Gareth Ward


Gareth Ward

Tucked away in a country house hotel in rural Wales, Gareth Ward is creating dishes like no one else in the UK. With a focus on aged meat, preserved seasonal ingredients and punchy Japanese flavours, his tasting menus are bold, exciting and an absolute must-try.

It takes most people a long time to get to Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant-with-rooms in the remote Welsh countryside, but anyone who has eaten his multi-layered tasting menus will tell you it’s more than worth the effort. Regularly cited as the most exciting chef cooking in the UK today, he spends his time preserving seasonal ingredients and creating punchy Japanese-inspired sauces and dressings to act as perfect accompaniments to meat (which he dry-ages for up to 300 days himself). The result is a menu that is unlike anything else in the world, full of rich flavours that somehow marry together Japanese techniques and flavours with the wild ingredients of the Welsh countryside.

Growing up in County Durham, Gareth didn’t really care about food until he went into the kitchen. ‘I was a bit of a dropout to be honest, and I only went into the kitchen because my uncle told me I’d always have a job doing it,’ he explains. ‘I was a very picky eater, but when I got my first job at a place called the Seven Stars in Shincliffe, I couldn’t get enough of it.’

The Seven Stars served the standard pub fare, and while Gareth loved discovering new ingredients and the discipline of the kitchen, it wasn’t until a chef joined the team and told him to find somewhere where he could hone his natural talent for cooking that he had even heard of Michelin-starred cooking. ‘A guy called Alan O’Kane gave me the Good Food Guide and told me to pick some places I liked the look of, so he could help me secure an interview. My first choice was Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, but when I went down there for a trial it was just too much for me; I wasn’t ready. So instead I ended up at Hambleton Hall in Rutland, working under Aaron Patterson.’

Gareth stayed at Hambleton Hall for the next five years, learning all the classics and becoming an accomplished chef who could cook at a Michelin star standard. ‘It’s where I learnt how to cook and appreciate ingredients. The military precision the kitchen followed completely changed my life. Everyone has their opinions on Michelin but one thing it does do is set a standard for restaurants to work to, and after working at Hambleton Hall I knew I never wanted to be in a non-starred kitchen ever again.’

After five years at Hambleton Hall Gareth was offered the job of sous chef, but he had promised himself that if a restaurant in the North East ever got a Michelin star, he would go and work there. So when Seaham Hall won one under Steve Smith, he moved back home to join the team. ‘I was there for about a year until it was bought out by Von Essen, which then went into administration and everything went pear-shaped,’ says Gareth. ‘I gave Aaron a call because I needed a job, and he gave me the head chef role at Hart’s (the sister restaurant to Hambleton Hall) in Nottingham.’

Gareth spent the next year and a half at Hart’s, but it was always meant to be a stopgap. Meanwhile, his wife at the time took a job as a receptionist at Restaurant Sat Bains, and when Gareth decided to leave Hart’s Sat Bains gave him a call. ‘There was a sous chef job going as Paul Foster was leaving, so I took the job and started working there a week later. I was there for the next three years.’

If Gareth’s time at Hambleton Hall had taught him how to cook, his time at Restaurant Sat Bains was where he learnt to think about food. ‘It’s a crazy, amazing place to be,’ he explains. ‘I think of it as a finishing school – I was thirty years old and could already cook when I started there, but Sat pushes you to get involved with creating the menu. He teaches you to think about flavours and how to build a dish rather than just focusing on getting your mise en place ready. It changed how my brain worked, and after three years of working there I was ready for my first head chef role, so I gave in my notice and started looking.’

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 (although winning a second Michelin star in 2022 no doubt helped persuade a good few). ‘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!’