Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twenty Four

Have we done the right thing?

New Blackaddie House Hotel Logo

The food and service had to be where we began the improvements as many of these could be done without spending much money whereas the rooms needed big money spending on them so we had to first earn that before it could be spent. 

As already mentioned, the menu stretched across 4 pages so I immediately chopped that back to one page. Virtually everything that was bought in was frozen or tinned, very little was made in house so that changed too, everything was to be made on the premises, if we didn’t make it then we didn’t serve it.

Fish was fresh as too was the batter, chips were now homemade, steak pies, made properly using pastry we made and the filling properly made too, the pies covered with pastry and baked, no more separately cooked pre made puff pastry tops. Soups, properly made, Chicken Liver Pate (God that was something to behold it really was) was now Chicken Liver Parfait from my book naturally.

I took on a woman Alison, to serve breakfasts, she was great and stayed with us for over 4 years. I also took on another, to serve lunches, I wanted to get away from just serving soup and sandwiches so I would write a proper lunch menu. 

As much as we tried, and we did try, lunches did not work, nobody was interested in anything other than soup and sandwiches pretty much. I recall one day, I think it must have been late November, we had two old dears came in for lunch one Saturday morning, one with a walking stick the other a Zimmer frame. They ordered, one soup (freshly made but I can’t recall what it was), one chicken liver pate, no one could get the hang of the parfait bit, if it was chicken livers it was pate, and 2 teas. As an interesting aside at this point, I should say that when we took over every table both for lunch and dinner, was always set with an upside- down cup on a saucer with a teaspoon, a full array of cutlery including dessert cutlery, side plate, paper napkin and sugar bowl, no wine or water glasses ever.

As they were leaving I was, unbeknown to them, behind them, one said to the other “eeeeh Morag! It’s not as good as it used to be is it, that pate wasn’t as good as it used to be, and soup – what was that?” I went straight over to the house, told Jane the story and said that’s it, I’m calling Christies, the place is going back on the market on Monday, I was livid. To be fair it was not the first time I had questioned if we had done the right thing or not. we stopped trying to do lunches after that.

Again, around the same time, possible a few weeks earlier than this incident, shortly after Jane and Connor had arrived and I had made the first menu change, we had a really busy Saturday night. It may even have been the first night of the improved dishes and shortened menu, word had gotten out that the hotel had changed hands. We had lots of steak pies lined up in the fridge ready to cook as they were ordered, lots of fish in, loads of chips made and plenty of batter, mis en place in place we were ready to rock. 

It was towards the end of service, one of the later checks in and a waitress had brought a plate of food back, the customer was not happy. I had been in the kitchen for the main part of the night but stepped back towards the end and had popped out to see some of the early customers so had not been there for the last few checks going out.

Turns out Gordon had forgotten to pop two pies into the oven, the table had been called, so in a moment of what one can only call sheer bloody madness he popped them under the grill to cook them (this is raw pastry we are talking about here). The pastry bubbled up and burnt, black on the high points and he sent them out. Yes. he actually sent them out! He was very very lucky that Jane came into the kitchen and whipped him away to have a word before I could lay into him. Even to this day some 17 years later I still cannot comprehend what went through his mind, when he decided the only way forward was to try to grill the raw pastry, or when he actually sent them out to the table thinking they were acceptable, or for that matter, how the hell I didn’t end up inflicting life changing damage to him!

He was as you can imagine not with us for much longer after that episode but in reality still too long but no, I didn’t get rid of him, I waited for him to leave, I didn’t want a constructive dismissal on my hands!  I believe he was looking to leave from the moment we took over, the only reason he was there in the first place was that it was a half a mile closer to his home than his last job (at the old folk’s home in Sanquhar). I had always thought that he would leave as soon as a job that was closer to his home came up, he only lived 3 miles away. A job did come up eventually, a new country store type shop opened up on the industrial estate about ¾ mile closer to his house and he was offered, yes offered, the chefs job (good God I really am being kind here) and of course he took it, sadly for him the place went bust within 6 months or so, I think he ended up back in the old folks home, as chef not inmate! 

