Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter Twenty Seven

Coping with death and more refurbishments

The death of a parent is always going to be difficult but when you are many miles away trying to run a business then it becomes just a little harder and while Jane is not the first to have ever suffered this it was still her first time!

We had, not long before this, taken on a young French couple, he was front of house, she was up in housekeeping, they really had not been with us for very long but we had no choice, we had to go and sort the funeral, the house etc., we just had to leave them to run the place for us while we were away, we couldn’t close as we had bookings. Luckily though we also had Gordon and Ashley with us and if we didn’t have them, I have no idea what I would have done, I guess we would have had to close, whether we could afford it or not.

So as soon as we could, I think that was the second day after we got the news, we shot off down to Mansfield. Neither of us had ever had the misfortune or experience of arranging a funeral or clearing someone’s house either. What made it all the harder was that Jane’s brother was estranged from their mother, her mother also re-married having left the family with their dad when Jane was only 6, she had gone on to re-marry and have another son, so Jane had a half brother too, who was also estranged from their mother. The mother’s new husband had died some years before so other than Jane and two estranged sons and a former husband there was no close family.

Arrangements made, funereal done, house emptied, we returned to Scotland. We hadn’t been back 10 minutes when the French boy came and said that he and his girlfriend were going off there and then and taking a holiday as they had been left alone. Now, they were not wrong, but that just wasn’t right. I know we had dumped everything on them, sort of, but to just turn around and say right were off on holiday, now, was just not on. Jane just stood there flabbergasted, she said, I have just buried my mother, and have just driven 5 hours to get back up here and you are going to walk out! Okay, no problem, off you go, but don’t come back!

Just as well really because they were not the right people for us. Yes, I know I had hired them but sometimes you have no choice, doesn’t mean they have to remain though! 

It was shortly after that we took on another couple! Ian and Annette, she came in as restaurant manager and Ian as barman/wine waiter. Annette was very good at her job, Ian knew his wines, together they worked well, but as with any couple, give one a day off and the other has to be off too, again not ideal but we had to live with it, for a while at least. 

Jane was unsure of what to do with her mum’s house, a former council house that her mum bought some 15 years or so earlier when councils started selling off the houses they owned. We were never going to live in it and it was a long way away, also not really in the best of conditions either. The decision was to rent it out, but also to take a loan against it so we could use the money it would release to complete the refurbishment of some of the rooms.

We had already done one, the biggest, but of course they all needed doing, desperately. I had a plan as to the sequence the rooms would be completed in. We’d started off by renaming them all, when we took over they were all named after whiskies, Balvenie, Glenmorangie, Macallan, Jura, Glenlivet, etc, while the cottages were named after fishing pools closest to the hotel, these were Minister’s Pool, Crawick Foot and John Kerr. We left the cottage names alone and renamed all the rooms, Grouse, the biggest and best, then Pheasant, Partridge, Mallard, Ptarmigan and Snipe the smallest. The ones I really wanted to do first (after having completed Grouse) were Pheasant and Mallard but the one we did first instead was Ptarmigan (previously Glenmorangie). This was because it was really dire, it was really quite a large room, it was the only other room, apart from Grouse in the house that boasted a bath, but the bathroom was drab, out dated and really just a box in the corner of the room, the carpet was almost threadbare, the windows were in a really bad state as too was the door to the room on the inside as someone had recently stayed in that room with a dog and it had tried to dig its way out of the room through the door while its owner was down for dinner. It had two beds, a large zip & link double and a single, making it a family room. It also had no view as it’s smallish window only overlooked the back yard. 

We had been fortunate and found a really good plumber, he was from the other side of Dumfries so had a fairly long journey to us but he was good as he was not only a plumber but also a cracking tiler too. He found us a builder from over his way around Castle Douglas and I found a decorator. Between them they transformed Glenmorangie into Ptarmigan and what a cracking job they made of it too. The floor had a sever dip in the middle of it, the centre of the room was something like 4 inches (10cm) lower than the floor around the edges of the room, so yes, quite a dip, from memory the ceiling dipped almost as much too. So, they stripped the room right back to brick, the floor came up and the void, as with Grouse, had all the clinker etc removed and replaced with insulation before being topped with new floor boarding leaving it completely level. The ceiling came down and a new, level one put back which was also insulated. The walls were clad with plasterboard which was backed with sound proof insulation too, new heating, wiring, sockets and plumbing was installed. A new bathroom was formed to take up the length of one wall. Into this we installed a jacuzzi bath and walk-in power shower, the floor and walls were tiled. The bedroom was crossed lined with lining paper and then papered and painted, fitted wardrobes were also created, ceiling spots added and a headboard had been made by the builder, then a new carpet with thick underlay fitted and a new bed installed.

With pale walls and a rich red feature wall Ptarmigan was created, it was fabulous, especially the bathroom.

