Like most people in Leeds, I’ve got a lot of love for our indie food businesses. So. Much. Love. Breaking up the homogeny of the chains that often make UK cities indistinguishable from one another, our indies give Leeds an identity as a city that loves to eat, that cares about what it eats, and that wants to share this love and care with as many likeminded people as possible.
But whilst the lure of Leeds’ independent food scene is undeniable, how many of us regularly venture outside of the city centre to get our foodie fix? I admit it – I’m as guilty as anyone, unable to resist the lure of old faithfuls like La Bottega Milanese (for the best coffee and pasticcini in Leeds), Belgrave Music Hall‘s Dough Boys (for that pizza) and the glorious Lazy Lounge (for ALL the gin, obviously), to name but a few.
But take a look beyond the city centre, and you’ll find a plethora of community-driven, local heroes that challenge some of the city’s finest establishments in terms of quality and value for money. They’re often those ‘on your doorstep’ gaffs that you’ve overlooked for whatever reason, but give them a try and the rewards can be sweet. This was true of my beloved local restaurant Ephesus, which I’ve shared with the good readers of The Culture Vulture before, and now there’s another corker opened just a few minutes up the road. Mill Kitchen.
My first introduction to Mill Kitchen was a strange one, one of those ‘what a small world’ stories that come in handy when there’s a conversation lull. I was in London for an evening of food writing inspiration from The Guardian’s Felicity Cloake, when I got chatting to a lady called Ailsa over a glass of the free wine. After a few minutes of chatting, we discovered that not only had we both travelled down from Leeds, but that we lived just minutes apart – Ailsa in Farsley, me in Rodley. Then Ailsa told me why she was in Farsley – she’d just moved there from Oxford to open a new café in Sunny Bank Mills.
What Ailsa revealed about the café that evening got me excited. Whilst I love living in Rodley, it’s definitely rocking a ‘bijoux’ vibe when it comes to quality food establishments. Mill Kitchen sounded just what the area needed – a café deli serving fresh, healthy and locally-sourced food, cooked with passion and imagination.
That first conversation was seven months ago. Mill Kitchen opened just over a month later, and it had me at hello. Seriously. The food is everything Ailsa described it would be, and more: exciting, inventive food that demonstrates the benefits of using, and understanding, quality ingredients and seasonal fruit and vegetables. The tarts are amazing, the cakes are sublime, the coffee is perfect, and the salads are out of this world. And then there’s the leek rarebit. Seriously, the leek rarebit. Think soft sautéed leeks, bobbing in a bubbling béchamel sauce and perched atop a piece of Leeds Bread Coop’s sourdough. Yeah, I know. Throw in the character and charm of Sunny Bank Mills, a relaxed, friendly atmosphere and a deli full of quality local food and drink products, and you’ve got a serious contender for Leeds’ best café on your hands. Trust me, it’s that good.
Mill Kitchen is the sort of place that’s far too good to keep a secret, so to share the love, I’ll hand you over to the lady herself – Ailsa Youngson. Over a pot of fresh mint tea and a slice (or two) of some of her incredible cakes, I caught up with Ailsa to find out more about the inspiration for Mill Kitchen, her future plans (which include a Supper Club on 19 December – oh YES), and how she caught the cooking bug. Over to Ailsa…
So, what is your background in food?
I went to Ballymaloe, which is a cookery school in Ireland run by Darina Allen. It’s on an organic farm in the middle of nowhere – so it’s really idyllic. They’re really into foraging, and Darina was the first person to start a farmers’ market in Ireland. They’re also really dedicated to keeping a lot of old traditions alive: forgotten skills, foraging, artesanal food production – that kind of thing. The very first thing that you learn is about compost, which gives you a good idea what they’re like – it’s a farm to fork ethos, because everything is right there in the ground. We would have all these duties in the morning, like having to go and pick the salads for lunch. It’s so lovely. It’s well-known in Ireland, but not here.
I spent three months there, and then came back to Oxford and worked in a gastro pub for a bit, but hated it. I hated the hours and, because I was the pastry chef, I hated having to make the same thing over and over again. The menu only changes about four times a year, so for three months I was making the same four things. That’s not what I like about cooking. After that, I worked in a café in Oxford where I got ideas for Mill Kitchen – the format and location were pretty similar.. Then I opened a café in the community centre, which was very niche – pretty much 95% of the food was vegetarian, and just food that I wanted to eat and cook! I did that for two years, before convincing Tom (Ailsa’s partner and co-owner of Mill Kitchen), to come here.
What was the inspiration behind Mill Kitchen?
