It is 11.30am on a blissfully sunny day in North Derbyshire and a pair of holiday-makers have pitched up at a farmhouse restaurant for a late breakfast. A few bites into a ‘fluffy as a cloud omelette made-for-two’, one of them gasps.
“Hot, hot, hot,” he manages to splutter. Stella Kisob Knowles, cook and flamboyant front-of-house at Stella’s Kitchen, runs to his aid. “I told you it wasn’t tomato ketchup; can I get you some water?”
A few moments later, when the unexpected encounter with Stella’s famous chilli sauce (made with Scotch bonnets) has been forgotten – the couple make plans to come back to Stella’s for an evening meal. It’s that sort of a place, once Stella’s food has been tasted; people always want more.
The fact there is lip-scorching chilli sauce on the table (and a milder and sweet alternative) at all tells you this cuisine is unlike anything you’d expect to find at a Derbyshire farmhouse which lies on a quiet road between the village of Eyam and the hamlet of Foolow.
You can get tea and scones but the tea is African; often from Cameroon, the country of her birth. While the scones might be fresh out of Mary Berry’s cookbook, they have been given an exotic tweak to turn it into a ‘Stella creation’.
“The recipe called for sultanas but I substituted them with crystallised ginger,” Stella says quietly as though embarrassed to admit she’s customised a scone recipe laid down by the queen of puddings.
“My ginger scones are very popular. People love the idea of taking an English delicacy and giving it a little West African flavour.”
Even a toned-down version attracted local praise; “I entered my scones in the Eyam village show last summer. I just dropped them off at the hall and didn’t think about them again until a lady appeared at the door to drop off a red rosette,” she says.
“I thought it was for my son Adey’s sunflower. When she gave me a first prize, I was shocked and thrilled.”
These two words just about sum up the reaction of tourists who – on asking in the tourist hotspot of Eyam about good local eateries – are told about the fantastic Afro-Caribbean place nearby. Fortunately, Stella is more than happy to explain how a woman, raised in Africa, ended up running a business from a remote farm in Derbyshire.
But first things first.
“You must eat,” Stella pronounces as though I am a waif likely to be blown away by the light summer breeze.
“Have some hot banana and apricot cake, my recipe. I serve it hot, never cold. It’s gluten-free with almond flour which makes it very light. I’ll give you a good slice. In Africa we have a saying ‘food is never small’.
This saying clearly applies to portions but could equally sum up Stella’s childhood during which food was always at the centre of family life.
“I grew up in English-speaking North-Western Cameroon. It was just after we had gained independence from colonial rule by Britain. My father, who was a senior divisional officer in the government, took over from an English colleague who also passed on his chef, Mr Philip.”
Stella admits she had a privileged up-bringing enjoying dishes cooked by a talented local chef; also schooled in European cooking methods.
“Mr Philip was an amazing cook who picked up a lot of ideas from his employer’s British wife. I was the fourth child of seven and we had English delicacies like pancakes for afternoon tea. We’d go to church and when the church bell rang at the end of the service, Mr Philip would put a batch of scones in the oven, we all loved them,” Stella recalls.
“From the age of three, I was fascinated by food. I would follow Mr Philip around the kitchen. He called me the ‘kitchen dog’ as I was under his feet all day long.”
Stella spent a lot of time making play food; “My mother brought me a fancy doll back from one of her trips but I didn’t want it – I preferred playing in the mud making pies and cakes in old milk cans,” she laughs.
“Someone bought me a toy kitchen set and it was my pride and joy. I learned a lot of African cooking from my mother. She loved to prepare certain dishes for my father but – even when Mr Philip was cooking – she’d be in the kitchen laughing and chatting about food and what we were going to eat. If someone is born – you eat, if someone gets married – you eat, when someone dies – you eat. Getting together to share food is central to African life.”
Stella was so passionate about cooking, everyone assumed she’d make it her career.
“I had sisters but I was always ‘the cook’ of the family. If people had parties or weddings, they used to ask me to do the catering. I even started a couple of restaurants in Cameroon but I didn’t have enough money to make them a success,” she explains.
“But my late father always said ‘one day Stella, you’ll make your fortune from cooking’ and I may just prove him right.”
In 1996, Stella went to Rundu Namibia to do volunteer work for the United Nations; “Our brief was to talk to woman about gender and reproductive health,” Stella recalls.
“But you only get so far giving formal talks about contraception. I looked into ways we could generate some income for the women – like starting up a bakery – and we’d chat more informally while we worked. I loved my time there as I was mixing with people from all nationalities like Australians, Americans and the Portuguese, and learning about what people love to eat. Eventually, a friend and I founded a little restaurant called ‘Afrika House.”
Stella, who is now 55, was encouraged by her British UN colleagues to move to England to study, which she did in 2000.
“I started an MA at De Montford University, in Leicester, in Health and Community Education but I didn’t have the funds to finish it,” she explains.
“In 2007, I started as front-of-house at a Derbyshire restaurant called Fischer’s in Baslow. I loved being back in a restaurant and I was constantly asking the chefs for tips and recipes. I also talked to Max and Susan Fischer about what it takes to run a business – from laying the table to planning menus. They were always so generous with their advice and time.”
Stella worked at Fischer’s for five years. She was constantly refining her cookery skills and became in demand once again as the go-to mobile caterer for party and special occasion food.
