Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twenty Five

Have we done the right thing?

Newly Decorated Restaurant

We had taken on a massive commitment in Blackaddie, one I certainly had not fully appreciated when I first put the purchase offer in. I had often stopped and looked around at the place in those first two years thinking, “oh dear God, what the hell have we taken on here”? the reality was we had become custodians of what was a very old and important building, the 3rd time in our lives that we had undertaken such a project without fully considering the implications. There was a lot to do, it was an old building with a long history, old buildings always need constant work to keep them fit for purpose, especially when they have already been re-purposed, i.e. being used for something they were not designed for. 

There was just so much to do, all the bedrooms desperately needed work on them, none of them were really fit for purpose and there was no way we could increase the room revenue unless we improved them, the ground floor just about passed muster but only just. The conservatory, which was the restaurant, leaked, the other area we used as restaurant was just so depressing, the lounge was awful, needed redecorating but was also unused as it was cold and uninspiring and devoid of atmosphere, but we had no money, we’d spent it all buying the place. 

Come spring of 2010 the decision to move things around was made, probably a full year or more later than it should have been of course but better late than never. The decision was to move the restaurant from the conservatory area to the lounge. The lounge was just behind the kitchen so was slightly more accessible food service wise. It was a nice room with dual aspect views over the garden, all it needed was redecorating and some tables and chairs. We got a couple of guys in to sort the room and the hallway out as it too needed work. They stripped all the old original doors, internal front door, restaurant door, bar door and skirting boards back to the bare wood and they came up absolutely beautifully, they took out the fireplace and remodelled a cupboard in the corner of the room into a nice display area, then once decorated it was fabulous. All we needed then was tables chairs and a carpet!

As luck would have it I mentioned this to Ralph Porciani, he was GM at Turnberry and they were re-doing their restaurant and disposing/throwing away a whole raft of tables and restaurant chairs! Before I knew it he turned up with a van full of furniture, there must have been at least 12 round tables of three different sizes along with about 36 chairs! They weren’t all perfect but as near as damn it and hey – beggars can’t be choosers!

Eventually we also had new carpet laid in the restaurant, hallway and stairs, I recall someone came to sell us carpet, Jane didn’t like his offerings and had chosen a black patterned carpet from Britton Carpets (which just happened to cost a fortune), he strongly advised us NOT to lay a black carpet, we would regret it forever if we did. Laying that black carpet was one of the very best things we ever did.

We also revamped the restaurant extension too, we had a local carpenter fit it out with book shelves and turned this dire space into a cosy and comfortable library using the sofas from the main lounge along with other furniture we picked up.

New Library

There was very little we could do with the bar even though it was high on the agenda it was going to be very difficult to do anything with. We did however stop stocking and serving draft beers, they were costing too much in wastage (and I was drinking too much of them). 

Gordon stayed with us a good while as sous chef, during that time we had a new commis join us, Ashley, came in very green, worked and learnt a lot and did us proud. The menu changed dramatically over the next few years. We had a number of press reviews, some good some not so, I do remember a Scottish critic, Joanna Blythman, coming and complaining in her article that the marinated mackerel she ordered was raw, bit like the steak tartar then or the dill cured salmon for that matter! 

It was mid to late 2009 that we had our 1st AA inspection, while we were awarded 2 Rosettes and three Stars the inspector proceeded to lecture me on the importance of using local produce where possible. Me! I can honestly say I was a little annoyed! But I bit my tongue although now I wish I hadn’t. He had lectured me on the importance of using local and in season produce, I am still seething about it now. He then went on to try to sell me his or was that the AA’s consultancy services, basically what he was saying was if I took them on as consultants, they would guarantee I would get 3 Rosettes the following year. 

Suppliers remained an issue, fruit & veg mainly, dry stores was fine as Braehead Foods was not that far away and they came twice a week. We could get some meats from them such as bacon, some veal products, duck, game which they specialised in, the infamous Stornoway Black Pudding, I also got my veal bones and calves feet from him too but as a main butcher they could not fulfil that role sadly. We then discovered we had a farmer close to us, in fact only around 2 miles away, who was rearing dexter cattle, Ayrshire calves for rose veal, Gloucester Old Spot pigs and Shetland sheep, not only was he rearing these he also had his own butchery on site and was selling cuts. 

