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Ellis Barrie: the story of the Marram Grass

Ellis Barrie: the story of The Marram Grass

by Pete Dreyer 18 June 2018

In the depths of Anglesey, Ellis Barrie has built The Marram Grass from a rundown garden centre potting shed to one of the UK’s most exciting restaurants. Pete Dreyer caught up with the amiable Scouse chef to find out how he did it.

‘It’s a bit mad isn’t it!’ laughs chef Ellis Barrie when we catch up to talk about the Marram Grass. ‘A bit mad’ is somewhat of an understatement, I think. Anyone who starts their own restaurant has to be a bit mad. Ellis and brother Liam took over the cafe at the Anglesey campsite when they were nineteen and twenty-one respectively, and have built it from an unassuming breakfast shed into a fully-fledged, nationally-acclaimed restaurant.

If that’s what Ellis calls ‘a bit mad’, I’m intrigued to think what he might think of as being ‘risky’. But it seems in his affable nature to slightly lessen the scope of his achievements in Anglesey. Born and raised in Liverpool, Ellis has that typical Scouse joviality in spades – he regularly punctuates a story with a joke, and an infectious chuckle that only the most stone-hearted of humans could not find amusing.

Most young lads growing up in Liverpool dream of a life in music or kicking a ball in a red or blue shirt, but so far as Ellis is concerned he always wanted to be a cook. ‘My grandad was a cook in the Territorial Army,’ he explains, ‘and my dad’s dad became a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen in his retirement. All the male influences in the family were cooks. My mum wasn’t a bad cook either to be fair,’ he adds, ‘but if I hadn’t started cooking we’d all still be eating potato smileys and chicken Kievs!’

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Ellis runs the Marram Grass with his brother Liam – the pair took over the café when they were nineteen and twenty-one
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The restaurant has been significantly upgraded since its early days as a potting shed, but it still has the original corrugated iron roof

Initially taught to cook by his grandparents, Ellis was already attending a Saturday cooking school by the age of twelve. ‘All my mates would be in the park playing football, and I’d be at my cookery course!’ he chuckles. ‘We’d go in at 9am, and by 1pm we’d be going home with massive pork pies or curries. It was proper, solid cooking.’ He hadn’t even left school before he was working with Chris Marshall at the Radisson Blu Filini in Liverpool – one of the city’s best restaurants at the time – ‘before it got franchised and went to shit,’ Ellis remarks. By seventeen, Ellis was working full-time with Chris in the kitchen at Panoramic 34, and though the team was small and the hours were long, the experience confirmed to Ellis that he was where he wanted to be. ‘I absolutely loved it,’ he says with a grin. ‘Going from cooking in a kids’ college to a proper kitchen with blokes swearing and the banter and all that, I think you just know that’s where you’re meant to be.’

The gruelling day-to-day of the Panoramic gradually took a toll on Ellis, and after a year he decided to take a break from the restaurant kitchen. He was on sabbatical in Australia when the news arrived – his dad had just bought a caravan park in the middle of nowhere and the family were being scrambled to help. ‘It was always my dad's dream to have a little touring caravan site,’ he explains. ‘He always used to take us camping around France, Spain, Italy and places like that, and we’d just set up for a few weeks and run around like mad. This little old garden centre in Wales had been on the market for six years, with a pretty big price tag on it, but my dad being my dad, he went in there with the most ridiculous of offers and got it accepted.’

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The food at the Marram Grass has evolved from microwave lasagne to incredibly technical plates of food
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The majority of Ellis' technique is self-taught, and he constantly puts local produce to the fore, like these mussels from the nearby Menai Strait

The Barrie family became the new owners of an Anglesey caravan park and their lives changed overnight. They re-mortgaged the family home in Liverpool and moved to Newborough to run the campsite they now owned. Ellis came home from Australia and dived into the makeshift kitchen with his grandad, whilst his brother Liam returned having finished a degree in building surveying and proceeded to tidy up the campsite and build new pitches. ‘To look back at it now, it’s very nostalgic,’ he says. ‘There’s something very romantic about the whole process. It’s quite surreal really.’

Romantic as they may be, those first years were still hard at times, and Ellis freely admits that the campsite made no money in its early stages. ‘The site was so run down, we had to reinvest everything to bring it up to scratch,’ he explains. ‘We could have kept it as a cafe with Liam working at the front and myself at the back and we would have probably had six months of the year off and a bit of money in our pockets!’ That was never the plan though – Ellis’ ambition and creative drive as a chef meant that in some sense, The Marram Grass was always destined to become something special.

