Surrounded by rhododendron bushes and undulating yet carefully trimmed lawns, Ynyshir looks like a typical country house hotel. But all is not quite as it seems at this remote property, which is located just south of Snowdonia National Park on the western edge of Mid Wales.
Those that venture inside will find seminal late 90s hip hop album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill spinning on the record player and a massive, sweary chef with a broad north-eastern accent cooking lengthy tastings menus of uncompromisingly-edgy, Asian-influenced food. That chef is Gareth Ward.
He and partner and general manager Amelia Eriksson do things so differently at Ynyshir – pronounced in-i-se-er – that the Michelin-starred venue feels like it’s been designed to be the antithesis of the traditional country house hotel.
The small dining room is stripped back and a little Scandi in feel, and features a fully open kitchen. There are five tables that seat four each, a kitchen bench for two that overlooks the two savoury sections and the pass, and a six cover chef’s table above the pastry section.
Everything is served by chefs, an approach that means the restaurant only has two front of house staff; Eriksson and a bar manager (both are knowledgeable about wine but there is no sommelier as such) rather than the legions of people often seen on the floors of country house hotel dining rooms.
And then there’s the music, which is what Ward – who has headed the kitchen since 2013 – and the team want to listen to. It’s an eclectic mix, and again at odds with the restaurant’s bucolic setting (the night Restaurant visits the playlist includes Doves, David Bowie and raucous blues band The Black Keys).
The food itself is described as ‘alternative British snap’ (snap being a north-eastern term for food) that is ‘ingredient led, flavour-driven, fat-fueled and meat obsessed’. This is an entirely accurate description, but one that doesn’t quite do justice to Ward’s in-your-face cooking. His approach is strikingly different to the norm; a peculiar but effective marriage of top-quality produce, Asian flavours and unusual technique served in a succession of tiny bites.
“It’s my personality and a reflection of what I like to eat,” says the 36-year-old. “People say you should cook for your customers. I say fuck that. I cook for myself.”
It’s an uncompromising stance that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does result in some of the UK’s most exciting food. Like Hedone’s Mikael Jonsson, another brilliant but somewhat obdurate chef, Ward does not cater for vegetarians.
“I love vegetables, but we’re a meat restaurant. I would not want to take their money because they would not get the full experience,” continues Ward, whose CV includes Hambleton Hall in Rutland and Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham.
Ward has always been the meat guy, heading the sauce section in all the restaurants he has worked in. Ynyshir is no exception. Wearing skinny jeans and a T-shirt with a tea towel slung over his shoulder, he runs his own section to the rear of the kitchen cooking dishes on a pair of planchas and a Big Green Egg ceramic barbecue.
Running the pass is left to a more junior member of the team; Eriksson – who met Ward while working on the bar at Restaurant Sat Bains – says it makes sense for the most experienced person in the kitchen to cook, not shuffle around the tickets.
A famed hotel
So how has a country house hotel that attracts walkers and bird watchers come to have such a progressive chef in the kitchen?
Ward and Eriksson became partners in the business in 2017 following the death of general manager Joan Reen. A former geography teacher, Reen took on the hotel with husband Rob in 1989. During their tenure, the pair successfully navigated it through a rocky period when it was owned by the now defunct Von Essen hotel group and employed a string of talented chefs, including Adam Simmonds, Shane Hughes, Les Rennie and Paul Croasdale (who all won stars).
Reen, a formidable operator by all accounts, also famously turned away Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant for being too scruffy.
“Joan had a knack for employing great chefs but the focus was always on the hotel,” says Ward. “After her passing things became very difficult. She was the hotel. We came very close to leaving.
“But then we got a call from John (Talbot, Ynyshir’s owner). He asked me what I thought we should do. Ynyshir’s too small to be a proper hotel and has none of the facilities most people would expect. I said we should turn it into a destination restaurant with rooms.”
Talbot was persuaded, and gave Ward and Eriksson a 10% share in the business which could increase to 40% over the next few years. “Hopefully he’ll sell it to me one day. To be now in a position where I own a part of my business is incredible, because I have no money to speak of myself. This is me. I’m not going anywhere.”
Ward started cooking in his mid-teens (“because I needed a job”) but has only worked at a handful of restaurants. “My mum marched me down to the job centre the day after I finished school,” he recalls. “She nearly fell off her chair when I said I wanted to go into kitchens because I’d always been a picky eater.”
Taking a job washing up in a basic but well-run pub in County Durham, he took to kitchen life straight away. “I loved the rules. I come from a rough area and could have easily gone down the wrong path,” he says.
He soon worked his way up the ladder to become a chef, and, a few years later, went to work at Hambleton Hall in Rutland under Aaron Patterson. “He taught me how to cook. When I started I was just a kid. I was blown away by it all. Everything was cooked classically. We did it all the hard way.”
A few years later, he took his first head chef’s role at the Hambleton-owned Hart’s Restaurant in Nottingham, followed by a spell with Steve Smith at Seaham Hall in County Durham. From there he returned to Nottingham to work at Restaurant Sat Bains.
