Gareth Ward has some rules: guests have one menu; if he says a dish is right, it’s right; and above all, there’s to be no bitching in his kitchen. But the rules are there for a reason: to create food that is a perfect expression of its providence, to have happy chefs and, as he says, to have fun dining, not fine dining. James Stagg meets him
Gareth Ward is an uncompromising character. The same could be said of plenty of chefs, but not many have the confidence to turn an existing business on its head and rebuild it from the ground up.
That’s what the chef is steadily doing at Ynyshir, located at the edge of Snowdonia National Park in Eglwys Fach, Powys, in what was once a traditional Relais & Châteaux hotel. Now it’s an edgy and experimental 20-cover restaurant with rooms, serving a self-assured, meat-led menu to a hip-hop soundtrack dictated by Ward.
The chef joined the hotel in 2013 under then owners Rob and Joan Reen. In partnership with hotel regulars John and Jenny Talbot, they had bought the business back from Von Essen in 2012 after it went into administration, having originally sold the property to the group in 2006. Back then, it was a classic country house hotel, but Ward says: “Joan was class, she let me do what I wanted and was super-supportive. I got here and thought I’d do three years, find my own style and move on to my own place.”
But everything changed when Reen died in February 2016 leaving the business, and Ward, in limbo.
“So I got to the three-year point and, unfortunately, Joan died. It was awful. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “I had been thinking of moving on, but it would have looked really bad. Then John Talbot and Jenny said they wanted us to stay; that the business had been built around us.”
The Talbots bought Rob Reen’s stake and asked Ward and Amelia Eriksson, his partner and the general manager, for their vision for the hotel. They said it would have to be a restaurant with rooms.
“I thought this place was too small to be a hotel,” Ward says. “It’s a restaurant with rooms. It has no facilities – no spa, swimming pool, gym or golf course. You come to eat and stay. So I sold that idea to them and they went with it.”
The vote of confidence gave Ward the authority to overhaul the business, changing it completely from a leisure hotel where guests would stay for a few days to a destination restaurant where nobody was expected to stay more than a night and the only dinner option was Ward’s 20-course tasting menu.
The pair closed the business for two weeks and, in their own words, “ripped it apart”. The bar was moved to the front of the house to better connect it to the restaurant and allow guests to enjoy views of the manicured gardens and foothills of Snowdonia over pre-dinner drinks. Ward and Eriksson also completely refurbished the restaurant, creating a stripped-back Scandinavian atmosphere with dark grey walls, wooden floors and furniture slung with fur throws. It was a bold move and something of a gamble, particularly for a business in such a remote location.
“We absolutely killed the business in the first year,” Ward admits. “It was a bit worrying. Some 30 years of custom had been built up with people coming back two or three times a year to stay a week, or come for Christmas every year. Suddenly, it’s not for them.
“Some came to try it and realised they weren’t going to get what they wanted any more. It was very much my way or the highway. So it’s been fucking hard work. Though, don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work for six years.”
Now, Ward says that it’s “a dream”, and the dark early days where he had to run service alone as he couldn’t attract chefs to the remote part of west Wales are over. That is largely because he is doing something quite different and not compromising on this vision. He admits he’s not making any money yet either, but the business plan is taking shape and 2019 is looking like it will be a milestone for Ynyshir with the business set to turn a slight profit.
“This year looks like it’s going to be incredible,” Ward enthuses. “In real terms this is our third year of trading and we’re on break even. Even if we get into profit by £1, I’ll celebrate.”
He adds that it was always going to take time for such a radical change to bed in and for his individual approach to be recognised. “This place isn’t normal. It’s mental, but it’s fucking class. We’re doing completely different food to anyone else and it’s in our own style. I’m not watching what any other chefs are doing – I’m not interested. I respect what others are doing, of course I do, I just don’t want to be influenced by it.”
In fact, it’s hard to pin down Ward’s influences. He’s undoubtedly taken some inspiration from working as a sous chef at Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, but his menu is very much his own, with a focus on aged meat, pickling and fermenting. The restaurant’s mission statement – the first thing potential guests read on the website – is ‘ingredient-led, flavour-driven, far-fuelled, meat-obsessed’. The description might put some off, but that’s the intention. There is no vegetarian menu as such, and diners are warned the menu is unsuitable for fish-, alcohol- and soy-free diets.
“Some people come and you think, ‘why are you here?’ But I don’t hide it,” Ward says. “It’s the first thing you read on the website, intentionally. But you can’t please everyone.”
