It took six years to restore Glenapp Castle and turn it into a hotel. Kerstin Kühn talks to owners Graham and Fay Cowan about the challenge they faced in turning the listed building from a ruinous state to an award-winning property
THIS WEEK Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, Ayrshire
Why? Restaurant of the Year 2011, CIS Excellence Awards; Romantic Hotel of the Year, Scottish Hotel Awards; Four AA rosettes 2012
Need to know Glenapp Castle is a Victorian Scottish Baronial Castle, complete with turrets and towers and hidden gardens. Tucked away on the South-west coast of Scotland near Ballantrae, it sits on the edge of the Galloway Forest Park. Husband and wife team Graham, a former vet, and Fay Cowan acquired the property in 1994 in a ruinous state and say the six-year restoration project was a huge challenge to complete.
The restoration "The biggest structural and layout changes involved the creation of en suite bathrooms and a commercial kitchen while complying with building regulations of a listed building and changing its use from domestic to commercial without compromising the building's integrity," explains Graham.
But that wasn't all. The castle also had extensive dry rot and needed to be completely rewired and plumbed, while a new central heating system and a lift also had to be installed.
"The roof was repaired and re-slated, the leadwork repaired, a new lightning conduction system, fire detection system and connection to the public water supply had to be installed," Graham adds.
Glenapp finally opened in April 2000 as a luxury hotel, and was quickly spotted by the UK delegation of the exclusive Relais & Châteaux Association of which it has been a member since 2002. The castle also holds five red stars and, as of this week, four rosettes from the AA.
Target audience Glenapp appeals to a very diverse audience according to the Cowans, ranging from couples to families with children, to individual guests and big groups. It hosts a number of luxury exclusive-use occasions throughout the year, for up to a maximum of 40 guests from weddings to birthday parties and corporate events.
"Currently guests are predominantly from Britain though American guest numbers are on the increase again and there is always a good number of European guests in the summer," adds Graham.
How we stand out According to Fay, Glenapp stands out because the husband and wife team care so much about their guests. "It's our home and not just our business," she says.
"We live in a flat on the top floor, and are always there speaking to guests to make sure they have everything they want and are as happy as we can possibly make them. We have fantastic staff with excellent continuity which matters to returning guests." Indeed, general manager John Orr has worked at Glenapp for nearly a decade, while head chef Adam Stokes, has been there for four years.
Future growth There are no immediate plans to grow or change Glenapp. "We just want to keep focused on what we are doing, and do it even better," says Graham. He adds that an old stable block on the property would be perfect for developing a small spa.
"But after a neighbour just five minutes from Ballantrae built a beautiful private membership spa four years ago, we changed our minds," he said. "It is right on the beach, has a fine pool, a gym and superb treatment rooms. Our guests love it and make really good use of it so we are now reconsidering ideas of what we might do with the stables."
Best business advice "Don't become a hotelier unless you are prepared to live and breathe it," says Graham. "At our first ever Relais & Chateaux annual spring meeting we were introduced to Raymond Blanc. We had a chat about Glenapp and our hopes and plans. He asked us where we lived, and we replied proudly: ‘In a flat in the castle, above the hotel.' His response was: ‘I give it two years'."
"As it happens, we are still here 10 years later, but we absolutely know what he meant. If it's at all possible, give yourself, and your family a bit of separation from the business, otherwise there is no possibility of ever being off duty - and, just every now and then, you need to have a bit of time off."
Favourite supplier "We Hae Meat is our excellent local butcher, based in nearby Girvan, it is owned and run by Alex and Carolyn Paton," says Graham. "Their business is built on producing the highest quality beef and lamb. Adam our chef] and Alex are good friends and work very closely together to develop quality products.
"Alex really knows how to feed and nurture his cattle and sheep throughout the rearing process and Adam knows exactly what to expect from the cuts or joints in terms of their flavour, maturation, size and shape. It's a perfect and harmonious relationship that results in genuinely great cuisine in our restaurant.
"We consider ourselves genuinely lucky to have someone so close to us who is as passionate about their business as we are about ours," he adds.
Spotlight on the restaurant
Head chef Adam Stokes joined Glenapp more than four years ago from Hambleton Hall in Rutland. He oversees a brigade of six chefs and is in charge of the entire F&B offer at the hotel, including the flagship 34-seat fine-dining room where lunch and dinner is served everyday. His cooking skills recently won him a coveted Michelin star as well as a fourth rosette from the AA.
At 85%, the majority of his diners are hotel guests. "Each guest automatically gets a reservation in the restaurant and we also offer packages that include dinner," he says.
Stokes describes his cooking style as being rooted in tradition but with a modern twist. "I like to take traditional marriages of flavours and reinvent them," he explains. "I try to alert all five senses of flavour with each dish and concentrate on flavours as well as textures. I'm not in it to baffle or confuse diners but to excite them."
Given his location, Stokes is dedicated to showcasing the best of Scottish produce on his menus, which include a three-course menu priced £40 and the hugely popular six-course tasting menu, priced £60 or £95 with wine, which is taken up by 90% of guests.
Typical dishes include suckling pig with stuffed pig's trotter, grelot onions, crackling and a lemon verbena sauce. A dessert of compressed Scottish strawberries, seasoned with vanilla and black pepper, is served with two types of lime-flavoured marshmallows (blow-torched and dried) as well as elderflower ice-cream, strawberry purée and fresh almonds. "It's not a complex dish but uses quite common flavour combinations but in a more modern way," says Stokes.
Facts and stats
Owners Graham & Fay Cowan
Number of rooms 17
General manager John Orr
Average occupancy 60%
Head chef Adam Stokes
Average spend per room per night £405
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