He describes his time there as a finishing school. “Sat did not teach me how to cook. But he did open my eyes to new techniques and the idea of development. That restaurant made me think differently about food,” says Ward, who was sous chef working under Bains and head chef John Freeman during the period the restaurant won two stars.
Ward and Bains are both big, powerful presences in the kitchen. Did they ever butt heads? “It had its moments. We clashed a few times. But he was the boss. Not matter what I said I was still going to be wrong. But we got on well.”
When Ward first took the reins at Ynyshir he cooked dishes that were heavily influenced by his time with Bains. But he soon cut the apron strings. “I don’t follow trends. I want our food to be our food. I don’t eat out very often at all. If I’m not here I’m with my family (Ward has two children from a previous relationship) or trying to make this place busy by doing food festivals and pop-ups. We want people to know we’re doing something different here and that it’s worth the journey.”
Location, location, location
While Ynyshir’s location is in many ways a hindrance – Ward jokes that he’d probably have an easier time in east London – it does afford him direct access to some fantastic produce.
The ingredient Ward has championed above all others is Welsh waygu beef, which is reared by farmer Ifor Humphreys in Montgomery. The premium beef is used across the menu, even in desserts.
“It’s funny because beef was the one ingredient I said I’d never put on the menu at Ynyshir. It’s everywhere and I’d had enough of it. But Welsh waygu is just an incredible product. I get first pick of the carcass and I usually take parts of the sirloin, the ribs, the flank, the rump and lots of fat. It’s the greatest fat in the world.”
Taking pride of place on Ward’s pass is a large digital display that shows the age of the current batch of beef (234 days, 6 hours, 48 mins and 24 seconds). Buying large quantities of meat nearly a year in advance is disastrous for cashflow, but it does taste extraordinary. Most meals at Ynyshir include two beef courses, with dishes including a bite-size bunless waygu burger; and salted wagyu rib with shiitake.
Waygu is one of a number of ingredients that are aged for extreme amounts of time. Ynyshir’s Tunworth – a Camembert-style cheese – is aged for five weeks before it’s paired with a sour crumpet and a salsa of Bianchetto truffle for the restaurant‘s cheese course.
Lots of fish is caught off the Welsh coast, but nearly all the catch is lost to the continent. “I have to get my line-caught fish from Cornwall,” he says. “The markets are screwed round here. You can’t intercept the fish unless you’re spending serious cash. They’re not interested in talking to someone with a 20-cover restaurant.”
He does grow a small amount of produce in Ynyshir’s 13-acre grounds, but at the moment it’s not the main thrust of his menu. As the business grows, he hopes to significantly increase output.
“Running a country house garden is expensive. If it’s going to cost me I’d rather put it to work. In five years’ time there will hopefully be polytunnels everywhere. We may also look at rearing our own animals at some point.”
Ward develops his dishes with the rest of his team. The kitchen’s most recent creation is a take on the Chinese classic char siu pork. It took eight months to get it on the menu with the team experimenting with hundreds of different marinades, brines and timings. Like much of the meat at Ynyshir, the pork is brined, waterbathed, then – as Ward delicately puts it - “charred to fuck” on the barbecue. It’s then served as a small, unadorned piece in a pool of its fat-slicked cooking juices.
Fat is central to Ward’s approach. Fat is flavour is by no means a new concept in kitchens, but it’s taken to an extreme at Ynyshir. Ingredients that don’t have much fat themselves are usually boosted with animal fat. For example a dish of mackerel and rhubarb is barded with slivers of pata negra backfat and has its dressing intentionally split with mackerel oil and a dish of raw scallop with pickled elderflowers has Welsh wagyu fat grated onto it. “Look at me. I love fat and I never cut it off anything. It is fundamental to flavour. It coats the mouth and intensifies everything,” he says.
He is influenced by Japanese cooking to some extent. Every meal at Ynyshir starts with Not French Onion Soup, a breathtakingly powerful take on miso soup made with miso, fermented fruit juice, seaweed and shiso vinegar-pickled vegetables.
Asian ingredients are found in most of the other dishes on the menu and there are takes on a number of Japanese staples, including a show stopping play on katsu curry made with crab. “Elements of what we do here have ended up a bit like Japanese food. But we’re not cooking Japanese food. We dabbled at Sat’s but I’ve never worked in a Japanese restaurant, in fact I’ve never even worked with a Japanese person, so I would not pretend to be an expert.”
Moving away from classic technique
Perhaps the single most striking thing about Ynyshir’s kitchen is that it has nearly completely dispensed with classic French technique. Dishes are seasoned and sharpened with fermented vegetable and fruit juices and the kitchen no longer makes veal glace or chicken stocks.
This rejection of traditional sauce making has made Ward’s kitchen much simpler to run. With no stocks to make and reduce, the team can come in at 8.30am on a Wednesday after three full days off and be ready for service by midday.
“It takes away a lot of the kitchen bullshit that makes people’s lives hard, says Ward. “We don’t have to haul stockpots around anymore. There aren’t really any labour intensive jobs here these days.”
