Set amongst the pretty chocolate box houses of Fordyce in Aberdeenshire is a Church of Scotland parish church, which closed in 2012 because it was feared the dilapidated bellecot would collapse on parishioners one day.
In 2014, having sold their successful B&B business in Buckie with the intention of moving to the Scottish Borders, Alison and Chris Temple noticed the church was up for sale and were immediately hooked.
‘We loved the church when we first saw it. It was a very plain Church of Scotland building – no stained glass windows, no graveyard, nothing fancy,’ says Chris,
The fact that is was surrounded by a beautiful village, was the icing on the cake. ‘We’d always loved spending time in Fordyce, so we rethought our plans, put in an offer in and it was accepted.’ Alison explains.
So far, so good but then the real hard work began. The church looked as if it had just been locked up after its last service and had to be completely renovated. Turning the Grade B listed building into their new home and business wasn’t going to be an easy task.
The Old Kirk is steeped in history. Scottish Samurai Thomas Blake Glover’s mother was married here. During the renovation, they found a redcoat sleeve in the attic dating back to the Napoleonic Wars and Alison has traced the names of four soldiers it might have belonged to with the help of the National War Museum in Edinburgh.
The renovation took four long years, and Alison and Chris undertook much of it themselves, including some back-breaking work clearing out 100 tonnes of rubble from underneath the floor of the church.
‘The floorboards had just been laid directly onto the soil,’ explains Chris.
Alison and Chris’s previous business as B&B owners prepared them well, and they wanted to breathe life back into the village itself. Other eateries had shut down, and they wanted to give both locals and visitors alike somewhere to eat in the village.
To that end, the Old Kirk Cafe & Bistro was born. Asked if it’s strange to have customers and staff in their home,
Alison says: ‘No! When we ran the B&B we really were on duty 24 hours a day but here the guests leave at 4pm. We just shut the door, get ready for the next day and leave it at that.’
This demarcation was even more important during the renovation, and Chris was the strict enforcer of a rule not to talk about the project after 8pm at night. ‘That was hard, especially for me,’ admits Alison. But this breathing space gave a much-needed, albeit brief respite from what turned out to be a gruelling, and at times overwhelming, process.
Chris is in charge of sourcing for the bistro, and has a license to buy fish and shellfish directly from the boats, which usually land just along the coast in Buckie. It allows him to create dishes with more unusual fish, and means that the seafood specials are never confirmed until the day before they are served – or even the day itself.
Some of the fish and seafood dishes on offer at the time of going to press were panfried monkfish with green beans, asparagus, crispy bacon and double-dipped home-made dripping chips; large langoustine and crab salad; and lobster linguini in a roast garlic and tomato sauce with toasted garlic bread.
Sourcing fresh, local ingredients is something that makes the eatery stand out from the crowd, with meat procured from IG Thompson in nearby Keith. Chris is in charge of sourcing, and also works as the right-hand man to head chef Keith Mitchell, who previously worked at Drummuir Castle, Diageo’s Speyside base and the Monastery Restaurant.
Meanwhile, Alison takes care of front-of-house and behind the scenes duties and the couple’s grown up daughters are currently living in Fordyce and helping out with the business. One is keen baker and helps Alison with the cakes and tray bakes.
The café is also now open on certain evenings for a supper club with a set menu and a sense of occasion. ‘These started as just one per month but we’ve had such a huge response and were sold out for the first one in just a few days so we’re now holding two per month on the first and third Saturdays of the month,’ says Alison.
Now that The Old Kirk Cafe & Bistro is up and running, what does the future hold for this powerhouse of a couple? They admit that a holiday would be on the cards, and once the business is bedded in, they would like to take a step back and let their carefully selected team get on with the job in hand.
‘All of our friends are starting to slow down, and enjoy their time now that their kids have flown the nest. They think we are mad for taking all of this on at our stage in life,’ laughs Alison.