It’s hard to describe Ward’s cooking any more succinctly than the mission statement, which is also posted around the restaurant. He sources fantastic produce, much of it local, with a strong emphasis on meat, ageing it, marinating it and typically barbecuing it before presenting it in a series of bite-sized courses.
There are no sauces or stocks in the kitchen; instead, Ward employs Japanese and Chinese flavours to season his food, though he is dismissive when asked if this was always his plan.
“I’m not going to lie, I make it up,” he admits. “Put a bit of soy sauce in and everyone thinks it’s Japanese. As long as it’s got mirin, miso, soy, dashi and maybe some rice vinegar you’re laughing. It’s food that I love to eat, so I love to cook it.
“It started off with just one dish with those ingredients, but the way I think of a menu is that it has to all work together, so I thought I had to keep that flow. So I got rid of salt and seasoned every dish with soy, miso, rice vinegar and mirin. We don’t use any salt except for curing, though I’m looking into curing with soy.”
An example of Ward’s curiosity is a dish of aged mackerel served with British wasabi, seasoned with mirin and rice vinegar and served like sashimi. The fish is gutted before a pin is inserted to open its belly so that it doesn’t sweat during the seven to 10 days in the Himalayan salt chamber. Ward is a big fan of mackerel, which he sources from the Scottish, Cornish or Irish coast, and the dish has been on the menu since he arrived.
“I’d never had aged fish before, so I thought I’d try it out and it’s mind-blowing,” he says. “I’ve a £20,000 salt chamber, so I thought, let’s put everything in it. We put salmon belly in there too.”
Taking pride of place in the salt chamber is the Welsh wagyu, a meat that Ward has put on the map. Sourced from a farm just a few miles from Ynyshir, it forms the heart of the menu, appearing as a burger, a rib and as a tartare. The fat is served with sourdough, in a miso treacle tart, and as Welsh wagyu fudge. It’s quite some product, particularly after Ward has pushed the ageing (the length of time the meat has been aged is displayed on a digital timer near the kitchen, and it stood at 193 days when The Caterer visited). It’s a risky process, and certainly not great for cashflow, but Ward won’t compromise.
“Obviously, you shit yourself a little bit by leaving it so long,” he says. “I was originally buying aged meat, but it’s much more fun to do it yourself – the satisfaction is amazing. And having the fridge out there, where we’re constantly monitoring, changing and pushing, I get a huge amount of pleasure.”
All dishes are served by the chefs from an open kitchen. Ward prefers to stay at the stove, taking personal charge of every piece of meat charred on the barbecue, but he leaves the pass to one of his seven-strong brigade, who brings each dish over for him to inspect before being presented to the diner.
“I’m cooking. This is my restaurant. I see every dish that goes out of the room,” Ward says. “The buck stops with me. I taste everything that goes out to make sure it’s right, so if the customer says it’s wrong, they’re wrong.”
Putting the fun back into fine dining
This confidence and dedication, along with the great scope for innovation and experimentation, has attracted other chefs to the business. In the early days Ward found it hard to recruit, but not now.
“There were days when it was just me in the kitchen because I couldn’t get any staff,” he explains. “We’re in the arse-end of nowhere and we didn’t have a reputation. Now it’s different and I have a waiting list of chefs.”
He puts it down to the opportunity to work in an environment squarely aimed at inspiring the chefs to deliver exceptional dishes. They choose the records played each night (they are also listed on the menu) and are given licence to experiment, all in a calm atmosphere.
“There’s zero stress here; I won’t allow it,” Ward says. “There’s no shouting and screaming, there’s no bullshit. If someone starts bitching or moaning, I’ll stop it straight away.”
This is partly because the chefs are surrounded by their guests, so can’t help but be fully immersed in the experience. The approach has paid dividends, with the Michelin-starred restaurant winning a number of accolades, including being named Best Place to Eat in Wales 2018 by Wales Online and taking the number five slot in The Good Food Guide 2019 with Ward recognised at its Chef of the Year.
“I’m not into fine dining – for me, it’s done,” Ward says. “I call what I do fun dine, not fine dine, because it’s all about having a laugh. We all work hard, and nobody has any money anymore, so if someone comes here and spends their money, they want to have a good time. They should be able to wear what they want to and relax and have a laugh. I don’t want them to feel like they’re in a stuffy restaurant with someone waiting over them to pour water.”
The only disappointment for Ward is that some of the guests choose to stay elsewhere in the nearby village, rather than take advantage of the Ynyshir rooms, which are being individually refurbished to bring them closer in design terms to the appearance of the restaurant. The former bar on the ground floor is the first to have been refurbished, with the rooms upstairs in the main house to follow. However, he and Eriksson are about to embark on a project to widen the appeal of the business and potentially head off any threat from Airbnb.