Sauces are usually based on soy sauce flavoured with whichever protein it’s going to be paired with. The recipe varies depending on the ingredient: the mackerel sauce is made by infusing the bones in the sauce, while the lamb sauce is made by aggressively frying off lamb offcuts and deglazing with the soy.
“I’ve still got a lot of respect for classic technique because that’s how I learnt to cook,” says Ward. “But with the amount of courses we offer traditionally-made sauces would be too cloying. We barely use salt either because that would get too much over 20 courses too. I’d rather use miso or soy.”
He also has great respect for the tasting menu, and is not best pleased that a number of his peers have publicly denounced it. “I think people need to be careful how they word things. Daniel Clifford made a big deal of getting rid of it. He says it’s not the right approach for his restaurant, and I agree with him. Claude Bosi has said some negative things about tasting menus too, yet still serves one at Bibendum. For chefs to come out and say it’s dead isn’t right.”
He believes chefs run into problems with tasting menus when they create them because they feel they have to. “Chefs end up with seven slightly smaller versions of dishes from their á la carte. There’s just too much food. I don’t know the first thing about á la carte menus these days, but I do know how to write a tasting menu. That’s what we specialise in here.”
A time of change
Ynyshir is going through a transitional period. When Ward and Eriksson took operational control they stripped the ground floor of the property and gave it a far more contemporary feel.
With its dark grey walls, sheep skin rugs and mix of contemporary and rustic furniture the hotel is tasteful and feels cared for, but it’s no blow-the-budget makeover. The battered purple chairs are a hangover from the dining room’s previous incarnation and the upstairs of the hotel is yet to be tackled.
The fact that the hotel still bears some its marks of old has given Ynyshir something of an identity crisis and has led to confusion. For every customer making the journey to try Ward’s cutting-edge food, there’s another that’s coming either solely for the location or because they think the venue remains a traditionally run country house hotel. This results in some comical moments, like a pair of cagoule-wearing twitchers looking for a quick bite and an early night becoming embroiled in a 20-course, four-hour tasting menu.
“People don’t do their research,” says Ward. “When a place has been open for 30 years people come who may have visited a decade ago. We always make a point of telling them we’re no longer an á la carte restaurant when they book, but people often don’t listen.”
Usually the team is able to win them round, but not always. Those that stay must now eat in the restaurant, and Ynyshir no longer accepts bookings for more than one night because those looking to make them are unlikely to be coming for Ward’s food, or at least not to it eat multiple times in one stay.
Despite this, Ynyshir has had a stellar 12 months in terms of accolades – it was placed 12 in The Good Food Guide’s list of the top 50 restaurants in the UK and netted five AA Rosettes. Yet it remains a tricky business to run. Local trade is pretty much non-existent so Ward and Eriksson need to spend large sums on PR to ensure a steady stream of out-of-towners.
A good night is 20 covers, but for the business model to work all the guests must stay on site. “Airbnb is killing us. The other night we had a couple staying up the road for £40 a night. The guy that owned the house bought them here and picked them up. How the fuck am I supposed to compete with that?”
There is scope to increase the size of the dining room by converting one of the Ynyshir’s ground floor bedrooms, but as business stands at the moment Ward would struggle to fill it. “We could cook for more people without changing our style and I want to, but at the moment we’d just have another half dozen tables we don’t fill.”
The solution to this problem, he believes, is a two-star rating from Michelin. “We’d be the first restaurant in Wales to get a second star. It would revolutionise the business. But at the moment it’s hard. I should not be running this business the way I am at the moment. I should not have six chefs in the kitchen. I should not be buying the ingredients I’m buying. My GPs are shit.”
Ynyshir is a work in progress, then. Edgy cooking and country house hotels may be uneasy bedfellows and Ward’s all or nothing strategy is a risky one. But there’s no doubting his talent and determination.
Anger management: how Gareth Ward changed his chef style
There is a paragraph on Ynyshir’s website that outlines its code of conduct in the kitchen – no shouting, everyone is respected.
“I want people to know that they’re coming into somewhere that’s relaxed,” says Ward. “We’re close to our customers here and some of them want to see you shout at your staff. At Sat’s it was a big thing, the customers on the chef’s table loved it. They used to egg Sat on. It was theatre. But the days of shouting and screaming in kitchens and calling people a c**t are over.”
This was not always the case at Ynyshir. In the early days of his tenure Ward employed the ‘aggressive’ style of kitchen management he’d witnessed elsewhere. Things came to a head shortly after the restaurant was awarded a star in 2014.
“I ended up in the kitchen on my own trying to cook tastings menus and do the washing up. Our staff house was empty. Nobody wanted to work for me because I was a twat. At the end of that service I sat on the floor and cried. From that moment on, I changed my mentality. I bit my lip and walked away from things. People make mistakes, we’re human beings. But mistakes are rare in my kitchen now because nobody lives in fear.”
Ynyshir now has a waiting list for permanent kitchen staff and has a new stagiaire each week.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the June issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here