While we were considering buying Blackaddie I remember saying to Jane, there are going to be two major problems that we’ll face, the first is staff, they are going to be really difficult to find in Sanquhar, and suppliers, these will take some time to get right too. After this absolute debacle I had a change of mind, trying to just make a living catering for locals and the like, that was not me and never would be, the menu was changing again, big time, staff included, bugger any problems I’d have to find them!

In the December, around the same time as Gordon was panning my reputation, we had a group of staff in from Connors school, they were having their Christmas night out, some teachers, support staff, secretaries etc., probably about 10 in total, I had stopped serving chips with everything, indeed I think I’d put a stop to them altogether, the fryer I had inherited was just beyond restoration, it was so caked in grease and old oil that it was easier to remove chips than buy a new fryer, I was also looking to piss the locals off! Anyway, they were a bunch of animals as I recall, when they’d paid the bill it came back with: Nae chips! Nae tips! Scrawled over it, they never came back! Not that I would have allowed any of them through the door again anyway.

As it happened Connor was getting a really rough time in the school, he was being bullied, not only by pupils but staff too, we were incomers, having taken over the big hooose which also happened to be their local, we’d changed the food to food you could actually eat, no more chips, real soup instead of tinned, Scottish beef instead Namibian, real fish not frozen, and definitely not in batter, homemade ice cream not bought in, you get the picture, so it was being taken out on Connor. 

There was a starter on the menu when we took over that unbelievably sold quite well, it was a crab cocktail, a lot like a prawn cocktail but posher because they used crab! Tinned crab! Which they then mixed 50/50 with cooked rice (because it was cheaper) it was appalling, but it was preferred by all, over and above what I produced, fine, f*ck the locals, I didn’t want them. I think when we sold up 14 years later there was still a tin of crab in the dry store, a reminder if I ever needed one of the bad old days!

It was the 1st February 2008 that the menu finally changed completely, beyond recognition compared to what it was and the subsequent morphing closer to what I wanted on every change, not only that but it also changed daily! At this point I think I was still encumbered by Gordon, I had taken on a commis, Chris, he wasn’t much better, he said to me one day, it would have been around a month into this new daily changing menu when I had finished bollocking him for the umpteenth time, 2it would help if you didn’t keep changing the menu each day chef, we might get a chance to learn the dishes before you take them off.” I guess he just was not capable of learning much. 

So as that one was not happy as he couldn’t cope with the work, or the learning opportunities he was getting I took on a new commis Jo, he wanted to produce good food, his brother was the head chef in a restaurant in Dumfries and was doing quite well, I hoped Jo would be as dedicated. He did a good job for me and stayed for a good two years, his brother also came and worked for me for a while but that didn’t work out that well sadly.

I went through a few useless chefs until I found a guy to take on as Sous Chef, Gordon, yes another Gordon but a very different one to the last one! He cared, a lot but also had a lot to learn, but that was fine, I was happy to teach and he was excited to be joining us. 

Together we made the changes stick and the locals stopped coming, thankfully. 

Connor continued to have a bad time at the primary school so Jane popped into Thornhill a small town about 12 miles south of us, both the primary and the academy there had a fairly good reputation so Jane would try to get Connor in there. It was going to mean driving him to school and picking him up again each day but better that than being constantly bullied in Sanquhar. She managed to get him in, not that Connor was pleased at having to move school again bless him, he had already been in 3 different ones in his short life this would be the 4th in 4 years but it had to be done despite the problems. 

Up to now Willie has not had much of a mention but the old boy was one of the very few constants that we could rely upon, him, Mags our housekeeper, solid as a rock, Linda front of house always turned up and could be relied upon, but Willie, it was almost as though the place had been built around him!

