Hywel Griffith, chef-patron and director of the Michelin-starred Beach House in Oxwich, talks to Caroline Baldwin about creating relaxed fine dining and his love of Welsh produce.
How do you approach fine dining at a beach-side restaurant?
Twenty or 30 years ago fine dining was very suited and booted. The service was efficient, but super-stiff – borderline uncomfortable. I grew up in a small community in Bethesda in North Wales, and at 17 I was offered the chance to go down to London as a young chef. It was a shock. Fast-forward to today and people now understand food.
I want Oxwich to be a relaxed, natural setting – for example, the terrace is distressed, dried and cracked from the ocean. It's nice, but not polished. I want guests to go for a walk on the beach in shorts and T-shirts and then enjoy their food in a stylish, but not stuffy, restaurant.
How are you championing fine dining in Wales?
Five years ago, when I came from the Freemasons at Wiswell in Lancashire, there was no expectations from guests at the Beach House. It was almost a surprise to them that it was really good. If it wasn't for the locals, it would be busy with second-home owners from London at Easter and summer, and in the winter the business would be screwed.
I started off quite simply, with only one or two challenging dishes, like sweetbreads, but today it's common for there only to be one "safe" dish on the menu. Our customers have come on a journey with us and they trust me in the restaurant, rather than what's written on the menu. I didn't come to South Wales to do fish and chips and steak, but if we had started off with what we had today, we'd have scared everyone off. It was something I wanted to progress with and it was very clear in my mind that there was nothing else like this in the area.
Our customers have come on a journey with us and they trust me in the restaurant, rather than what's written on the menu
My menu is in Welsh and English, which was something I really wanted to do around two or three years ago, and I didn't know of any other restaurant in Wales that did it back then – it was a big thing. Now we have people driving to us for lunch just because I speak Welsh. Two guests in their seventies regularly drive three hours from West Wales to visit because of this. And the English guests enjoy it too. It's important for the Welsh language, and being in Wales, I wanted to contribute to that movement.
We have people driving to us for lunch just because I speak Welsh
In the last two years, you've been promoted to director and you've won the regional heats of Great British Menu twice. Do you still have time to be in the kitchen at Oxwich?
I still cook every day. I don't think it would be very genuine if I wasn't here for more than half of the time when my name is on the door; I feel it's a bit dishonest and I have strong moral standards with things like that. After Great British Menu people want to meet me as well, and I would feel I've let them down if they came to say hello and I wasn't here. I think I've missed less than 20 services in five years!
Are you being affected by the staffing crisis?
I'm really fortunate in that every one of my staff who was furloughed has come back and they're happy to be here. It's a powerful feeling and tells me that we treat everybody right. If you've got a Michelin star, people want to work for you – it's one of the best things about it.
I think the problem in the industry is too many chefs are holding onto this 1980s attitude of shouting at staff and generally being a nob – it's so outdated. No one wants to spend all day in a kitchen and get shouted out.
And it's alright to say there's a skills shortage, but have you actually spent time trying to teach people something? I like to push my staff to learn things – whether they're comfortable or not. I truly believe they'll appreciate it later in life, so every single chef in the kitchen has to go on pastry – they learn every section.
Championing Welsh produce
When Griffith first started at the Beach House five years ago, he sourced Welsh ingredients from five local suppliers – he now works with nearly 30. Here are his top picks.
- Lobsters caught right in front of the restaurant
- Truffles from the Monmouthshire/Torfaen border, supplied by the Welsh Truffle Company
- Gower salt marsh lamb, supplied by the Pritchard Family
- Venison from Towy Valley Fish & Game
- Cheese from all over Wales, but one of Griffith's favourites is an unpasteurised ewes' milk cheese, made by Carrie Rimes from his hometown of Bethesda, named Brefu Bach (Welsh for ‘little bleat')
- Halen Môn sea salt from Anglesey
- Laverbread and cockles from Selwyn's Seaweed in North Gower
- Meat from aerial farmer Paviland Farm.
The bread served at the restaurant incorporates Welsh seaweed – laverbread – folded through a light white dough, which is then dipped in water and rolled in oats before proving in individual tins. The crusty loaf is taken to the table whole and when it is cut open guests see a vein of seaweed through it. It is served with salted Welsh butter.
"In the olden days, men would go down the mines with a mix of cooked seaweed and oats, which would create a dry scone," Griffith explains. "They'd eat that with a lump of cheese or a slice of boiled ham. So this is a nod to what the grandparents of my generation used to eat, but brought into modern cuisine."
Bara brith soufflé
The traditional Welsh bread of bara brith is flavoured with tea, dried fruits and spices, and the soufflé Griffith created five years ago is a nod to his grandmother's baking, which he used to enjoy as an afternoon treat with a cup of tea.
Griffith bakes a whole bara brith and cold-blends it through a cornflour crème pâtissière, folding egg whites through to make the soufflé, which sits in a dish dusted with a mixed-spice sugar. The dish is served with a strong tea ice-cream, and guests can smell the fresh spices as the dessert is brought to the table.
Phil Boorman Photography
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