They say behind every strong man is an even stronger woman. Meet Abbie Atkinson, wife to North East celebrity chef Kenny Atkinson, mother to their two boys, co-owner of One Michelin Star restaurant House of Tides and now proud owner of Violets café – which recently opened its doors on Newcastle’s Quayside
Abbie Atkinson is a real-life Wonder Woman. Not only is she a business partner in House of Tides restaurant – which recently retained its One Michelin Star status – but she’s just launched her own venture: Violets café.
And the daytime café, nestled on Newcastle’s Quayside, is not only something that she’s always dreamt of – it lies close to her heart, too.
“It’s named after my grandma who sadly passed away five years ago. When I was a child, she had a beautiful cottage in the Worcestershire countryside which was surrounded by woods.
“The cottage had a little bird garden and visitors would come to see it. When mum was a little girl, grandma, mum and mum’s auntie would bake fresh scones and serve them to people.
“When i was a little girl, we would go out walking in the woods and pick bluebells and primroses,” said Abbie, who’s originally from Worcestershire.
“I always dreamt of owning my own café one day but when Kenny and I got together, I followed him around while he pursued his career.”
While many people will know Kenny’s name, now Abbie is making one for herself, and since Violets opened in July, people are coming from far and wide to sample her freshly-baked pastries, scones and other delights.
The self-taught pasty chef not only learnt her skills growing up around avid bakers in her family, but she’s done stage (an unpaid internship for cooks and chefs) at Rockliffe Hall, in Darlington, Olivia’s Bakery and Café, also in Darlington, London’s Savoy Hotel and House of Tides.
“When Kenny ran the Orangery at Rockliffe, I used to help out in the hotel’s Bistro on pastry. I love desserts, who doesn’t? It’s my favourite part of any meal. I have a sweet tooth. I have a hot chocolate and a chocolate bar every night – and so does Kenny,” laughed Abbie.
Speaking about the Savoy Hotel, she said: “It’s a whole new world. They have a chocolate shop and cake shop and every day they’re filled with cakes, pastries and chocolates from the Savoy’s kitchen.
I saw everything from how cakes on the afternoon teas were made, the pastries, petits fours and sugarcraft. It was amazing.”
Although Abbie learnt skills from such visits, the true inspiration of Violets’ menu and interior harks back to her childhood.
Fresh flowers are placed in quaint pots and popped on each table every morning. Old church back chairs add character; sweet treats are served on vintage china; candles are lit and a pretty, reclaimed wood shelving area that Abbie designed herself has already been snapped by intrigued customers and uploaded to Instagram hundreds of times.
“I love vintage and I wanted to create a cosy atmosphere where people felt like they could be at home,” said Abbie, who took art and design and business studies at college.
“I remember walking past the empty, Grade-ll-listed building with Kenny and when I spotted it I said to him: “Ooh, that would make an amazing café.” He said: “Oh God, here we go again.”
Not many people know that it was actually Abbie that wanted to own and run a business before Kenny. They met through a friend while he was working at The Wood Norton Hotel, in Evesham. “I was 19 when we moved to London together. I took on jobs that paid the bills.
He started out as a commis chef and i took on work – both working hard to support London living,” said the doting wife.
Kenny’s career then took the couple to the Isles of Scilly, just off the Cornish coast, and Abbie again supported his move.
“We were married, we had one of our boys, and I became a stay-at-home mum. You do what you have to do to support your husband and your family and as Kenny became more successful it was easier to stay at home,” said Abbie.
In 2008, the couple moved back to the North East – Kenny is originally from Fenham – when he joined Seaham Hall. It was during this time that they had their second son and with Kenny at work in the kitchen, Abbie would bake with her boys, Aaron, now 10, and Aidan, seven, at home.
“You’re either a homely kind of person or not. My mum says it was instilled in me from being a child and I loved spending my days with my boys baking,” said Abbie
When Kenny left Rockliffe Hall, after three years as food director to open House of Tides, all eyes were on him. He’d already gained Michelin star status at Seaham Hall; had TV appearances on the BBC’s Great British Menu and James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen – and everyone was eager to see what his restaurant was all about.
But it wasn’t just his. Abbie is a partner in the business, and although she let her husband have the limelight, if it wasn’t for her, he may not have ever opened the restaurant in the 16th Century, Grade-l-listed Buttress House, on the Quayside.
“He wasn’t sure about the place to start but when I saw it, I just thought: Oh. My. God. The features such as the period windows, beams, original stone flooring and the cornice covered in birds and leaves were just wow.
“It’s in one of the oldest parts of the city and it had Kenny written all over it. He would have hated to work in a modern cardboard box.
“I told him, we’re getting it. We have to. In fact, Kenny will tell you that I’m the only person that can put him in his place,” said Abbie, who did the interior design for the restaurant.
Fiercely determined to see her family succeed, she’s been instrumental in driving the business – even staff at House of Tides admit that when she walks in, everything has to be in place.
“I’m a bit of perfectionist,” said Abbie. “Nothing can be out of place, not when you’re running things at this level. Everything has to be pristine and tidy for our customers,” she added.
She adopts the same approach with Violets. On her menu is everything from chocolate and cinnamon meringue; apple cheesecake with ginger; treacle and pecan tart and orange and cranberry mini loaves. Abbie uses edible flowers to decorate them.
“I love this time of year with all the autumn flavours and I can’t wait to bake all the Christmassy things.”
It’s not just cakes that she offers. Breakfasts include salmon and poached egg, sausages, waffles and the specials board features fishcakes, Scotch eggs and mackerel, goat’s cheese and beetroot salad.
“We use the same suppliers as House of Tides as it’s good-quality, local produce.
“It’s great working around the corner from one another. We can can pop in and check on each other and ensure everything is OK. He has his baby and now I have mine, and that’s how it works.
“We couldn’t be in each other’s pockets every day and every night. I admire Kenny’s drive and passion. He’s such an inspiration, but I’m also passionate to succeed, and sometimes we can clash! Don’t all couples? It’s what makes us work,” said Abbie.
Running two businesses and a family may seem tiring to some, but Abbie shows no signs of slowing down.
“I just want to keep pushing the businesses. It’s like we’re living in a little whirlwind right now, it’s surreal sometimes. The best nights are when Kenny and I get a night away together. That’s precious and we cherish those moments, but we also pinch ourselves at what we have achieved,” said Abbie, who lives with Kenny and their kids in Whitley Bay. “Perhaps we’ll add to the empire,” she confessed. “Maybe in a few years though, but definitely in the North East. I love this place.”