“During this time, I’d met my husband Patrick Knowles and, while he was no cook, he was always encouraging me to do more with my cookery skills,” she said.
“In 2009, Patrick and I started the adoption process. I realised my work would have to be from home to suit the needs of a young child. We spoke about running a bed and breakfast business here at Cross Low Farm but it wasn’t right for Patrick. It was my sister Shiri who eventually had the break-through idea.”
Shiri was working in Brazil. “She had a business meeting in Argentina and the hosts took her to a ‘restaurant’ set up in someone’s home. She called me and told me she’d seen the perfect business for me,” Stella explains.
“When I told Patrick, I’d like to serve West African food to English people here on the farm he went quiet. Then he finally said ‘I have a feeling that it’s going to work.’ Max and Susan at Fischer’s were also enthusiastic – they gave me lot of advice and practical things like cutlery, plates – even chairs.”
Stella was also delighted to get support and backing from the environmental health officials who talked her through the regulations about running a food business from – and in – her own kitchen.
“Our first night was on July 1st 2013. I had a booking for six people and decided, as they had to sit at the kitchen table, it would be easier to do a pre-prepared buffet. Before the meal, I made some African-Caribbean inspired canapes – like salt cod fritters and chicken soya (African kebabs) – served with non-alcoholic punch,” Stella explains.
“Afterwards, I gave them an envelope and asked them to come up with a figure for how much they thought the meal should cost per head. No one put in a low figure; one even went very high – but I decided on £25. I don’t have huge overheads like a restaurant.”
The year was also special as it marked the arrival of the couple’s adopted son Adey, who is now nine-years-old.
“We loved and adored each other from the first day,” Stella beams.
“He is mad on farming – the place is full of toy tractors. But he also took to the restaurant. He enjoys cooking and meeting our diners. It is a very informal setting, we all adore having people in the house and they often leave as friends.”
Reading the feed-back, it’s clear the feeling is mutual. Guests wax lyrical about the amazing food and the warmth of their hostess. ‘Great personality’ says one and ‘friendly and welcoming’ is the view of another reviewer. Unsurprisingly, the demand for seats in the small farm-house venue often outstrips supply.
“We open on Friday and Saturday evening and we usually have a long waiting list. I also open for groups of six or more during the week,” Stella says.
“I also open for lunch. At first, my lunch menu was Kati Kati – an African form of sharing plates or tapas. I’d do things like fish rolls, fried plantain and savoury meat pies and salad. Then some cyclists asked for sandwiches and cakes and I thought ‘why not?’. Our lunches evolved into more traditional offerings like soups and pancakes but made with a bit of spice, pepper or savoury filling. I always do a curry of the day.”
The business has grown so quickly, Stella has extended it to a take-away service – popular with locals and tourists alike – and she also does outside catering events. She hosts ‘cook and eat’ cookery lessons from the farm but has plans to launch interactive cooking on-line sessions using Skype.
“Groups of friends can prepare African and Caribbean dishes in their own homes. I’ll send them ingredients they will not be able to source and then talk them through each stage,” Stella explains.
“My business has out-grown the kitchen. With the help of Amanda Brown, of Derbyshire County Council, I’ve been able to apply for a grant to build a commercial kitchen in the barn. I’ve also taken out a community loan to build the conservatory where people now eat. I’d love to cater for people in their homes; David Beckham’s would be top of the list.”
With her new scheme in mind, Stella kindly shows me how to cook one of the most popular dishes on her menu – West African Native Rice. It is Stella’s take on a recipe by one of her own food heroes; Jamie Oliver.
“I have adapted it to my taste. I always say that’s the difference between cooks and chefs. Anyone can be taught to follow recipes but cooks are born. A cook doesn’t need to follow recipes but they can look at ingredients and know it will work.” Stella explains while sizzling onions in a heady mix of garlic and ginger.
“I want to keep this dish light and fresh so I’m using herbs from my own garden and smoked haddock, cod and salmon from our fishmonger. Once all the liquid is absorbed, I’ll pop on the lid to steam the fish and then we’ll have our lunch.”
It goes without saying, I had not expected lunch – never mind given an African-inspired feast all washed down with lashings of cold ginger beer. We eat in the sun-soaked farmhouse garden with the guinea fowl and chickens weaving in and out of the table legs.
Stella’s food is delicious; complex in flavour and delicately spicy without being hot enough to melt the tongue.
“I don’t use a lot of chilli as some people don’t like too much heat as it can ruin a meal – people can add it to their own taste” Stella says, heaping home-made chilli sauce onto her plate. I take one tiny taste and my eyes cry real tears. On the up-side – my hay-fever seems to clear for the first time in weeks.
“We do get some people who go on and on about loving chilli and they take a big helping of sauce only to find a volcano has erupted in their mouth.” Stella laughs.
As I leave, Stella is still laughing about it being a ‘fun’ morning. As well as telling me about her life she has, with the help of a friend’s daughter, been cooking, baking cakes, preparing breakfasts for guests and taking bookings. Fun it might be, but it seems like a lot of hard work.
“It can be very demanding,” Stella reflects, never once losing her smile.
“Needless to say, I really enjoy every minute of it and – as long as the guests keep coming – I will always cook.”
Stella’s Kitchen is based at Cross Low Farm, Foolow Road, Eyam in the Hope Valley in Derbyshire. S32 5QS.
Phone 01433 631961
Mobile 07788 601807
(Take your own alcohol).