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Be our guest: Managers of award-winning guesthouses

By Una Brankin

Published 06/06/2015

Chef Will Brown and Karena Eccles with their baby son Harry
Chef Will Brown and Karena Eccles with their baby son Harry
Gerardine and Eugene Kielt
John and Lou Mathers at their acclaimed Newforge House in Magheralin

We meet three hard-working couples who run respected, award-winning guesthouses in Northern Ireland and they reveal the lengths they go to ensure their visitors' stays are always memorable.

Some of the best food in Northern Ireland is served in boutique guesthouses and country house hotels run by hard-working couples, who have children - as well as their guests - to look after. Distinguished examples are the Mathers of Newforge House in Magheralin, Co Armagh; Will Brown and fiancé Karena Eccles of The Old Schoolhouse Inn in Comber, Co Down, and the Kielts of Laurel Villa in Magherafelt, Co Derry.

Dedicated and perfectionist, each couple excels in the hospitality business, striving to make the visitor's experience as memorable as possible.

THE OLD SCHOOLHOUSE

Award-winning chef Will Brown (28) owns The Old Schoolhouse Inn restaurant and four-star guesthouse in the Comber countryside with his fiancé Karena Eccles, who gave up a career in law to help him run the establishment.

A Michelin Bib Gourmand 2014 recipient, Will's inventive fine-dining fare has earned the recently refurbished Old Schoolhouse a place in the Bridgestone Food Guide's 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland. The foodie bible also named Will as one of the Top Ten Chefs.

The accolades have led plenty of VIPs through the Old Schoolhouse doors, including Rory McIlroy, who brought his parents to dinner; Kristian Nairn, who plays Hodor in Game of Thrones; and broadcasters Stephen Nolan and Pamela Ballantine.

Will and Karena (also 28) live in a serviced apartment in the Mill Village complex in Comber town, with their seven-week-old baby, Harry. They're currently working on their kitchen garden, having built a poly-tunnel and raised beds to grow all their own vegetables and herbs. Karena says:

Will dazzled me with a beautiful meal the first time we went to stay in his family holiday home in Groomsport for a weekend. I was intrigued watching him - while I enjoyed a glass of prosecco. He made spaghetti Bolognese and it was the best I've ever tasted.

Will really enjoys the technical aspect of cooking, whereas I enjoy the end product! Before meeting Will, I enjoyed cooking meals to share with family and friends. Will has taught me that with a little precision and a touch of finesse and accurate seasoning, simple ingredients can be elevated into better looking and tasting food. I love sampling his new dishes.

The idea, originally, was that I would work part-time in the restaurant while qualifying in law. I had just completed a Masters course and was going on to do my professional exams. Then life took over and here we are, two and-a-half years later, with baby Harry.

Before he was born, I worked long hours every day. Life has changed so much now but we've an excellent team at the Schoolhouse, so I'm able to concentrate on online promotions and social media, and I am there to support our fantastic management team during busier times.

Will's enthusiasm is infectious; he is so intense and passionate about his trade. Only the very best is good enough. It is sometimes difficult to live up to his exacting standards, but generally speaking, we work really well together. We have a collaborative spirit and a can-do attitude, and it's very exciting to share the joys of accomplishment together.

Away from the work, we're able to switch off and enjoy each other's company. We do have the odd crisis, but we're usually able to iron out the creases. I am not one for telling stories out of school, but there are some moments where you don't know whether to laugh or cry! At times like that, we're lucky to have the support of Will's parents - they have a wealth of experience, knowledge and information from running a successful hospitality business here for over 30 years.

As for my parents, they're massive fans of Will's cooking. The first thing he made for them was a cake for my mum's birthday; it was only the third time my parents had met Will - they were very impressed!

Will always had a clear vision for the restaurant and watching this come together during the refurbishment was so exciting. The proudest moment to date, though, would have to be the safe arrival of our gorgeous baby boy, Harry David Brown. He brings us so much joy and happiness.

Will says:

It's fantastic to have my fiancée working with me - she's a breath of fresh air and keeps me on my toes! We've worked together for two and-a-half years now. Shop talk creeps in at home; we sometimes run back over the course of the day, but we really just try and chill with the baby - and watch Man United on the telly.

After a long day, convenience is key, so we do indulge in the odd takeaway every so often. And we're lucky to have a cleaner, so there are no major chores for us to share at home. Karena's a good cook - she once made the best Thai green curry I've ever eaten from a recipe in a Tom Aiken book. We enjoy cooking together on our days off. I like to cook steak and chips with a red onion, tomato and avocado salad. Karena's salads are amazing.

