Sketch - the new café at York Art Gallery
- Credit: Andy Bulmer
The duo behind a new café at York Art Gallery sketch out their ideas
Plates of food are often described as works of art. In practice, this can mean that the chef is creating dishes as rich and deeply satisfying as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or that the diner is, frankly, talking Pollocks.
A new café, however, is taking it one stage further by imbuing its menu and décor with the essence of a whole gallery. Sketch at York Art Gallery, which opened just before Easter, is the brainchild of Maria Rodriguez and Phil Veal, the dynamic duo behind Origin in Helmsley.
‘The art from the gallery will be reflected on the walls and in our food,’ said Maria. ‘We’re going to work with an artist to draw on the walls, bringing them to life, and will showcase work by local artists. We also want to include what’s happening in the gallery when we create new dishes.’
‘We’re not going to tie ourselves in knots to make our menu reflect every exhibition, but we are going to have fun when we can,’ Phil added. ‘The recent BFG exhibition would have been perfect for us to translate the art into food with, I don’t know, snozzcumber sandwiches.’
Or, perhaps, strawbunkles and cream washed down with whizzpop-inducing frobscottle.
Like Origin, which opened in 2017, Sketch reflects Maria’s Spanish roots and Phil’s love of Asian food, which was ignited during his early years in Birmingham. The pair first joined forces at York Marriott, where they created a whole new restaurant concept that was subsequently rolled out across the chain. Phil then moved on to the Royal York (now the Principal) and Leeds Marriott, while Maria went to the Feversham Arms Hotel in Helmsley. But both were constantly looking out for opportunities to work together again.
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After visiting the successful Norse pop-up in Harrogate, they decided to try something similar in York with fun monthly after-hours events at places like Brew & Brownie and The Pig & Pastry. This led to a short lease space in Haxby to test the independent market further before they finally took the plunge and launched Origin in Bridge Street, Helmsley.
So, how are they now running Origin and Sketch simultaneously? Well, they have taken on a small team, including another chef to work alongside Phil, and have partnered up with other supportive independents, like Roost coffee roastery in Malton and York plant specialist Botanic.
‘It also helps that Origin is, essentially, an evening dining experience while Sketch is a day café,’ said Maria. ‘We think the two places will complement each other well.’
‘Here (Origin), we do tapas and small dishes that lend themselves to tasting menus,’ Phil added. ‘Sketch is more about light lunches with the emphasis on modern, healthy, upscale dishes.’
In other words, the café is not just about coffee and cake. There will, of course, be plenty of both, it’s just that the coffee will be artisan roasted and the lemon drizzle cake will be studded with rosemary and chia seeds.
‘We don’t want to scare anyone, but we do want to take things up a notch,’ said Phil. ‘There are a lot of great cafés in York, but there’s no point in repeating what’s already out there. We don’t want to follow the crowd; we want to offer something more.’
The cafés at both York Art Gallery and the nearby Merchant Adventurers’ Hall closed temporarily earlier this year when the contractor, Café No 8 Catering, pulled out because it couldn’t make them pay. At the time, director Chris Pragnell said lack of footfall, rising prices and a saturated market all played a part in the cafés’ inability to turn a profit.
So, what is Sketch going to do differently?
‘Families are going to be vitally important,’ said Maria. ‘We both have kids, so we know how important it is to have a safe, fun area for them. We want families to feel welcome. Kids can come in, draw, make a noise, whatever makes them happy.
‘Success for us will be a busy café full of happy people. And we want to encourage all our customers – especially the families – to make the most of the gallery. We want to be seen as an integral part of the gallery; part of the York Museums Trust family.’
As the main York season begins, Phil and Maria are looking forward to the challenges ahead; to running Sketch and Origin in tandem, continuing their outside catering partnership with the De Grey Rooms (handily situated just across the road from Sketch) and hosting a number of evening events, parties and launches at the gallery.
‘It’s going to take a lot of stamina, but the buzz of a busy café will see us through,’ said Maria. ‘We’re prepared to work hard because people choose to come to York for their holidays, so it has to be special every day. And for local people too, ‘fine’ is not fine.’
‘It’s also important for us to keep things fresh and interesting for us and our staff,’ said Phil. ‘We are ambitious – greedy even – so this won’t be it for us. We want more.’