Historic Ardtara House is a favourite of Ghostbusters' Bill Murray, which is fitting as this culinary gem has a resident ghost
Historic Ardtara House, just outside Maghera, has become the go-to celebrity choice of Hollywood and homegrown stars alike due to its fine cuisine and idyllic location. Una Brankin talks to co-owner and chef Ian Orr about his close-knit family and the country house's recent cache of awards
Droll actor Bill Murray carries his plates into Ardtara's kitchen when he has finished his meals, and has been known to strike up a rousing rendition of The Star Of The County Down during after-dinner drinks.
He was joined once by Ronan Keating, when they were playing in a celebrity golfing tournament nearby, and by Phil Coulter, a bon viveur who is another big fan of the elegant country house in the sleepy village of Upperlands, near Maghera.
The three stars - and many others who have passed through, including Will Ferrell - relish the privacy and homely atmosphere of upmarket Ardtara, but word of its charm and excellence has spread to the point where they may have difficulty getting booked in next time they're visiting these parts.
One of the gems in the exclusive Michelin and The Blue Book Irish hospitality guides, Ardtara House has just won AA Guest Accommodation of the Year for Northern Ireland 2016, nominated by AA inspectors who check and rate over 2,300 B&Bs throughout the UK every year.
The beautifully-restored Victorian country house, built in 1895 by the linen baron Harry Clark, also holds the 2016 Four Star Gold Award and two AA Rosettes for its restaurant, as well as the Irish Restaurants Association Best Hotel Restaurant Ulster 2015 award.
Moreover, it has been named as "one of the five best hotels in the country" by National Geographic Traveller.
It's a very encouraging flurry of praise for owners Ian Orr, a talented, upbeat chef, and his business partner Marcus Roulston, who took over Ardtara in 2014. The pair have just won the Best Restaurant in Ulster Award for their acclaimed Browns Restaurant & Champagne Lounge in Londonderry, announced this week as part of the Irish Food Oscars, a glitzy Dublin event run by Delcassian wine and spirits merchants.
Browns and Ardtara are very different entities, one as slick and urbane as the other is romantic and olde-worlde. But what they have in common is wonderful food and genuinely warm staff.
"We had been looking for a period property for a while, where we would have rooms as well as a restaurant under one roof," says Ian (33).
"The first time we drove in the driveway of Ardtara it felt perfect, and when we saw how structurally sound it was and how great a general condition it was in, it was a no-brainer, as they say.
"Happily, a previous owner, Maebeth Fenton, who still lives nearby, had restored the place in 1990. She has a natural gift for interior design and she restored the home to accommodate visitors in the comfort and style of 'Old Harry Clark's' bygone era, with tasteful antiques, but with all the conveniences of a modern country house hotel.
"It won several awards under Maebeth's reign and she has been an invaluable help to us in getting the new business off the ground."
Ian lives in Derry city with his wife Jennifer and their children Oliver (7) and Emily (2). A former dental nurse, Jennifer has always supported Ian in his career, accompanying him to London when his late friend and employer Robbie Millar, of Shanks Restaurant, organised a job for him at the famous River Cafe for a few years, before he was appointed head chef at Rathmullan House in Donegal.
Jennifer's now in charge of the refurbishment of the extra rooms being added to the existing nine at Ardtara, one of which is said to be haunted by Alice, wife of the original owner Harry, who built the house for her.
BBC Radio Ulster chef Paula McIntyre swears she has seen Alice in her vintage attire by the grand fireplace of the majestic master bedroom at the front of the house - as have other guests, including a friend of mine. But Ian is not easily spooked.
"I haven't seen friendly Alice yet - I'm still waiting to get a call to cook dinner for her," he quips. "The master bedroom and the rest are in great shape structurally, so really only needed decorative freshening.
"More than half have been completed now. My business partner Marcus and my wife Jennifer have led the upgrading and have had a similar taste for the colour schemes. But on the few choices they differed on, they 'compromised' and went with Jennifer's selection... enough said."
Ian's parents Billy, a retired fire officer, and Maggie have also been very supportive of his career. Ian is the middle of their three sons - he has an older brother Alan, to whom he is very close. His younger brother Gary died of leukaemia when he was 17.
"It was a difficult time, but we knew it was happening and everyone was able to say their goodbyes," he recalls.
"My old boss Robbie Millar died in a car accident in 2005, so we never got that chance with him, sadly.
"Gary's death has brought the family closer together, particularly at Christmas and birthdays. What helped my parents was when Alan and I both had our children and they were able to focus on the grandkids.
"My parents have always supported me and helped me greatly - never once have they suggested I do anything else career-wise. We make sure to get together as a family every three weeks or so."
Ian was initially approached by businessman Marcus to be head chef at Browns, when he was taking over the Bond's Hill eatery in 2009. Ian did one better and came on board as co-owner and chef patron.
Since then Ian has opened Browns in Town, Browns on the Green and Ardtara with the help of his business partner and his personally trained and talented team. Winner of the prestigious Georgina Campbell's Ireland Chef of the Year 2013, Ian went on to appear on the Great British Menu (series eight) for Comic Relief and was named five times in the Bridgestone/McKenna Top 100 Restaurants and Top Ten Chefs to Watch.
In the Good Food Eating Guide he has won the Best Chef in Northern Ireland for the last seven years. His flagship Browns Restaurant has been named Best Restaurant in Co Derry every year since 2010, and Best Restaurant in all Northern Ireland in 2013 by the Restaurants Association of Ireland (RAI).
The accolades have ensured crowds of foodies for Ian's entertaining monthly cookery demos at Restaurant Ardtara.
A passionate yet down-to-earth presence, he keeps his audience amused throughout with tales of his mother's traditional cooking and his home life.
"I grew up having three good meals a day. Sunday dinners were special - roast chicken or roast beef. Always lots of good vegetables and no salt," he recalls.
"I learnt baking with granny (Iris) Orr, who's now 83 and living in Derry.
"She'd make walnut and raisin bread and tray bakes, and I went shopping with her on Fridays for ingredients.
And Granda Taylor taught me how to bake soda farls and potato bread.
"So, I was interested from a young age and I studied at Portrush Catering College. I always loved to try different foods."
A natural communicator, Ian enjoys the entertainment and educational values of cooking demonstrations.
From demos in the homes of celebrities to a televised cooking demo at the world's oldest and largest Flower Show in Philadelphia, USA, he has performed far and wide.
But he is particularly proud of offering his talents for charity demos to raise funds for local communities all across Ireland.
The most recent of these were a demo for the BBC to promote his home city of Derry when the Clipper Ships were docked, and a charity demo for the National Lottery Fund, where he cooked lunch for his granny's lunch club - filmed by the BBC.
His healthy eating demo, using local producers and fresh vegetables from the Ardtara polytunnel and garden, will run in the summer and the autumn.
The barbecue event next month promises to be a sell-out.
"My plan for the future of Ardtara is not to do too much and spoil the intimate and romantic charm that it's famous for," he concludes.
"Just to continue with the freshening of what is already here and maybe add a few more rooms, and bring the old courtyard back to life.
"Ardtara has received many accolades and awards over the years, and we hope to continue collecting these."
For more details on dining or staying at Ardtara Country House, tel: 028 7964 4490 or email email@example.com, visit ardtara.com
Ian's top tips for healthy eating
1. Use rapeseed oil for dressings
2. Buy as much as possible when food is in season
3. Use fresh apple and pears to sweeten food
4. Finish dishes with nuts and seeds
5. Season with garlic, vinegar and herbs