We also support the restaurants local to us but for a big occasion, we like to go away and experience different Michelin star restaurants to enjoy the food, and also as a source of inspiration.

We're brainstorming wedding ideas at the minute but we are so busy working and looking after Harry, it is difficult to find the time. We hope to tie the knot next year.

LAUREL VILLA

Gerardine and Eugene Kielt own the literary-themed Laurel Villa in the centre of Magherafelt, a homely Victorian four-star guesthouse which holds regular poetry readings and hosts many visitors seeking their family roots. Celebrity guests have included Gary and Danielle Lineker, Hairy Biker Si King and Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody. The couple, who live on the premises, have created a permanent exhibition in Laurel Villa devoted to the late Seamus Heaney and provide acclaimed guided tours of nearby Heaney Country.

Eugene, a Blue Badge tourist guide, is in his 60s; Gerardine, who's president of Magherafelt Conference of St Vincent de Paul, is in her 50s. They have two sons, Padraig (22), who works in the office of a local engineering company, and Diarmaid (17), who's studying for his A-levels. Gerardine says:

Eugene and I have been working together for over 30 years. We met in 1982 at a party and I fell for him straight away. I just thought he was that bit different; he had travelled a good bit - and he was rather handsome too. I still feel the same about him. Mind you, like all couples, we have the odd tiff but we soon get over it!

Doing what we do can be an eventful life, perhaps not suited to everyone, but it works well for us. You never know who is going to be sleeping under the roof that night. We've met very interesting people and some who have become very good friends. Recently, we had a Canadian judge and his wife who insisted on taking us out for a meal before they left, as a token of their thanks for all we'd done for them.

I am interested in antiques and one lovely couple who stay with us regularly have the same interest. They always arrive with some little piece that they know I will love. How I switch off is by getting away from the house - I love working with plants and flowers so, when possible, I get out into the garden. It's not a well-manicured sort of garden but I love its beautiful mature trees and its unusual features and old stone objects.

Friends say I like my style so when I go away, I am always on the lookout for items of vintage clothing and the odd bargain at an antiques or collectables fair.

The working day usually starts shortly at 6.30am. I prepare the dining room for breakfast, bake scones and get our boys out to work and school. After breakfast, it's clearing the tables and washing up.

Many of our guests are searching for ancestors or looking for advice on where to visit. Eugene and I could spend an hour or two getting them sorted. Booking enquiries have to be answered quickly, so it's a case of checking the emails constantly. After check out, rooms have to be serviced and beds changed for the next guest or guests. Some days Eugene has a Heaney tour on, so he's out and about. I may have to do lunch or afternoon tea for a group, so there's not much time to hang about. Normally there's just the two of us here but I have good friends that I can call upon to help out when needed.

As president of Magherafelt Conference of St Vincent de Paul, most days I have to deal with issues relating to that. When we have a meeting or when I have to make a visit to the home of a family in need, we try to make sure that either Eugene or one of the boys holds the fort at home. Dinner has to be made, of course, and normal family matters attended to.

I'm coeliac so I'm unable to eat the goodies I make. Having said, that the waistline is not great! Eugene is a good cook, too, and I always look forward to his Christmas dinner - he makes gluten-free stuffing especially for me.

Eugene is much more business-minded than me. I'd be more spontaneous. I would say Eugene wears the trousers, though he'd disagree.

My proudest moment at Laurel Villa was the first time Seamus Heaney - one of the most sought after people in the world - walked in through our front door with a lovely smile on his face and then spent a very enjoyable evening in the company of family, friends and admirers. Afterwards, he sent us a lovely letter of thanks. Imagine that!

We've had lots of wonderful people stay here, and many guests tell me very personal things about themselves, even though I may have just met them. In those cases, myself and Eugene repay their trust by trying our best to help them in their search, to find a close family relation perhaps, while acting discreetly at all times.

Poets are a special group of people and we have had a lot of them here over the years. The Poet Laureate of Wales, Gillian Clarke, has stayed and read her poems here. Recently, Norah Brown of the fabulous Grange Lodge Guest House in Dungannon, called in for a poetry reading. When I saw her I thought 'Oh dear! How am I going to match her standards?' As it turned out she was extremely complimentary and sent me the most beautiful card after she left.

