Richard McComb reports on their journey from London's West End to Wales, where they run restaurant with rooms Tyddyn Llan in Llandrillo, Denbighshire
To understand a chef, you need to look at his food. So let us take two duck dishes. First, breast of Gressingham duck is stacked on top of a hearty potato pancake with a classic cider and apple sauce. The dish is finished with Granny Smith apple, cut into small dice then cooked in butter and Calvados.
The second is more elaborate. The duck, from Cefnllan Farm in Llangammarch Wells, Powys, is accompanied by a sphere of duck faggot, dressed in crépinette, and a golden-brown square of confit potatoes, slow-cooked with shredded confit duck legs.
Here are two starkly different dishes, yet they were devised by the same chef, Bryan Webb, also co-owner of Tyddyn Llan restaurant with rooms in Llandrillo, Denbighshire.
Less than a decade separates the two plates. Webb says he felt under pressure to modernise the original dish, which became a staple on the menu after he and wife, Susan, who runs front of house, took over Tyddyn Llan in 2002. A "fancy" duck dish the couple ate at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco convinced Bryan that the potato pancake had had its day.
"The presentation is more in keeping with what people want these days," says Bryan. "But if you want a piece of food that is really me, it would be a piece of sea bass, laverbread butter sauce, some spinach. Full stop. Or steak au poivre, chips and green salad."
Five decades of food We are sitting in the lounge at Tyddyn Llan, a Georgian shooting lodge, sipping Earl Grey tea and reflecting on a career that has spanned five decades. The conversation touches on iconic names in the British culinary lexicon - the Rouxs, Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay. Webb has been ever-present on the cooking scene during this period, yet he is something of an unknown star, waiting patiently until 2010 - and the age of 50 - to be bestowed with a Michelin star.
Now another landmark has arrived - the silver anniversary of his professional partnership with Susan (there is another three years to go before the matrimonial equivalent). It is a stellar achievement for a husband-and-wife team in one of the British economy's most turbulent sectors.
"We spend every waking hour together, even though we can be like ships that pass in the night in the kitchen," says Susan, adding with a smile: "We still talk to each other. I actually quite like him."
Bryan was brought up in the south Wales mining community of Crumlin, Caerphilly. His father, Bernard, a mines rescue manager, said there would always be a job down the pit, but it was the last thing Bryan wanted to do. After completing a catering course at a local college, he became a trainee chef at the Crown at Whitebrook, near Monmouth.
A way of life "I didn't really know anything about food. It just appealed to me," he explains. "Then it became a passion and a way of life. Sonia and Neville Blech, who owned the Crown back in the 1970s, instilled in me a passion for the business, which to this day I have got. I still look up to them."
The chef was stung by Sonia Blech's criticism that he had "no culture" - she meant in terms of food - but it taught him an important lesson: eat at as many different restaurants as you can afford, open yourself to influences, become enthused.
"The Good Food Guide became my Bible and most of my spare cash was spent in restaurants," recalls Bryan in his latest book, Not Bad for a Taff: 40 Years at the Stove. Other books in his growing reference library were Paul Bocuse's The New Cuisine, John Tovey's The Miller Howe Cookbook and Robert Carrier's Great Dishes of the World.
Bryan's career took him to the Drangway in Swansea, a "mind-blowing" stage at La Mère Poulade on Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, and Kirroughtree Country House hotel in Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway. Travelling to London, he took his first head chef's post at Café Rouge (unrelated to the chain of the same name) near the Barbican.
His next move, to Hilaire in Old Brompton Road in 1987, established his name on the London food scene. He took over the kitchen from one of his food heroes, Simon Hopkinson and, in his own words, found his feet. He honed the style of food he cooks today - "simple, clean and tasty food, not mucked around with too much, food that you want to eat".
Bryan finally took over Hilaire as chef-patron in 1990, and met Susan, previously working at Antony Worrall Thompson's Ménage Á Trois, when she came to help out in 1992. "I said I would manage the restaurant for two weeks," recalls Susan. "And that was 25 years ago."
The couple, who married in 1995, sold Hilaire in 2001 due to rent rises, which soared from £20,000 to £82,000. They took a year off and travelled the world with a view to returning to Wales. When a deal for a pub near Monmouth fell through, fate intervened and they stayed a night at Tyddyn Llan. They knew the owners, who announced they were selling, and suggested it would be great if the Webbs took over. The couple's budget was £350,000; the price tag for Tyddyn Llan topped £1m.
"We found a nice bank manager and borrowed way too much money," says Bryan. "We maxed all our credits cards - and boy did we have a lot of credit cards."
The couple simply loved the place. However, there was one major issue. Tyddyn Llan's business model relied on it operating as a small hotel and the Webbs did not have any experience in managing bedrooms.
Full-time duty Susan explains: "At the end of the day, you put your key in the door of a restaurant and close it, but you are on duty 24/7 when you run a hotel. You've got people here all the time. And whereas in London you would get quiet times, in August, Easter and bank holidays, that's our busiest time here. It was a very steep learning curve."
