How did a caravan park greasy spoon become a gourmet destination? Its owners explain all to Lucy Holden
4 October 2018
The train to Bangor is packed for a Thursday morning. But what at first looks like dozens of gap-year kids who’ve decided that Anglesey is cooler than Amsterdam turns out to be optimistic campers intended for Festival No 6 in Portmeirion. The other passengers are anorak-wrapped ramblers: male, sixties. “We better get a Snickers at the station,” one Millets modelling man says to another as we near grey Gwynedd. “There’s nowhere good for food for ages.”
He is wrong. Outside Bangor station an electric-blue BMW 4 Series is waiting to deliver me to the Marram Grass. If it’s not the most exclusive restaurant in north Wales that title might belong to Sosban and the Old Butchers in Menai Bridge, which retained its Michelin star this week then it’s the most exclusive restaurant you’ll find in a caravan park, anywhere in the world.
My driver is Liam Barrie, who, with his brother Ellis, masterminded the transformation of the greasy spoon attached to the campsite into the culinary attraction it is now, after their parents, Kevin and Christine, bought the former garden centre six years ago with Liam in a front-of-house role and Ellis manning the gas burners.
They could be twins, but Ellis, 28, is darker and stubbled compared to his blonder, clean-shaven brother, who is a couple of years older. If he looks familiar to you, it’s probably because you saw him competing on Great British Menu on the BBC last week. After what the judges described as “a thrilling, genius bit of cooking”, he was put through to next week’s finals.
“He couldn’t always cook,” Liam says in sing-song Scouse the pair having grown up in Liverpool over lunch. “He used to make spaghetti bolognese with so much uncooked wine in it I’d be drunk at the dinner table aged 12.”
“To be fair, I was about ten!” argues Ellis, in half-hearted, younger brother fashion. “I was, like, ‘Mam, why do I feel so merry after me spag bol?’ ” says Liam with a laugh. “I was pissed!” Ellis makes a “pftt” sound that implies the comment is not worthy of a response.
Despite bickering comedically like a double act, the two have turned on its head the notion that you would find a campsite, then hope for the best when it came to a café. Food is the foremost attraction here although being equidistant from Newborough beach and forest and in full view of Snowdonia is an additional incentive.
Ellis is treated like an actor on the red carpet when he emerges from the kitchen. “Did you cook our lunch? It was amazing,” drawls a diner on a table of eight, who look more as though they would holiday in the Seychelles than on a Welsh campsite. “What shall we order for pudding?” “Cheese,” he answers, apparently not joking, although the dessert he presented this year to judges on Great British Menu a white chocolate ball served with saffron, mango and tea-soaked raisins scored a perfect 10 from the judges, including Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton.
This year is the second time Ellis has competed. “After Ellis was on the show last year bookings went mad,” Liam says. “People were coming in really dolled up, then tottering back to their tents after dinner.”
Their parents bought the White Lodge campsite in 2009, the year Ellis who had begun seriously cooking on a weekend course aged 12, and by 19 was working at Panoramic 34, one of Liverpool’s best restaurants had decided to take a break from kitchens.
“I was gallivanting about Australia when I found out,” he says. “So I booked a ticket and flew back 10,000 miles to help get them out of the shit.”
Liam, who had just graduated as a surveyor, also pitched in and they found themselves living under the same roof again, but in a bungalow on a caravan site in Anglesey. “I’m surprised you didn’t kill each other,” I say. “We tried,” Liam says gravely.
Their first fight was over what is now the Marram Grass, a low Anderson shelter-style building that the boys have previously told journalists was a former chicken shed, rabbit shed, and now plead with me to call a “cow shed”. In fact, lawnmowers were stored where the hobs are now; the back half of the restaurant was a shower block.
“When we first opened we’d be serving breakfast and people would be walking through to the showers in their budgie smugglers with towels slung over their shoulder,” Ellis recalls. “It was quite awkward actually.”
Another big problem was that “the parents” had bought the contents of the freezer (Tesco lasagne and burgers) with the site. “I said, ‘Mum, I can make burgers from scratch!’ But they were worried about the cost,” Ellis says. “They hadn’t planned to run a restaurant and they didn’t want the stress. They wanted to knock it down or turn it into another shower block.”
“We won the argument in the end,” Liam says. How? “By ignoring them.”
Liam started knocking down walls when lunch service was quiet to give them more space, and Ellis added Menai mussels to the menu, the first step in moving away from serving all-day breakfasts.
With the Menai Straits’ mussel and oyster beds only ten minutes’ drive from the kitchen, seafood and fresh fish were always going to feature prominently on the menu. “This mackerel was caught this morning,” says Mike, who is serving when I visit, presenting a rectangle of torched fish with Jaspels cider (also local).
“Did you catch it yourself?” I ask. “No, have you been fishing?” he asks. “It’s really boring.”
Ellis doesn’t fish either, but he is the seafood ambassador for Wales (his mackerel three ways is a stand-out course on Great British Menu). The night before, they hosted 40 members of the government’s food and drink board who arrived on a coach for dinner with “question marks on their faces”, Liam says, laughing. “It’s a very unassuming place.”
Still £80 tasting menus speak for themselves and theirs is “ultra-local”. Later, they walk me across a thin road from the campsite to 14 acres of land where 40 Tamworth and white pigs live among chickens, ducks, half a dozen sheep and a ram.
Nessa, a huge Welsh pedigree white pig, is their favourite. They claim that she and her litter were given to them by their 25-year-old brother Conor’s vegan pole-dancing teacher.
“Seriously!” they say in unison when I raise an eyebrow. “She’s a perfectlooking pig, Nessa,” says Ellis, looking dreamily over the fence, “which is a very Welsh thing to say.” He giggles, crinkling his face into a smile so big his eyes disappear.
Amazingly for one of the best chefs in the country, Ellis has severe arthritis and has had hip-replacement surgery. “When I first experienced the symptoms I was 21 and I thought it was just lower back pain,” he says. “I thought I’d pulled something and was trying to fix it with massage. I saw my GP several times and they didn’t spot anything, or think it could be arthritis because of my age; they even started suggesting it was psychological.”
Three years later, he consulted a private doctor. “When the scans came back you could see arthritis all over the hip socket,” he says, grimacing. “The thing is, I love cooking. But when I go home I can’t move I can’t get myself back up again if I sit down. I should use a walking stick all the time, but they get in the way in kitchens.”
With plans to open a new restaurant in Albert Dock in Liverpool next year, Ellis must hope that a change is as good as a rest. He also has a one-yearold son, Albert, to look after; Liam’s girlfriend is expecting their first child.
They describe the Liverpool venture as a Spartan-like homecoming, and if any evidence were needed that the bright lights of their home city are luring them away from the country, you only have to look in the car park. Sitting beside Liam’s BMW is Ellis’s Mercedes E-Class it replaced the battered Land Rover Freelander they shared, with “cocky steering and windows that wouldn’t wind down”.
Liam calls his BMW his “safe place” and describes how he works on his laptop in it when everything gets fullon. “Do you feel the same about your Merc?” I ask Ellis. “Which one?” he asks cheekily, knowing full well that there are not yet two to choose from.
Great British Menu is on BBC Two on weekdays at 7.30pm (at 7pm next week); themarramgrass.com