As the campsite grew into a sustainable business, Ellis started to put his plan into action for the restaurant. He built relationships with local suppliers like Halen Môn Sea Salt and Shaun Krijnen at Menai Oysters down the road. He taught himself new techniques, brought new staff into the kitchen, and over time, built The Marram Grass into one of Wales’ best fine dining restaurants. Once upon a time, Ellis and his grandad served £3.50 all-day breakfasts to lucky locals and campers out of this glorified shed – today, Ellis and his team serve some of the best food in Wales, with incredible Welsh produce at the heart of it. ‘I absolutely love what we're doing now, and I love what I've learnt,’ he adds. ‘Being here in Anglesey allowed us to avoid the limelight and make our mistakes. We kept learning from them, and then the place just started to work.’

The Marram Grass is one of Wales' worst-kept secrets these days, but truth be told, Ellis and his family were doing what they do for a long time before anyone realised. Although the restaurant had a growing reputation locally, it was Ellis’ appearance on Great British Menu back in 2017 that really launched him and his restaurant to stardom. ‘Great British Menu was absolutely mad!’ he says. ‘You don't send off any sort of request to be on it – they called the restaurant one day and spoke to Liam. The first I knew about it was when Liam came into the kitchen and told me I was doing it!’ Ellis represented his native North West and won his heat to reach the final of the competition, making a big impression on judge Daniel Clifford – a man roundly known for being tough to impress. ‘It was terrifying!’ he laughs. ‘I remember going down on the train for the first week and wondering if there was any way I could pull a sickie and get out of it! As soon as I got there, it was fine – everyone is a bit nervous and you sort of get through it together. It was quite humbling really – just seeing other people cook and being surrounded by other chefs who are cooking at such a high level, I learnt so much from all of them.’

Ellis’ warmth and charm endeared him to the Great British Menu audience, and the phones have been busy at The Marram Grass ever since. The dish that Ellis impressed with on Great British Menu – torched Anglesey sea bass in a pork confit, with crisp cauliflower purée, barbecue cauliflower florets, preserved rhubarb, radish and pickled mussels – remains on the menu at the restaurant today, but there’s plenty more that catches the eye. There’s a beautiful piece of pan-roasted Welsh lamb with minted lamb ragù, sweetbreads, morels and watercress purée, and a celebration of Welsh alliums in the form of a leek and wild garlic terrine with a red onion jelly, shallot purée, brown onion and Parmesan bubbles and chive extract. It’s undeniably impressive food – ambitious and delicious in equal measure.

That ambition is just as evident around the grounds of the site as it is in the restaurant. The Marram Grass has undergone numerous expansions and evolutions over the ten or so years since its inception, and when Ellis and Liam decide to do something, they don’t do it by halves. When the pair started work on their kitchen garden a few years ago, they drafted in a permaculture expert, who mentioned that they could use a couple of pigs to turn the land over before they started. When she returned a couple of days later, she found two pigs happily installed in the field. Ellis chuckles to himself. ‘She said, ‘bloody hell, what have you got these pigs for?!’ and I said, ‘you said to get pigs!' Pigs are a nightmare to keep – they’re really hard work – so we put the kitchen garden on hold and we started a pig farm instead!’

There are about forty pigs living at The Marram Grass now, which means Ellis is not just a chef – he’s a fully-fledged breeder and butcher too. ‘We’ve got a butchery going in soon,’ he says excitedly. ‘We do all our own butchery here anyway, so it makes sense to take it out of the restaurant and give us more space in the kitchen. Anglesey and Welsh pork is excellent quality – the pigs are reared outdoors and fed properly. We’re planning on making our own sausages, burgers, bacon and that sort of thing, and then we’ll sell them online and at the restaurant.’

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Ellis has a herd of around forty pigs at The Marram Grass, and has plans to open up his own butchery and sell his pork products online
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Ellis worked with Medwyn Williams – a twelve-time Chelsea Flower Show winner who lives around the corner from the restaurant – to create the kitchen garden, which now supplies the restaurant with a variety of vegetables

You might have guessed by now that Ellis and Liam aren’t the sort of people to only have one big project on the go at once. The pair are also busy renovating the private accommodation on site, as well as building a multipurpose studio to keep up with demand for their cookery demonstrations. ‘It’ll have a kitchen and it’ll be rigged up with cameras so we can record loads of videos for our YouTube following,’ says Ellis. ‘We’ve filmed some popular videos in the past so we’re keen to keep that going, but we can do cookery classes there too, and we can use the space as a test kitchen and a private dining room. Also, rumour has it that there might be something else happening up in the North West,’ he grins, ‘but that’s all I can tell you about that one!’

Between the never-ending stream of projects, two hip replacements, an eight-month-old baby and a nationally-acclaimed restaurant to run, it’s a wonder Ellis is still standing, let alone talking with such enthusiasm. I question whether this might be more than a bit mad, and he chuckles one last time before I leave. ‘We just carry on mate, we never stop,’ he says. ‘I've got my son now and my missus, and a great team working for me. I love living here – it's an amazing way of life.’

All images copyright Ioan Said Photography.

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