Gunna Chown has retained the coveted Michelin ‘Couvert’ maintaining the highest standards in comfort, service and décor year on year as ‘Front of House’ at Plas Bodegroes. Lowri Cooke met up with the maestro of the ultimate dining experience to find out how..
If Gunna Chown was the star of a chilling Nordic Noir, she’d be ‘The Girl With The Eyes in The Back of Her Head’. That’s not to suggest that the Faroe Islander is frosty at all – quite the contrary, as I discovered for myself. On arrival at her Scandi-chic home a stone’s throw from Pwllheli, I was offered tea and home-made kaffeebrød. But when it comes down to the nitty gritty of hospitality, she takes the biscuit, and runs with it.
As co-owner and ‘Front of House’ of Plas Bodegroes in Efailnewydd, she’s the doyenne of the Welsh ‘Croeso’ crew. Back in 1991, her Chef husband Chris was awarded a Michelin Star, and highly praised for re-defining Welsh cuisine. Gourmands went mad for his warm monkfish and Carmarthen ham salad, and to this day it’s still in high demand. But whilst Chris’ Michelin Star run came to a head in 2008, surprisingly little is known of Gunna’s own remarkable feat.
Every year since 1991, she has retained her Michelin ‘Couvert’ – the crossed knife and fork awarded for high standards in comfort, service and décor. Partly responsible for this ‘diss’ were the Michelin grandees, who – at the time – forbade all award-winners from advertising their accolades. Yes, you read that correctly; the folk from the gastro gong-fest (that, last year, was hosted on Facebook Live) at one time found public displays of celebration rather naff. ‘It was a different time…’, Gunna explains, ‘before the internet, and social media. Even when we launched our first website, and mentioned Chris’ star, we were ‘advised’ to take the reference down.’
It’s therefore a testament to both that Plas Bodegroes was such a hit, and indeed, is still considered one of Wales’ finest gastro- destinations. During springtime, the Georgian manor house is draped in wisteria, whilst the restaurant embraces Welsh art and seasonal flavours. And whilst Chris has taken a back- seat role in the kitchen to Pen-y-groes-born Hugh Bracegirdle, it is Gunna who runs a tight ship at front of house, bringing with her high standards that were instilled early on during her childhood in Scandinavia.
‘We always had napkins, and a tablecloth, and were taught how to set the table. We ate whale meat, dried cod, lamb, rhubarb and potatoes that were in abundance on the Faroe Islands, before my father moved the family to Denmark.’ It was quite a culture shock for the eight-year-old girl; the Danish ate lots of pork, and open sandwiches on rye bread, and she had to learn to speak a brand new language. But whilst boys spent a year doing their National Service, girls were encouraged to travel the world.
That’s how, at 17, she landed at Capel Curig, as a kitchen asisstant at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre. She fell in love with the landscape, that reminded her of the Faroe Islands, and was a married mother-of-two by her early twenties. Ten years on, following her divorce, she met Chris, from Betws y Coed, in a chance encounter at Llanrwst leisure centre. ‘We had lots of friends in common, and the rest is history! I’m a bit more outgoing whilst Chris is rather shy. But as a partnership we complement each other.’
Whilst Chris spent his formative years as a Chef in London, he harboured a dream of opening a restaurant with rooms in North Wales. Gunna was a secretary at an aluminium factory in Dolanog at the time, and asissted Esmé Kirby, the founder of the Snowdonia National Park Society. It was at a restaurant in Zürich, whilst visiting Chris at work, where Gunna experienced world-class service at first hand . ‘The hostess was very attractive, with a nice personality, and she chatted with us during our meal. She was like a magician, because as she talked, she had also cleared the table – we were so charmed, we simply hadn’t noticed.’
That certainly helped Gunna to visualize what she had in mind upon receiving the keys to Plas Bodegroes in 1986. Whilst Chris and his team garnered rave reviews over the years, Gunna quietly went about the business of hosting guests. Although the original decor was mostly ‘country-house classic’, she introduced Scandi-touches too; string lighting from Copenhagen, wood floors and no carpeting – and no smoking in the dining room. ‘That was unheard of at the time, and if I had my way there would be no curtains either – that’s where Chris and I disagree. But much like white tablecloths – the height of elegance – they absorb sounds, which helps to create a warm atmosphere’.
Quite often, says Gunna, she’ll sit a new recruit at a dining table, and ask them to play the part of a guest, to encourage them to sense what’s missing. As for the ‘croeso’ element, how does one perfect that Welsh welcome, that keeps guests returning year after year? ‘I very often say you should treat your guests like your best friend’s mother; with kindness, generosity and respect. You should be very prepared to see them, and greet them warmly, but don’t overstep that familiarity.’ Gunna also relishes the role of ‘Front of House’ as a piece of theatre. ‘It’s a performance of sorts. You have a minute or five before you go out… and then it’s stage time – open curtain!’
In recent years, with plans to retire, the Chowns handed the reins of the business over to a management company. It was a disasterous move, and diners from near and far were delighted to see them ‘return’ – from their house next door! They have no plans to leave Pen Llŷn, a region of Wales that long ago stole their hearts. Last autumn, however, the business was placed on the market, in the hope that others might wish to continue the Plas Bodegroes legacy.
‘We created something beautiful, and we have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure, but in the end, we’ve got to let go. Whoever buys Plas Bodegroess musn’t think they can’t be as good as us. There should be no comparison.’ As for what Gunna’s last words might be, when she finally hands over the keys? A simple, heartfelt, ‘Diolch yn Fawr’.