Tyddyn Llan has 12 individually furnished bedrooms and a large garden suite with secluded outside seating. There are three main dinner menus in the 40-cover restaurant - the £65 Á la carte, a six-course tasting menu (£75) and a nine-course (£90).
Langoustine and diver-caught scallops arrive by overnight courier from Scotland, Welsh Black beef is sourced from local farms via butcher TJ Roberts in nearby Bala, buffalo mozzarella is flown in from Naples and Label Anglais chickens come from Wyndham Farm, Essex. Fish, including turbot and bass, is delivered from south-west England.
Bryan says: "When we had our restaurant in London, 55%-60% of the main courses were fish and the rest were meat. Come to North Wales, even after 14 years [at Tyddyn Llan] and you are still looking at 85% meat, 10%-15% fish."
His cooking relies on classic techniques. "We cook with saucepans and frying pans," says Bryan. He did buy a water bath, but it sits unused in the staff room. "I don't know how to use it really," he admits. "I bought it on a whim. And then we got a Michelin star and I thought it was a lucky charm. So I don't want to throw it away. I would rather have a pot of water and a thermometer."
He has used a vac-pac machine since 1992 on the recommendation of Marco Pierre White. "He told me, 'This is what you've got to buy. It'll save you X, Y and Z'," says Bryan. "He was right. There are certain dishes we wouldn't be able to do if we couldn't sous vide things."
s is not a chef who will introduce or drop dishes to satisfy the current trend. When a guide inspector told him to axe his salmon terrine because it was "old hat" he was incensed. "Why should I drop it? Why should all restaurants be the same?" he says. The salmon terrine is on the menu during my visit, and several guests order it.
There continue to be culinary challenges for Bryan and his small brigade. The previous night, a table of five, including a vegetarian and a vegan, all wanted a nine-course tasting menu. "My first reaction was 'I can't do it' and then my brain started to work a bit," he says.
It must have been a busy day prepping for kitchen stalwart Vivi, who Bryan relies on for vegetable peeling and chopping: "When she is on holiday, I get blisters on my hands. I think after 40 years of chopping your own mirepoix, there has got to be some luxury."
Old habits die hard, which means the menu is printed every night at 6.55pm, just before the guests arrive. "He does fly by the seat of his pants," says Susan. "I like to live on the edge," adds Bryan.
The dinner menu remains resolutely comprehensive, with six or seven choices for starters and main courses. Lunch is served on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The couple say they are in the best financial position of their lives and, interestingly, profits have increased since they took the decision a year ago to close for two days a week, on Monday and Tuesday. Bryan's 'weekend' begins after he cooks breakfast on Monday.
"It's the only way to get me out of bed," he says. "Can you imagine lying in bed and the chef hasn't turned up to cook breakfast? It's the last thing I want. And I'm a control freak. I would say I do breakfast 95% of the time."
"99% of the time," adds Susan.
It is a punishing schedule, so I am interested why Bryan still insists on full-throttle gastronomy. "Why do I still do it? Number one, because I can't do anything else," he laughs. "Number two, I enjoy the lifestyle that goes with it. I like eating in nice restaurants, I like travelling and I like socialising. Unless you have a good income, you can't do that.
"At the moment, we don't have an exit plan. If someone came along with a chequebook, I might think about it. I can see us being here until I have a heart attack at the stove. And we're well insured, so that's OK!"
Admonished by Susan, Bryan gets ready to head back to the kitchen in readiness for dinner service and menu writing. First, he will prepare the dinner the couple will eat after the final plates have gone out, around 11pm. Tonight it is Chinese.
I am intrigued about those two duck recipes though - the robust French-informed plate versus the modern British interpretation. Which one does Bryan actually prefer? "Probably the original one," he says.
Being banned by Marco
Bryan Webb incurred the wrath of Marco Pierre White after a "really bad lunch, food and service" at the Canteen in the 1990s.
He says: "Marco saw me from the bar and called me over to ask what was wrong. So I told him, which he did not like, and he was with the head chef of Nico's at the time, which must have made matters worse. So the bill was ripped up and we were banned from all his restaurants.
"By the time I got back to Hilaire, his fishmonger was on the phone asking what was wrong with the fish. The ban was lifted after meeting him with Mr [Michael] Winner at Kartouche and I went up to say hello."
Bryan Webb on…
Favourite restaurants Chez Bruce [London] and the Walnut Tree [Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny] - "My favourite restaurant since I was 15."
Michelin star wars: the Fat Duck or the Waterside Inn? The Waterside Inn
Best meal The Modern, New York
Definitive Bryan Webb dish Roast wild bass with laverbread butter sauce
Tip for early career professionals "It's not just about cooking and serving the customers; the business side is crucial."
Celebrity claim to fame David Beckham's dad has fitted kitchens for him - twice
Secret passion Classic 1970s rock music - his favourite song is David Bowie's Drive-In Saturday. (Writer's note: I am unfamiliar with the song; on my drive home from Tyddyn Llan, it comes on the radio.)