Three things immediately struck me when I first walked into the kitchen at Ynyshir. First, they have two slushy machines in the middle of the main kitchen full of swirling green ice.
Second, its chef-patron Gareth Ward is a veritable giant (6ft 6in to be exact) and was dressed in a red Nike Air T-shirt and ripped jean shorts straight out of Miami Beach. And last, there’s a giant digital clock ticking upwards at the front of the bar, which ominously reads: ‘226 days, five hours, 39 minutes, 26 seconds’.
I was to be a stagiaire for dinner service and it was around 6pm, but before I was able to begin blurting out the questions bubbling up inside me, Ward strode out from behind the pass, ducking to avoid the pass lights and low-flying aircraft, and said: “Don’t wear your chef jacket!”
It turns out that the six or so chefs, plus Ward, do all they can to distance themselves from the idea of classic haute cuisine. They wear T-shirts, engage in witty banter and play hip hop in the dining room. As Zak, one of the two junior sous, of Ynyshir’s 20-course tasting menu says: “This really isn’t fine dining – we don’t even do ladies first.”
After running upstairs to my room to throw on the black shirt I’d worn during my four-hour journey from London, I hurtled back to the kitchen for a brief meeting and staff meal of hearty chicken broth. The clock at the front ticked slowly upwards, and I had to ask. The time was actually how long its prized Welsh wagyu beef has been in the restaurant’s Himalayan salt chamber, which is full of different meats aging excruciatingly slowly. It even contains Welsh wagyu heart, which Gareth is drying out to grate over dishes.
With the staff meeting over, I was first asked to portion char siu broth into vac pac bags while the team made final preparations. There were to be eight people in for dinner, including those celebrating a birthday and a wedding anniversary, and Ward has every guest take their seats at around 7.30pm, be it the eight or the maximum 22, allowing the kitchen to naturally flow through the 20-course menu.
And so started dinner service, with Not French Onion Soup the first dish out. This ‘soup’ is made up of a miso onion purée, croutons cooked in home-made butter, a salted onion purée, sea purslane, tofu, shallots, seaweed and a light onion oil.
I shadowed Fred, a commis who had recently moved into the kitchen from being KP. Fred took the soups out and explained the dish to the diners, as is the Ynyshir way. There are no waiters at Ynyshir and even stagiaires get to take dishes to the table, so I was told to be ready. As Ward says: “We like everyone to get involved.”
Next dish was the Aylesbury duck in a rich black bean glaze; then a portion of bread with cultured butter and Welsh wagyu beef dripping; and mackerel with an elder sauce, berries and flowers (with Ward grating pork back fat over the ensemble) – with Fred and another chef, Lewis, in charge of the delivery.
It wasn’t until dish number 10 that I got my chance. My explanation was to go something like this: “The dish is prawns from the Isle of Skye with something of a study of wild garlic. With the season for wild garlic between April and May, Ynyshir preserves them and makes oil and vinegar out of the leaves. We pickle the stems and make a wild garlic glaze. The prawns themselves are flash fried, with a touch of nori powder and prawn head juice completing the dish.”
With the above learnt and my victims spotted (a couple in their mid-30s ), I was handed the plates, which were actually hollowed out rocks from the beach and were each about as heavy as my suitcase upstairs. Whether or not the couple absorbed my description I don’t know, but they seemed in awe of the process.
My confidence boosted, I proceeded to bring out the Orkney scallop dish with ponzu, elder oil, pickled green strawberries and smoked eel, and the Welsh wagyu ‘burger’. Both on slightly lighter plates.
Back in the kitchen, “slushy on one!” was being called. The swirling green ice I’d spied turned out to be palate-cleansing yuzu pre dessert, an essential given that Ward has replaced the butter in the subsequent fudge course with, you’ve guessed it, Welsh wagyu beef fat. But then you expect nothing less from a restaurant like Ynyshir.