Our Tweed Valley: John Matthews, Windlestraw

  • John Matthews, Chef/Joint patron, Windlestraw
  • Windlestraw views

 

John and Sylvia Matthews are now in their third season of running Windlestraw – a magnificent Edwardian manor in Walkerburn that they have already turned into something very special. We spoke with John to find out more about their experience so far

You came to Windlestraw from Dubai, which is quite a change. What appealed to you about taking on this wonderful old building?

I’d like to say it was the weather that appealed to us! But no, having lived in Scotland years ago, returning here felt natural. We fell in love with Windlestraw. It’s a beautiful building and being a Ballantyne house has historical significance to Walkerburn and the wider area. We saw the potential of combining a wonderful home with a unique hospitality experience.

Tell us about your past experience in the kitchen

I trained first in Dublin and later in London. It was back in the days when chefs couldn’t afford TVs rather than when they lived on them all the time! You could say I had a traditional training. I left the kitchen 30 years ago to move into finance.

You’ve now spent two seasons at Windlestraw. Are you pleased with progress?

Yes, each season brings us a step forward. We are not as young as we used to be, so our first season was very hard work! It also takes time to get the facilities and service to a level we are happy with, although we will always try to raise the bar. We were pleased to become the only five-star rated restaurant with rooms in Southern Scotland [in 2016]. We were also shortlisted for Thistle awards for the region last year and this month are finalists for CIS Excellence Independent Hotel of the Year. Fingers crossed, but we are up against two other very strong competitors.

And how have you found your return to the kitchen?

Tough – I’m no spring chicken! We wanted to keep standards high and 30 years of rust takes time to shake off. Reviews were good, so we were encouraged to continue with our concept. This year we took on Stu Waterson, a locally-raised chef who has brought a different approach to our cuisine and taken some of the pressure off. We are a small business, but Stu is a good example of how we hope to invest in and improve the experience year on year.

Typically, who stays with you and what brings them to the area?

We now have a reputation as a ‘foodie’ destination, so most guests come to dine. While many guests are just passing through, more and more come specifically to experience Windlestraw and the local area.

What can guests expect from a stay at Windlestraw?

The guest experience is memorable, the owners are discreet. Above all, expect to be pampered … a quality five-star experience but with very personal service. Windlestraw is our home, but we are genuinely passionate about our guests’ experience and think the reviews and repeat visits are testament to that.

What have you enjoyed most about running Windlestraw?

It’s very satisfying to welcome guests to the Tweed Valley for the first time and to have them return regularly. That’s a job well done.

And the most challenging aspect?

I’d say cooking 20 poached eggs at once. And ironing the loo roll!

Finally, what’s your favourite thing to do on a day off?

We'd love to have time to ‘live’ and enjoy the Tweed Valley more. The scenery is beautiful, and the people are wonderful. Everyone in hospitality works hard … I think we all deserve more credit, and more visitors.

Further info

Set within two acres of landscaped grounds, Windlestraw was originally built in 1906 as a wedding gift for the future wife of the Scottish cashmere mill owner, John King Ballantyne. Today it’s a supremely relaxing bolt-hole and an ideal base from which to explore the wider Tweed Valley. For much more, visit www.windlestraw.co.uk

 

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