say, but we are quite remote, so really our environment does dictate to us, and that is what I find inspirational.

When I cooked in London for about three years down in the cellars, I didn’t see a lot of daylight, and my powers of creation really went.There was nothing that I could see and grab that I thought would make an amazing dish.

I go to the actual ingredient to start dishes. It’s the ingredient that should speak for itself, it’s what you are able to do to it to enhance the ingredient – not better it, but to enhance it and make it standalone in its own beauty.

With our food development, we start off by doing new dishes. If we are especially pleased with them, we might trial them at lunchtimes and then monitor the reaction to them. If they’re good, we will take them back for extra polishing and extra refining, and then they possibly go onto our tasting menu. It might be that we are pleased with a dish and we run it and it doesn’t sell very well, so it’s always then back to the drawing board.

Consistency is the hardest thing. We can all cook a super dish, but then you have to make sure that dish comes out exactly the same again and again and has the same textures, flavours and balance.

I am using calamondin limes at the moment. I’ve managed to get a plant and grow a tree. These limes – the flavour is something that is just amazing. For instance, if you put a slice of this lime in some gin, the scent is just amazing. If you are using it within a dressing, the scent is tremendous. That is the sort of thing that I think is amazing – it’s all about the smell and the special flavour.

These days you are searching for the best flavour, like super different peppercorns, that will give your dish the special taste that no other dish or chef has got. It’s those small things and the detail of the flavour that are so important.

People are ordering our super kimchi that we have on at the moment, or a beautiful piece of seabass with an octopus stew. The meat eaters are eating suckling pigs.

It’s a very exciting time coming in as August is the beginning of the game season and we are roaring ahead with our venison, grouse, hare – that’s really what we excel in.

People seem to miss the point about game. It’s wild, so certainly around here, grouse is eating the heather and the peat and the moor. It’s not being fed, it’s just eating wild food, so therefore you are getting as pure a commodity as you can today. It’s the same with proper wild venison: you are experiencing this wonderful taste, the same taste you get from freshly dug carrots or picked peas.

The biggest mistake chefs make is trying to be on trend and put too many ingredients on the plate, rather than just applying their classical skills to the ingredient.

I think food is huge in the UK. From having historically not a great reputation, we are one of the world leaders now, as we have so many dedicated and good chefs.

I think history repeats itself and people are going back to the beautifully presented, classical food with innovation. I mean a beautifully cooked piece of fish but done with a different flavour or a different style.

Food fads – you can put anything down to a fad.You can say foams are a fad, but if you have a great spirulina foam or marshmallow foam with your dessert, it might be just the thing that finishes that dish off. So fads are a way of eating rather than something that a chef has just decided to do. I think it’s like fashion – chefs follow chefs as other creative people do because it’s what they think that guests are expecting.

Japanese food and Asian food is on trend.It’s received well, people like it, it’s healthy, it’s tasty and I think we will be seeing more of that style of food, which again is erring towards a more healthy diet rather than the old-fashioned heavy saucing.

In terms of ingredients, chefs should pay more attention to superfoods, to the foods that will actually do you good, that you get an added bonus from when you are eating them.

I think we should be encouraging young chefs to use these ingredients more, like black garlic and turmeric and tamarind – these ingredients have been knocking around for a long time, but they are not so widely used.

I think it’s very competitive in the eating out industry at the moment, and it means the standards will just get higher.

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