Basically just honest, wholesome food. There’s nothing particularly complicated about it, I just really like feeding people and really like feeding people good food. A lot of it is food that I would have grown up eating. I’m quite connected with the seasons, so there’s lots of vegetables on the menu influenced by what’s in season. I also wanted it to be accessible. What I was doing in Oxford was very niche – it was in the back of a community centre, and there were just three things on the menu; three things that I wanted to cook. It did have a bit of a following, but with Mill Kitchen I wanted there to be something for everyone.
I also wanted to make as much as possible from scratch, and whatever we couldn’t make we’d find someone local who could do it. All of the jam and chutney is made by just one lady in Harrogate (Harrogate Preserves) who makes it in her kitchen, our bread is from Leeds Bread Coop, most of the beer is local, the cheese is all British and, where possible, Yorkshire-based, along with the milk and butter.
If I had time, I would make everything myself, but I guess the ethos for Mill Kitchen is not necessarily doing everything for yourself, but knowing how to do it. And knowing how to minimise wastage and using everything you’ve got – that’s something that’s really important to me. This was one of reasons I went to Ballymaloe, and going there cemented it. It’s how I grew up – we grew a lot of our own fruit and veg, kept chicken and sheep – that sort of thing, and that’s had a big effect on me.
Ultimately, it’s about taking control over what you eat. What you eat is one of the most important aspects of your life, and so to hand that over to a huge food corporation that doesn’t care is a big deal – but that’s the opposite of what you’ll get at Mill Kitchen.
So, why Farsley?
I’d been living in Oxford for a while, but Tom’s sister lives in Farsley, and told us about the space available at Sunny Bank Mills. I went to uni in Leeds and Tom’s from Cumbria, so we always had the idea of moving up north, but never had a real reason to do it. Out of curiosity, we went to have a look and when we first saw it, we didn’t think it was very promising – it was basically a giant dusty room. But then we looked around the rest of the mill with The Gaunts (who own Sunny Bank Mills) and we totally fell in love with the whole project that they had going on. We loved what they’d done with the rest of it, and the potential it had. It was pretty risky – we didn’t know the area and there’s nothing really here that’s similar, but we thought that could be a good thing. I guess we loved the chance to start something completely from scratch; a blank canvas.
How’s community taken to it?
Really well. We’re getting a really nice mix of people coming in, with loads of people saying we’re so pleased you’ve opened, we’ve been waiting for something like this to open in Farsley which is great – it’s exactly what we were hoping for. We also have people come in who maybe didn’t think they’d like the kind of food we do, but then they try it and they do like it, and that’s amazing. People are telling us that they never really eat vegetables, but then they’ll have a salad plate and they’ll really enjoy it. I really love that. The salads are really popular which is so good, especially when people ask me what the recipe is and I’m like I’ve just made it up!
You wrote a fascinating blog post recently about salads, and the thought process that goes into creating them. Is this typical in your approach to cooking?
Definitely. A lot of thought goes into the whole menu. The salads change very regularly because they’re so driven by the produce, especially when something comes in that inspires me to think creatively about what I’m going to do with it. When you’ve got things that aren’t around for that long, I really want to show them when they’re at their best.
Have you always wanted to work with food?
Not always, but I’ve always been into food. My Dad is a very good cook, but this meant that I wasn’t allowed to cook – he wouldn’t let me in the kitchen because he thought I’d make a mess! It took me a long time to actually start cooking for myself, and then it took over my life. Tom and I used to work in publishing, but I hated it – in my last publishing job, I just used to read food blogs all day! I then retrained as a yoga teacher and did that part time, but realised that there was no way I could ever make a living with yoga. I realised my two big passions were yoga and food, so I decided to try my luck with food!
Finally, what can we look forward to over the next few months at Mill Kitchen?
We’ve just started doing Sunday roasts which is great, as we’re offering something a bit different to what you’d usually expect from a roast dinner. We’re launching a Supper Club, and the first one will be an alternative Christmas dinner on 19 December – tickets are on sale now! It will be a set menu, with a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian option. We want it to be quite informal, like having people round for dinner – so family-style big platters for four people to share. We’re also serving our food atTrouble at the Mill, which is a monthly event put on by a couple of guys in a room near the gallery in the Mill that’s being knocked down. It’s a real mix of stuff – there’s been a one woman play about suffragettes, a guy telling scary stories, and someone playing violin and stand-up comedy. It’s on every month until February.
A big thanks to Ailsa for the chat – it was fascinating to hear more about the inspiration behind Mill Kitchen, as well as the future plans – especially the Supper Club, which I’ve already bagged myself tickets for! So that just leaves me with one final question – what are you waiting for? Get yourself down to Mill Kitchen in Farsley and see for yourself what the fuss is about. You won’t regret it.