He would send his beasts off to slaughter every week to Lockerbie and I could pre-order any joints etc I wanted. He then started making sausages, both beef and pork for me, they were fabulous. This was a dream come true. I would take the calves kidney’s as and when they became available and eventually, I also managed to get the sweetbreads from the calves too, but this took some doing and was quite erratic, I think the abattoir used to keep them for themselves. Getting our meat from Sunnyside farm continued for a good few years, the sausages were great, his belly pork was fantastic and to have a supply of rose veal on our doorstep was incredible, but like everything, all good things eventually come to an end. It was obviously a struggle for them to sell all the cuts of meat they produced and eventually it took its toll, they stopped the butchery side and moved to selling only whole carcasses. These were not something we had the turnover for or the space for either so we had to find alternatives. 

We were well served for fish thankfully. Some of the finest smoked salmon I have ever had came from a firm called Marbury Smoke House over in the far South West of Dumfries & Galloway, it was the one product I used from year one right through till we sold up, that and coffee as we had used the same coffee supplier since my days at Eastwell. The salmon was expensive, some thought, but I never minded what I paid as long was it was worth the money and this certainly was. We also used Peroni’s of Ayr, they were good for most things but I always got my scallops (in the shell) from Campbells, nine times out of 10 they were very good. We also used Campbells for meat, especially after Sunnyside gave up. Campbells Gold beef was always good.

Me, Ashley & Gordon

Our biggest issue throughout our time there, other than staff, was always fruit & veg. there was a fruit and veg firm in Dumfries that would come out to us most days but the quality was not good or consistent and they eventually went bust. I often used to drive up to Glasgow to the market up there but given the hours I was working adding an early morning journey up there into my week was just too much for me. There as a small independent greengrocer in Sanquhar, Kellock’s. John was a great guy and he went up to the market twice a week, if I gave him my order the night before then he would collect and deliver for me for a small fee. While this worked okay for most things there was a lot we could not get from him as he just wouldn’t buy it, even just for us as he would have no chance of selling most of what I wanted in his shop. He would come back and say, no it was too dear! I’m not paying those prices! He just didn’t get that it was me paying the prices and him making a mark-up. 

I’d say, as soon as you see White Asparagus on the market please get me a box, his response was always either naw there’s never any of that up there or, no chance I’m not paying out for that. I would say please get me a box of the best Extra Select English Asparagus that you can find and he’d bring me back a box of week-old Sprue as it was cheap. He often came in with a box of bruised pears or soft plums telling me he got them cheap did I want them? There was no getting through to him but he tried and helped where he could and I will be for ever grateful for how he tried to help.

A former Sous Chef of mine, when I was at Wentworth, Jonny Baron, was working for Wellock’s of Lancashire, and they were looking to set up in Scotland, they were already delivering widely throughout England. He came by the hotel one day with a van full of the most incredible fruit and veg I’d seen since Eastwell and the days of getting everything from Dominic from the French lorry. He had an array of wild mushrooms like I’d not seen for many a long year, I was like a pig in the proverbial. About a week after he came to see me I drove down to their depot to have a look around, it was a long way away (Nelson in Lancashire) so I wondered how they would deliver to me, plus I wanted to see first-hand what else they did. I have to say I was well impressed, not only at the fruit & veg but also the dry stores side of the business as well as the deli side too. They delivered to me twice a week for a few years, firstly direct from Nelson then when they eventually opened a distribution depot in Scotland they would come down more often. 

Again though, as already mentioned, all good things come to an end eventually. It was Christmas, I think around 2018, I got a call about 5 days prior to Xmas day from Paul, the Scottish manager for Wellocks, telling me that they would no longer be delivering to me as it was too difficult for them, especially as they had no other deliveries down to our part of the country! But there I go again jumping ahead of myself, one minute talking about 2009/10 and then all of a sudden, it’s 2018. There’s still a lot to tell before I get that far ahead.

These first few years were definitely a struggle for us, of course we were (once again) in a financial crash, caused this time by the American sub-prime market, which was affecting everyone almost world-wide, affecting banks and building societies in the UK with Northern Rock going to the wall along with numerous other building societies, the RBS, HBOS and Lloyds all having to be bailed out by the UK government, putting the whole country under immense pressure. I must admit though that when it started in 2008 we were not affected, it was summer 2010 before we started to feel any of the effects, so I guess we were lucky.