Willie was the gardener, not sure how long he’d worked at Blackaddie but pretty much back to when it was first opened as an hotel I think. He would have been in his late 60’s, he came in to work at around 3.30am. why? Only God (and Willie) knew why, or what he did at that time in the morning, especially in the winter. He went off home before 1pm and he kept his own hours and did his own thing, all I ever saw him eat was two slices of brown toast every morning. Apparently, all he ever ate (other than the toast) every day of his life was, sausages and chips. Ever.

As I say he was our gardener but was also meant to be our handyman too, although if it could not be fixed with a minimum of two 6 inch nails, Sellotape or duct tape, it was not worth fixing so never was! he had no tools before I arrived, then I had none!

But the garden! What an absolute picture it was, the floral display was 2nd to none, his Dahila’s – not even the best exhibiting horticulturists at Chelsea flower show could ever compete with his dahlia’s – they were always magnificent. We had a green house, quite a big one albeit dilapidated, 24 feet long, it had a vine growing inside down its complete length, he spent many, many, many long hours in there. He had a cat, Pandora, that lived in the greenhouse, we hardly ever saw her,  but then again we were never allowed in, there was only 1 key, his, no one else was ever allowed inside, I recall one day going out there to find him, I wanted to grow herbs in there, as I approached the door he came out and stood in front if it like a guard. I explained what I wanted and he was direct and straight to the point, “NO! I don’t grow anything other than flowers, ever”. “That’s okay Willie I’ll look after them”. “NO! I will not have anything else in the greenhouse as it will only bring pests with it whatever it is.” He cut the grass, trimmed the edges, meticulously I might add, using a pair of scissors and a plank of wood, he planted the garden with dahlias and Busy Lizzies (by the 100’s), he tended the hedges and knocked in 6inch nails, full stop!

Yearly Early Summer Flower Display, Courtesy of Willie

Willie was also a fisherman, not so much when we knew him but certainly from a young boy until not long prior to us arriving Willie fished the river for salmon, something I was well keen to do, indeed it was one of the reasons for taking Blackaddie on in the first place, a salmon river at the bottom of the garden.

We also had a good few fisherman that would come and stay toward the latter end of the season most years. The Nith fished from mid-March to the end of November for salmon and was one of very few rivers that fished that late into the year. I never made it onto the river more than about 4 times in 2007 as it was virtually October before we arrived of course. But I was determined to fish it in 2008. This was now our 2nd salmon season at Blackaddie so we were getting returning fishermen from the previous year but it was the last year we got them too. Fishermen, like golfers (at Wentworth) or sailors (on the Solent) were not interested in our food only our room and beer prices! During the season of 2008 though I did manage to get out and fish a bit more but never did catch a salmon, plenty of trout but no salmon, even caught a grayling once.

                Drive                                        River in front of the hotel                           Ministers Pool Cottage

Then there was Annie, she worked for the previous owners, and the ones before that I believe, both as breakfast chef and housekeeper, an interesting combination. She had however not appeared on the TUPE report as an employee as she had apparently gone off sick over a year before and had been off ever since. She also had a bit of a reputation shall we say. Anyway, she turned up one day asking for her job back. As we had no job for her and her previous positions had incumbents, I was not prepared to get rid of either so she could return, much to her annoyance. Shortly afterwards I had a letter from a solicitor telling me that Annie was going to sue me for wrongful dismissal or something similar as I would not reinstate her. 

A few letters went backwards and forwards as they do and tension was building and I was getting more and more annoyed at the injustice of everything until, one day, I got another letter with a statement in it from Annie saying that in the July (2007) I had met with her and told her she could not have her job back. Bingo! Given that we did not take over until the end of September, that no formal offer had been made or accepted by the date she gave, that I never actually spoke to any of the staff as their new or even prospective employer until the day before we actually took over and the fact that in July I had not even been in Scotland at all that month, and prior to her coming in to see me that day in the spring of 2008 I had never actually met her, it was easy to debunk her claim. Liars never win in the end!

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