By now the menus had changed drastically too, gone were any pretentions of catering for the local population, they wouldn’t come to us anyway so there was just no point in pandering to them in the hope that we would get there custom. I’d also moved away from a la carte pricing to a menu price which I had set at £48.00 per person for 3 courses. This was in the March of 2012 and the menu still changed daily with 4 choices on each course. At the same time I also introduced a 7 course tasting menu too to see how popular it would be. It started off very slow but within a few months it had built up to being really quite popular so I also added the option of wine pairing with each course, again, it too, quickly became a popular option.

Lots of things were happening in 2012, they do say that if it rains it pours, well it certainly did for us that year. There were lots of staffing changes in all areas, with new chefs coming, not staying very long, front of house staff also coming – and going, we were finding it difficult to attrract any staff that really knew what they were doing, or even any that had a slight clue! Couple this with the menu changes and improving the food we were serving, life was difficult. As already mentioned, it was around this time I also became a board member of the newly created destination management organisation that had been set up for Dumfries & Galloway, they were becoming the way forward where tourism was concerned especially in the wake of local tourist boards being disbanded. I felt I had to try to help push tourism in our region if we wanted to be successful. Dumfries and Galloway, while always having been a popular destination for those living in the North of England, was not really on the radar of foreign visitors, not even for anywhere south of Sheffield either, and strangely enough not for the rest of Scotland for that matter. We seemed to be to forgotten corner of Scotland and we needed all the publicity and help to promote the region as possible.

The local council were given responsibility for local tourism once regional tourist offices closed. Visit Scotland was formed but their brief was to bring tourism into Scotland as a whole and each region then had to fend for itself. So DD&G (Destination Dumfries & Galloway was formed. On its board there was the owner of an activity centre, someone that owned and operated caravan parks, B&B and Guest House owners along with those involved with self-catering properties and visitor attractions, I think I was the only person involved in hotels and the only one with a dedicated food business.

It quickly became evident though that all the council were prepared to fund was fact finding missions. They wanted to know exactly how many tourism business there were, how the sector was broken down, how many people it employed, not how do we bring business into the area and train people in the industry, increase skills and therefore improve quality and job opportunities.

I have already mentioned Willie our gardener in a previous chapter but it was 2012 that he eventually retired. He took ill and was off work for around 8 weeks in total and it was obvious, to us any way, that he was struggling, but bless him even while he was off sick, he would still come in most days for a couple of hours. He would open up, lay the fire and water any plants that needed it, but it was plain he could not continue, I said from day one that the day Willie leaves would be the day we would go too as being without him was unthinkable. Well, that day had arrived, he really was not fit to continue, he was going to be a huge loss. 

Ididn’t find an experienced gardener to take his place but I found a hard-working guy, Paul, who would come and do the work, but I need to keep a close eye on him as he had no experience of his sort of work but was desperately in need of a job.

Beautiful Display                                                                     Grapes in the Greenhouse

There was no way were going to be able to replicate the displays Willie put on every year in the garden, all I could ask of Paul was to keep the place tidy.

I’ve always wanted to grow asparagus, the thought of picking my own asparagus everyday always appealed. So, in 2012 I dug a plot of the garden, not an easy task I can tell you! I was digging up a patch of lawn that had probably not been dug for many 10’s of years. It was hard going with plenty of rocks to remove but eventually the bed was ready and I planted about 10 one year old asparagus crowns, of course they would not be ready for picking for another two years so I was keeping my fingers well crossed for 2015 for the first pickable harvest!

That year we also had a bumper crop of grapes, I say that year as in previous years I had not been allowed in the greenhouse by Willie, this year I had the keys and could come and go as I pleased and I had no idea that the grapevine in there was so prolific. It must have been close on a hundred years old and ran the length of the 20 foot long greenhouse. There was a staggering amount of large bunches of grapes, at least 100, and plenty of smaller bunches too.

Then in September my dad passed away, he had been unwell for some considerable time and was suffering from dementia. He’d had a pace maker fitted a year or so earlier and had been going down hill for sometime. In September he gave up his fight, and he did fight, he clung onto life when we could all see he needed to let go. I’m convinced it was the pacemaker that was keeping him going. It took me a long while to get over his death and even now I don’t really think I am fully over it some 12 years later. I, as I’m sure most people feel about their parents, never knew him as well as I wished I had, but hindsight is something we are all blessed with, in abundance.  

I still miss him terribly, and I miss going for a pint down the club with him whenever I managed to make it home, he was not a demostrative person, he kept most things to himself, unlike me! My  mother was totally distraught at loosing him, they had after all been married over 60 years.

It’s now 2013 and we were cracking on trying to get more of the rooms renovated and improve the offering in the restaurant. We went through a number of chefs in the kitchen and waiters out front, none of which stayed overly long before we had to look for someone else. Gordon left in 2013 I think. Money was still tight but every spare penny we earned we ploughed back into the business and improvements to the fabric of the building. 

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