We desperately needed to improve the rooms but it was going to take a lot of money. We had two fairly major issues, one was the room above the restaurant, the largest room in the house. The floor was very bouncy! The light fitting in the dining room used to shake when someone walked around in the room upstairs so the floor needed strengthening, secondly our water pressure was extremely low and we wanted power showers and baths in each room but there was no way the system would be able to service them, oh, and a third problem, we also needed a new boiler! Also to make money we had to invest, we could not put our prices up because the rooms did not warrant it, but we needed to, as our rooms were poor it was also affecting what we could charge in the restaurant too.

So, first things first, we had a new boiler fitted, and a hot water system that could have supplied the needs of a small town, along with extra water storage tanks in the attic. While I don’t recall exactly how much this cost, probably due to selective memory, I do know it started with a large single digit followed by a lot of zero’s. We needed to improve the water pressure and the amount of water available if we were to put power showers in every room, which was the eventual plan. The plan all along had been to reduce the amount of rooms we had as some of the original rooms had been split to add more bedrooms, we planned to take the nine rooms we started with down to 6 and giving each one a good sized bathroom each with a bath and separate walk-in shower.

In 2009 we had a customer who had visited us for dinner with his wife three days in succession, it felt like he was a stalker. Turned out he owned a bar/restaurant just outside Peebles and had a big stake in a restaurant in Edinburgh, one that he had helped out while it was in Dumfries & Galloway and he helped with funding to take it to a wider audience in the capital. He saw himself as a bit of a knowledgeable foodie, which he wasn’t, but we went along with the pretence.

He and his wife used to come to us at least every other week if not more often than that and did so for a lot of years. In 2010 he offered to help us financially, he was spending quite a bit with us as he was coming almost every week, although he never stayed he only ever came for dinner. He toured around with a caravan and they seemed to live in that for at least 3 nights a week. Jane was cautious, extremely so, me less so as we needed some sort of help. David, suggested we should get plans drawn up to refurbish all the rooms in one hit, close the hotel while the work took place, he would help with funding. I had already spoken to the bank about topping up our loan but it was always an emphatic no from them. We didn’t even have an overdraft, we were not allowed to stray into the red, even by a penny, back then.

Plans were drawn to completely refurbish the whole hotel in one hit. The idea was that we should close for as long as it took to get the downstairs completed then open and operate as a restaurant while the upstairs work was being completed. If we were going to do it then let’s do it properly, no half measures. The plans included an extension to the restaurant, as well as turning the three self-catering cottages into suites. We also planned on a kitchen extension to cope with extra diners. All great in theory, but it was going to cost a fortune.

Meetings and discussions abounded for a few months while the plans were being drawn up and we were looking at interior design. Jane and I had a number of meetings with David but he really did not like dealing with women. His poor wife must have had really thick skin as he was not very tactful and I often felt extremely conscious of how he treated her and all women he came in contact with. 

We continued to struggle with staff, especially front of house and we had been through a number of people none of which worked out for us. David had a couple he thought really highly of, a Frenchman, Michael, who was working at Tom Kitchin’s place in Edinburgh and his wife Megumi, a Japanese girl. Now I have never had much contact with anyone from Japan, she seemed so polite and very pleasant and efficient as everyone is from Japan, Michael was a totally different kettle of fish though, he always came across as a bit sneaky, unreliable and untrustworthy, but David swore by them (more so Megumi than Michael to be fair).  We needed staff so we took them both on. While the two of them were with us we decided to take the opportunity and get a few days away, leaving Michael & Megumi in charge in our absence. Turns out I was right about Michael, it seems while we were away he probably went through every room, every draw, every file, every nook & cranny in the place, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was to find that he even went through our underwear drawers while he was at it. Then all his findings, not sure what they were or what he was looking for or hoping to find, but whatever it was, every little detail was relayed back to David, just like the good little spy that he was. Why did this happen? I’m not sure but I can only assume David was looking for a way to get something over on us, to control us, he was a control freak after all. What he didn’t bargain for is that I too am a control freak, control freaks are never controlled!

In the end Jane and I went to his office in Carlisle for a meeting, he was demanding we surrender 51% of Blackaddie to him and we keep the remaining 49% in exchange for the investment. I recall Jane storming out of his office, followed fairly promptly by myself (once I had given him a piece of my mind). I think that was probably the last time we ever saw him as he pulled out of the deal a day or two later, one day prior to the builders coming in to start the work.

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