Art on a plate – the Hepworth Wakefield Café is now ‘under new management’

I think it is fair to say that, before the arrival of the Hepworth gallery, Wakefield had rather turned its back on the River Calder. Unlike other towns and cities, we weren’t making very much of our ‘waterfront’. The railway line high on the embankment from Kirkgate Station and running parallel with Ings Road rather delineated the city centre – why would anyone want to venture down to the riverside?

That all changed when The Hepworth Wakefield opened its doors back in the spring of 2011 but despite its success at bringing visitors to the city, the gallery still feels like it’s a bit out on a limb, part of Wakefield’s cultural offer and yet slightly apart from the city itself. That too will change in the not-too-distant future if, as expected, the eagerly awaited plans to convert the former Rutland Mills into “a vibrant mixed-use creative quarter for collaborative partnerships in music, film, TV, design and new media” come to fruition: the Hepworth Wakefield will find itself part of a much bigger waterfront ‘arts scene’, complete with boutique hotel.

Galleries and cafés go together, of course, but the newly re-vamped The Hepworth Café is something a bit different from the usual offering. Since 20th October 2017, the management of the café has been in new hands: independent Leeds coffee shop House of Koko (Shanshan Zhu and Chris Ball) has partnered with Wakefield’s MasterChef quarter-finalist Chris Hale and his wife, Sophie Mei Lan, to take over the running of The Hepworth Café.

New management, new approach and totally independent: the café is a mix of café and restaurant. It offers a simple range of dishes that will appeal to both vegetarian and vegan palettes but which can then be augmented with a number of extras and side dishes to cater for the omnivores among us. For example, when I visited the new café back in November 2017, I had the ‘The Full Vegan’ (£8.45) which consists of homemade baked beans, sweetcorn fritters, half an avocado, and crispy red onions, salad and toast. (It also comes with tomato and chilli jam, but I passed on this as I never did acquire a taste for chilli.) While this was a real plateful in itself – warming on a cold day and nourishing – you can, if you wish, add a poached egg for £1.50 or smoked salmon, crispy bacon or smoked chicken for £2 each. Skinny fries at £2.95, coleslaw at £1.95 or a side salad (also £1.95) can also be added to any dish.

Meanwhile, my partner opted for the ‘Homemade Baked Beans’, a dish which consisted of chick peas, butter beans and kidney beans with toasted pumpkin seeds, all served on sourdough bread. The dish can be had with or without shaved parmesan. This had a menu price of just £6 but again can be ordered with any of the extras mentioned above.
Among the other dishes available, there’s also a Steak and Ale Pie for £8.95, Corn Fritters and Avocado Stack for £6.95 and a couple of salads (Chicken Caesar and Autumnal Salad, £6.95 and £5.95 respectively).

For desserts, you can choose buttermilk pancakes or select from a range of cakes and pastries available at the counter. Sophie told me that they wanted to keep the menu simple to start with and then build it up once they got to know their customers better. She takes great pride in pointing out that ingredients are sourced from local suppliers wherever possible.

Alongside a range of beers and Fentimans soft drinks, The Hepworth Café builds on the experience of Shanshan and Chris from House of Koko in bringing speciality coffee to Wakefield – something of a first for the city. As with House of Koko, The Hepworth Café serves North Star Coffee‘s Czar Street seasonal espresso. A brew bar offers single origin coffees from around the globe. Tea drinkers are not forgotten: the café serves 20 loose leaf teas, all weighed, timed and brewed to perfection – and there’s always a good cup of Yorkshire tea on hand.

The café employs a team of 20 friendly staff. The business partners each have distinct roles but show a willingness to lend a hand wherever it is needed: Shanshan is in charge of front of house management while Chris Hale works in the kitchen as Executive Chef. A quarter-finalist in the 2016 MasterChef TV competition, self-taught Executive Chef Chris continues to run his Pop-Up North catering and pop-up restaurant business alongside his work at the café while Sophie leads on the media and public relations aspects of the café. Chris Ball from House of Koko is responsible for marketing and design. (Sophie is a blogger and freelance journalist who is also part of the editorial team for the Wakefield edition of TopicUK, for whom I originally wrote this article.)

The café retains the dark wood chairs and tables that regular visitors from the past will be familiar with but there are also soft squishy sofas and even ‘work stations’ for people who want to sit and work while drinking their coffee.

Wherever you sit, you’ll find yourself amid potted and hanging plants which add a welcome touch of greenery and visual contrast while also helping to soften the space and making it feel more intimate. All around the café you will see unusual houseplants, succulents, cacti, ferns, concrete pots and plant hangers supplied by Yorkshire-based plant specialist geo-fleur and these are available to buy. Additionally, The Hepworth Café sells its own range of gifts with produce from across Yorkshire – from the best pickles and condiments to sweet treats – and they also offer hampers. There really is no need to go away empty handed!

So, there you have it – a gallery café which can claim to be a destination in itself. But don’t just take my word for it: get yourself down to The Hepworth Café and try it out. Oh, and while you’re there, you might just want to take in some art as well…..

My partner and I dined as guests of The Hepworth Café. A version of this article first appeared in the January 2018 edition of TopicUK magazine for Wakefield.