> Chefs

Gareth Ward

That brought Gareth to Ynyshir (or Ynyshir Hall as it was known at the time) – a country house hotel in rural Wales. It was a Relais Chateaux hotel, very classical in style and in desperate need of something new to convince people to make the journey to eat and stay there. ‘I had my reservations at first – I didn’t want to work at a hotel because you end up doing room service and everything else, whereas I wanted to focus purely on the restaurant. But when I sat down for the interview, which ended up lasting nine hours, I knew it was where I was meant to be. It’s not very often that you meet an owner who will let you do your own thing with complete freedom, but the owner Joan Reen was completely open to letting me do something different.’

Joan sadly died a few years after Gareth started working there, but the new owner John Talbot – who was a regular at the restaurant – was keen to keep Gareth on board. ‘I was debating whether to stay or not, and I said to John we needed to drop the hotel because that was Joan’s thing, and reinvent ourselves as a restaurant with rooms. I’d won a Michelin star, and there were only ten bedrooms anyway, so it made sense. He was 100% behind us.’

At that point, Gareth’s partner Amelia Eriksson was running the restaurant at weekend whilst setting up her own architecture firm. She decided to go full-time at Ynyshir, revamping the interior and giving it a more modern, contemporary feel. ‘Hospitality was always a side job that just turned into something bigger,’ she says. ‘There was a lot of learning on the job, but we changed the feel of the place to reflect the food more. We’ve kept lots of the old period fittings that the building had, but introduced our own style to the place. There’s still lots to do, and I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we’ve finished, but it’s getting there.’

Gareth admits when he first arrived at Ynyshir his food was quite similar to what he had been doing at Restaurant Sat Bains, but since 2016 he has become much more confident in his own unique style. He and six other chefs create twenty-course tasting menus for the twenty-cover restaurant, and the majority of the work is in the processes behind each ingredient. ‘We age our beef for 300 days and preserve everything we can,’ he explains. ‘This year we harvested 200 kilograms of wild garlic in one afternoon, turning it into pickles, oils, powders and vinegars, which we can then use all year. We harvested 750 litres of birch water from the local birch trees in three weeks, boiling it down to create just 4 litres of this incredible tasting birch syrup. We make everything we can using elderflowers – that’s my favourite time of year – and then when elderberries come in we preserve them as well. It’s all about adapting to your environment; I’d never really preserved anything before but after looking at all the great produce around us it made total sense.’

These preserved ingredients and aged meats are what makes Gareth’s cooking stand out from anything else in the UK. But the final piece of the puzzle is the way he serves his tasting menu and how he dresses the plate, which has a Japanese style to it. ‘I wanted to serve a tasting menu with lots of courses, so I had to do away with really rich stocks and jus,’ he says. ‘There aren’t many carbs, and we don’t really use dairy or gluten for the same reasons. I like using miso and soy-based dressings because they season food in a much more interesting way. Salt is just salty. The Japanese influence isn’t really intentional; I just think it makes food taste nicer when you use those ingredients.’

Japanese seasonings and techniques; preserved and fermented Welsh ingredients and a procession of bite-size courses that champion meat, fat and flavour above all else is what makes Gareth Ward such a renowned name amongst chefs. But he’s open about the fact that it’s hard to convince people to make the journey to Ynyshir. ‘As soon as people know what we’re doing here they want to come, but I think we’re still very much undiscovered. Changing the perception that we’re just another country house hotel is probably our biggest challenge, and we do struggle business-wise, but for me that’s a challenge. We don’t get any passing trade so we have to convince people it’s worth the trip to get here. We’re no different to somewhere like Fäviken in Sweden. I just happen to think our food is better!’

Three things you should know

Gareth recently installed a Saltan Himalayan salt chamber in the grounds of Ynyshir, to take his house-aged Welsh Wagyu and meat to the next level.

Gareth and Amelia still have many plans for Ynyshir, including adding more bedrooms, creating a kitchen garden and continuing to renovate the interior.

Gareth has been offered the chance to appear on Great British Menu several times, but has refused as he wouldn't be able to showcase his unique style on the programme.