Eugene says:

It's very difficult to get away from your job in this business. You just don't finish at a given time, nor do you have your weekends free. Working and living are intertwined. You have to snatch a bit of free time when it comes up. It's impossible to avoid shop talk because the two of us run the shop - and this sort of shop is open all hours.

We live in the guest house so we share most of it with guests. Our private family quarters are restricted. We feel it's important for guests to have their own space and we try to work around it. I'd imagine most people coming into this business would find the compromises very difficult.

Gerardine does most of the cooking and all of the baking, though I generally cook breakfast. She is passionate about food - I tell her it comes naturally to her. She prepares a big bowl of fresh fruit each morning. She hates canned fruit so that's a definite no-no. There's also stewed apple and so on. Scrambled egg with grilled bacon and fried mushrooms is very popular with our guests.

I do much of the paperwork while Gerardine would be the more creative and innovative. I tend to be cautious; she is spontaneous. I'm a planner; she is of the moment. All in all, we complement each other and usually end up agreeing.

When we get the chance we head down to Dublin for a quick break. We love Belfast too. We don't eat out much but Magherafelt is full of great restaurants. I'm a pickier eater than Gerardine, though she is coeliac and has to be sure that everything she orders is gluten-free.

We are one of the few family-run guest houses that pre-dates the Troubles, so there have been plenty of ups and downs.

I was in this business full-time with my late mother, until she passed away in 1998. She first registered with the Tourist Board back in 1963 and much of that time was tough. Geraldine got involved after we got married in 1988.

We try to survive in a very competitive industry by offering a niche product. These days, you need a 'stand out' quality. We attract culture vultures, who are quite discerning. We have developed Laurel Villa as a place for poetry lovers - our house is a magnet for people particularly interested in the late Seamus Heaney. I became a fan when I went to a reading of his in the 1970s. We have managed to gather up a lot of his published work and memorabilia so we have a nice little Seamus Heaney exhibition here. I also run tours of Heaney Country, within a radius of about four miles from his birthplace at Mossbawn, just outside Castledawson. For participants it can be a very emotional experience. My last stop is always at Seamus Heaney's grave.

We ran the inaugural On Home Ground festival here in 2013. Seamus Heaney died just three weeks before he was due to open it but in the programme note, he described the festival as 'an act of faith in the art of poetry.'

One of our most precious memories is from June 2009, after we won a NI Tourism Best Accommodation Award. Seamus Heaney set aside an evening to do a reading here. So many big institutions at home and abroad would have given anything to have had him that weekend.

NEWFORGE HOUSE

John and Louie (Lou) Mathers tied the knot two months after they finished converting the Mathers family's ancestral home in Magheralin, near Moira, into a luxurious country house hotel. Ten years on, five-star Newforge House has a coveted place in Ireland's exclusive Blue Book, Georgina Campbell's Ireland Guide, John & Sally McKenna's Irish Food Guide, Good Food Ireland, The Good Hotel Guide and Alistair Sawday's Ireland.

John (41) won a battle with severe Crohn's disease to become a talented chef, while Lou (37) makes all the hotel's desserts, biscuits, chutneys and ice creams, as well as looking after marketing and PR. The couple live with their son Theo (8) and daughter Mia (6) in a converted section of the courtyard behind Newforge House, which was once part of the Magheralin Hem Stitching Factory. Their guests have included Gary and Danielle Lineker, Barry McGuigan, Wales & British Lion Rugby player Phil Bennett and Irish tenor Finbar Wright. Lou says:

I first met John 12 years ago when he was cooking dinner for a mutual friend's birthday in London - I was living there at the time. He cooked confit duck leg with a puy lentil cassoulet and it was yummy! John's passion for cooking was definitely a main part of the initial attraction. We didn't actually start dating until a year and a half later, but there was definitely a bit of a spark that first night.

We cooked a few meals together before John cooked just for me, during my first visit to his parents' house. He did scallops with a Thai dressing, followed by steak with a red wine jus. I've yet to find anyone who cooks a better steak.

At Newforge, no two days are the same but, most days, John will cook breakfast for guests and allocate housekeeping tasks, while I get the kids to school. I will then check emails and social media and plan the evening dinner menu with John. We have a seasonal menu that changes every day, so one of us will head out to buy fresh ingredients as required, while the other will stay in the office and man the phone and emails.

Guests check in from 2pm and John will greet most of them before preparing for dinner, which is served at 8pm.