“We’re looking at doing some glamping,” Ward says. “We have a teepee already but we’re looking at more. The garden costs us £12,000 a year in upkeep, so we have to make it work. The restaurant can’t sustain that, but if we get some teepees and do some glamping it might cover the cost of the garden. And it’s very cool.”
It’s not the only scheme Ward is planning to diversify the business and add revenue streams. He is also eyeing up the outhouses, which currently provide storage, to create businesses that service both his guests and the local community.
“This is my life, it’s not a hobby,” Ward says. “It’s a business and these nine rooms and 20-cover restaurant will never make enough money. We need other revenue streams coming in to make some decent cash.
“We’re thinking about doing a pub in the outbuildings. Maybe a bakery and a shop. You have to do everything you can without compromising on quality.”
Ward refuses to compromise anywhere, and that is what makes Ynyshir such an attractive dining destination. Nothing is spared in the pursuit of flavour. It might have meant that it’s taken time for the business to be viable, but thanks to some passionate and patient owners, the chef has been given the time to find his feet in business and develop a product that is a true reflection of his slow-food style.
“You look at the gross profit and think, this is shit,” Ward says. “But I don’t look at it for that reason, otherwise I’d be swayed by it. I work to get a dish right and serve the best food I possibly can. And I enjoy doing it.”
On the menu
• Not French onion soup
• Aylesbury duck from Fishguard
• Goosnargh chicken katsu
• Bread miso cultured butter, Welsh wagyu dripping
• Aged mackerel wasabi
• Cod black
• Hoisin cucumber
• Cawl spring
• Pork belly char sui
• Duck liver Cox apple, spelt, eel
• Garlic prawn
• Chilli crab
• Welsh wagyu 05/09/18 burger, raw, rib
• Beauvale Comice pear (optional)
• Yuzu slushy
• White chocolate black bean
• Parsnip rye, maple, verjus
• Miso treacle tart
• Rhubarb and custard
• Welsh wagyu fudge
Twenty-course lunch or dinner, £150
On the playlist
ACDC Back in Black
Anderson .Paak Malibu
2Pac All Eyez on Me
Mobb Deep The Infamous
Fugees The Score
Creedence Clearwater Revival Green River
Age and experience
Ward likes to take his time over food. He admits that no dish is ever truly finished, with everything a work in progress and perfection the only goal. It’s all part of his respect for the ingredients that he has worked so hard to source. There is no wastage in the kitchen, as any produce that can’t be immediately employed is pickled and fermented to see the restaurant through lean spells.
“Some of the dishes might look the same as they were four years ago,” Ward says. “But when you eat them you’ll realise, ‘you know what, that’s better, that’s changed’. We’re constantly searching for the best.”
A project Ward says is the biggest he’s ever undertaken is his sourdough. The bread, which is made using flour from grains milled on-site, has an incredible depth of flavour thanks to the slow-prove technique he has employed.
“The starter is over six years old,” he says. “The seven-day prove takes that over-sour flavour away, as it’s done so gently without any heat. Once it’s ready, we have to burn the crust when we bake it, because after seven days the outside is completely dry. It makes it chewy. For me, it’s the best slice of toast I’ve ever had.”
The bread, made with buttermilk rather than water, is accompanied by a homemade cultured butter as well as a quenelle of wagyu dripping.
Like the bread, the simple appearance of the other dishes often belies the time that has gone into their development. But the intensity of flavour achieved is justification for the effort. One such surprise is a dish of char sui pork belly, served as two slices in its own cooking juices. It’s an intense mouthful that carries incredible flavour.
“That dish took two years to master,” Ward explains. “We use a Middle White-cross from Derbyshire – they’re bred for bacon, so they’re fatty animals – and I mess around with the marinade all the time.”
The pork is brined for five days in a 5% salt solution before resting in a char sui marinade for 48 hours that contains hoi sin, fermented tofu, loads of garlic, ginger and sugar. It’s then removed and put in oil.
Ward says: “It’s the same with salmon. The process means it can be stripped of moisture. But if you put it back in oil for the same amount of days it comes out fresh again. Char sui is quite harsh, so to get it back into the oil brings it back to life. Then we gently cook it and char it on the barbecue.
“I’ve gone through so much pork to get that recipe right it’s unbelievable. I nearly gave up a few times. It has to blow your mind – but it’s just a piece of meat sitting in a bowl.”