News. Woodlands Restaurant and Estate's Cafe

9th of January, 2018

Woodlands Restaurant and the Estate’s café are thriving, owing to the charm and undoubted skills of managers Julie McCluskie and Liz Conquer. With these women at the helm, delicious food and a welcome smile are always on the menu

The producers of The Great British Bake Off missed a trick when they chose its new presenters. If only they’d thought to visit Dumfries House, they’d have found two people who know almost everything about engaging the public and identifying the perfect scone. Julie McCluskie, Manager of the House’s café, and Liz Conquer, Manager of the Woodlands Restaurant, may not be national celebrities, but in Ayrshire they have a loyal following. “We have a lot of locals who are regulars; people who walk the Estate every day,” says Julie. “You can be sure that if people come once, they’ll come back.”

The two could scarcely be more local themselves. Liz was born and brought up in Auchinleck before moving to Mauchline; Julie has lived in Newmilns all her life. “Before I arrived at Dumfries House, I had my own coffee shop in Troon for six years,” says Julie. “When I sold the business I didn’t know what I was going to do, but then I saw this job advertised. It was quite overwhelming to begin with: whereas my coffee shop had just 35 covers, this one has 220. In addition, there are 26 staff who are all from different backgrounds and who have different priorities. But now it works really well.”

Liz, who is also involved in the Prince’s Trust Get Into Hospitality initiative here at Dumfries House, followed a more circuitous – and somewhat dangerous – path: “I tell the students I’ve always been in hospitality, because when I left school I joined the police and for 11 years invited people to have bed and breakfast at Her Majesty’s pleasure.” After starting a family, she opened a coffee shop in Mauchline and then went to work at Auchinleck House, where the Boswell Book Festival was based until it moved to Dumfries House.

“I used to do all the catering for the festival,” she explains. “Then one day, three-and-half years ago, I met Louis MacCallum, who’s in charge of hospitality here. He invited me for a coffee and enticed me into working with the Prince’s Trust training, so I went from a part-time job to one that takes over your life.”

Left: Tea and Cakes at the Estate Cafe, Right: Liz Conquer

Although she has never had to apprehend a felon at the Woodlands Restaurant (“we only have the most pleasant people here”), she believes her police training has stood her in good stead. “It teaches you how to deal with all elements of society, so it’s very easy for me to make people feel welcome.” It has also taught her to cope in a crisis. “We had an occasion last Sunday when we were really busy, then the till crashed and a lady was taken ill. It was all about keeping calm, because we had 40 diners, food waiting to go out and an ambulance coming. But everything was fine in the end, and we received a lovely card to thank us and say that the lady was making a good recovery.”

Interacting with the public is a skill that both women have passed on to their staff. “There were girls who would hardly lift their heads to look at people when they first came here,” says Julie. “But now they’re happy to chat to anyone. It gives young people a great start.”

The two managers have very different working patterns. “At the café we’re open seven days a week all year, except for the fortnight that the Estate closes over Christmas,” says Julie. “The Boswell Book Festival is probably our busiest time, but Easter is always crazy too, as is any bank holiday.” Add to these the school holidays (“busy every day”) and every weekend, particularly Sundays (“really busy with the food market”), plus the fact that her staff double as Easter bunnies and Santa’s elves, serve tea in the Walled Garden at weekends and help out at weddings and firework displays – you begin to wonder whether the word “lull” ever crosses her lips.

Liz interweaves her restaurant duties with her Prince’s Trust training role. She presides over the Woodlands whenever it’s open (Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday lunchtimes), but even when the restaurant is closed, the kitchen is busy sending out food for the staff at the House or for schoolchildren stay­ing at the Tamar Manou­kian Outdoor Centre. “I just don’t like having a weekend off,” she says. “My staff are very capable, but it’s actually a holiday to be here.”

Left: Julie McCluskie, Right: Locally sourced salmon is often on the menu at the Woodlands Restaurant

Although the restaurant and café are separate operations, both Liz and Julie find it reassuring to know that the other is just a stone’s throw away. “If we have an emergency, I can always ring Julie up and say, ‘Could you send someone over to give us a hand?’” says Liz.

Julie adds: “There have been times when I’ve been off and Liz has come and covered for me here.” The crucial question is, of course, what these two experts consider to be the best items on their menus. “I’d have to say the chateaubriand,” says Liz. “The chefs do a beautiful steak. But all my favourite dishes include vegetables from the Walled Garden – I’ve just been down there and they’re shelling 20 kilos of broad beans. We try to source everything from within a 20-mile radius and anything from the Estate is well received. If there’s a deer cull we’ll have venison on the menu, and quite often we’ll have pigeon breast as a starter.”

“Our most popular dish is the homemade soup,” says Julie. “We can get through five pots a day. And we sell dozens and dozens of scones – all baked here in the morning.”

Both are evangelical about Dumfries House. “If I had nothing else to do, I’d be happy to just walk around the Estate and tell people about it,” says Liz. “I wouldn’t work anywhere else.” Julie agrees: “There are days when you go home and you’re shattered. But would I jump ship? No – you’d have to carry me out of here kicking and screaming.”

Words: Anthony Gardner

Photography: Lisa Boyd