Most days I collect Mia and Theo from school and start working again once they are in bed. I do a lot of the baking for Newforge in the evenings, and it's always a bit of a juggle balancing work and home life. We don't always get it right, but since having Theo and Mia, my main priority is the home and John's is Newforge. That way we can support each other, but at home I have the final say, and at work John is the boss!

John has absolutely no ego, but a genuine passion for great ingredients which he likes to cook - simply, but with precision. His chicken liver parfait is to die for - incredibly rich and smooth as silk. When we first started dating and he quickly discovered that the only way I can eat liver is in pate or a parfait, he was convinced that I had just never had it cooked properly. Sadly, even John's cooking cannot persuade me to eat pan fried liver!

There have been various dramas over the last 10 years. About 30 minutes before we were due to serve hot canapés during a wedding reception, we had a power cut. NIE, in their wisdom, had decided to do some unscheduled maintenance. Thankfully, we had the most accommodating bride and groom and managed to get by using John's mum's Aga next door. Full power was restored a couple of hours later, about 15 minutes before the main banquet was to be served.

There are definitely easier ways to make a living but we delight in seeing guests enjoy the Newforge experience. Because we love what we do, we definitely don't eat out or travel as much as we would like. In the long term, we may do something with the empty section of the courtyard. Every January, when we are closed, we take time to plan what we would like to achieve in the coming year. This year, that was to have at least one day off per week as a family. We started well, but have slipped slightly. The best laid plans and all of that, as they say.

John says:

Back in 2005, for the first six months it was just Lou and I running Newforge and our jobs covered everything, from taking bookings to cleaning rooms, to cooking, baking and serving breakfast and dinner. After that we were able to gradually expand the team, initially with two housekeepers.

In November 2007, our son Theo was born seven weeks premature and Lou's front of house role was taken on by two staff, so she could more easily work around the needs of Theo. Since then, business has continued to grow and we now have a team made up of six full and part-time staff. I cook every breakfast and evening meal and meet our guests. I'm also responsible for most admin jobs and for finance.

I started training as a chef after graduating from university in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, hoping to set up my own restaurant. Shortly after this, I became very ill and was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, and spent a number of years in recovery. I continued to work in catering but realised that opening a restaurant without guaranteed health might not be the best idea.

Newforge House was the family home but my parents were rattling around in it and it needed modernising, so we came up with the idea of turning it into a guesthouse, the idea being that if I was ill again, then it could operate as a B&B.

Newforge has always been a fantastic place to live; it has been in the family for six generations. In converting it into a guesthouse, I wanted to retain the feel of a family home and we've been lucky enough to be able to keep most of the lovely pieces of furniture and little artifacts that have been handed down through the generations.

Thankfully, my parents were only too delighted to downsize and we began to convert part of the courtyard that had been the original house. We began to convert the house in 2003 - the building was structurally sound, but needed to be stripped back to the bare bones internally and put back together to turn it into a six bedroom, six bathroom guesthouse. We kept the original fireplaces and period features such as window shutters, to retain character.

We also focused on creating relationships with local businesses and Newforge soon filled up midweek with business people. Ten years on, we're delighted to have been awarded John and Sally McKenna's Bridgestone Guide's Country House of the Year 2015; The Good Hotel Guide's Irish Guest House of The Year, and Irish Restaurant Awards' Best Hotel Restaurant, Armagh.

In truth we work too hard; the industry demands very long working hours but, thankfully, we are the best of friends and able to be very honest with each other, even if that is brutal sometimes!

It would be impossible to avoid shop-talk outside of work. Our work is more of a lifestyle than a job but no matter what time I finish, I always like to read for a bit on my Kindle.

Lou does the majority of the cooking at home, but if we have friends round, I generally cook and Lou does dessert. I regularly send down a mini-dinner from Newforge to Lou, after she has got the kids in bed.

Lou has got a great palate, so she always gets to try anything new. Wild garlic picked locally has featured lots - for example, in my cream of wild garlic and garden herb soup. Anytime I cook a steak, Lou is very happy. It helps when we have probably the world's best beef a couple of miles down the road, from Peter Hannan's Himalayan salt chamber.

When we eat out as a family, we regularly go to a great wee Chinese on Donegall Pass in Belfast called Same Happy.

It's a simple cafe but it serves really authentic Chinese food. For a treat, and without the kids, it would have to be Ox. Simply brilliant.

We have lots of great memories - a month after opening, we hosted our first wedding and at the end of a fabulous, but long day, we shared a bottle of bubbles with our staff. We were exhausted, but elated at the same time, about a job well done.

Belfast Telegraph

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