Ella Walker takes a trip to Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, to meet the chef owner of Wales’ best restaurant.
Gareth Ward does dinner differently.
“You know what you’re getting, but you don’t know how you’re getting it,” says the chef owner of the one Michelin-starred Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, cryptically.
Eating his food is like following a Hansel and Gretel trail of delicate but punchy mouth-sized morsels. The menu is simply a list of ingredients for you to speculate upon, and on a gloomy January weekend, it genuinely includes two bread(crumb) courses.
Really though, dinner starts when you arrive, mid-afternoon. Upon check-in, we sip hot bowlfuls of duck broth, fragrant with coriander. It’s good groundwork for the 20 courses ahead.
“It’s just a lot of fun, no pretentiousness,” says Ward, who grew up in County Durham and was named Good Food Guide Chef of the Year 2019. “It’s a group of guys in the kitchen, cooking with some incredible ingredients.”
His ethos is food that’s ‘ingredient led, flavour driven (particularly Japanese flavours) fat-fuelled, and meat obsessed’, and it works. Ynyshir was named Best Restaurant in Wales at the National Restaurant Awards 2018.
But the Ynyshir you find today – fire pit crackling at the entrance, open glowing kitchen, guests sitting on the ‘pass bench’ (a bench table in the heart of the kitchen), chatting as the chef barbecues – is the product of Ward hitting a point where things just felt broken.
“I was this stressed out, angry monster of a person, and I actually damaged myself. Now, I can’t get stressed any more, I get ill,” he says, recalling how several years ago, his behaviour led to him doing service entirely alone – his team had walked out on him.
“I couldn’t get any staff because I was just horrible to everybody,” he says frankly. “No one wanted to work here, and it was just making my life harder, so I thought, ‘I’m going to change, because I have to change. It’s not them, it’s me’.”
Now there’s no shouting in Ward’s kitchen. “I don’t believe in it any more,” he says with a shake of his head. “I’m here to have fun.” And if something goes wrong? “If someone messes up, someone messes up, it happens,” he says. “Let’s just rectify it, you know what I mean? [We’re] human beings.”
There might be no shouting, but the dining room throbs brilliantly with the record choices of Ward and his partner and general manager, Amelia Eiriksson. “I’m mad for music,” says Ward. “I can’t stop buying vinyl.” The extended menu Eiriksson hands you at the end of dinner even lists the records that sound-tracked your meal.
Foals, Fatboy Slim, Nas, Bowie and The Rolling Stones swirl as we spread burnt bread thickly with miso-cultured butter, sigh over lamb neck crusted with cherries, and are presented with a salt-baked swede flaming like a Halloween pumpkin.
“Music just makes the whole experience better,” muses Ward, noting that it certainly makes him enjoy his job more. “The music isn’t for the customers,” he adds with a huge laugh. “It’s for me.”
The restaurant itself sits on 14-and-a-half acres of land, wedged up against Ynyshir RSPB. You can cut through from one to the other, meandering past Ward’s beehives, currently in snug hibernation.
Meanwhile, the beach is a 10-minute drive away, and from the kitchen, “anybody who’s got a car goes down there, takes a couple of guys with them, grabs a bit of seaweed”. The stretch of Welsh coast makes for good samphire hunting, and it’s where they source sea purslane – its grey-green leaves bob in the house Martini, and tangle with a crab dish beneath a pickled sliver of turnip.
The line between inside and outside is fuzzy. The two blur; from the giant eucalyptus trees that play at being curtains for the garden apartments, and the matted, chocolate-coloured sheepskin throws in the bar, to what’s on your plate.
Take Ward’s birch syrup, which has “the craziest, beautiful, sweet, slightly sour, red-fruity, jammy taste” and is used in place of maple syrup, on everything from duck livers to a rich parsnip porridge.
From the end of February, it requires head chef Nathan to be out of the kitchen for a month, tapping birch trees across the property. “[It’s] such a labour-intensive job,” Ward says, explaining how last year, 1,000-litres of birch water resulted in just four litres of syrup. “Nathan drills the trees, puts the plugs in, catches the water, and then he’s got to reduce it down – it’s got to reduce by 98% – and get it preserved.”
The birch syrup is just one instance where months of prep have gone into a single facet of a dish. Ward’s crew of chefs bring each course to the table and talk you through what’s in it, where it’s from, and how long it’s been aged, while a digital clock ticks away, its red numbers denoting how aged the beef is. You quickly lose track of the man hours involved in each component (especially if Eiriksson is topping your glass up with sake).
“Ohh, countless!” says Ward, when asked to estimate a total. “The beef is 280 days, we start with that really, but the wild garlic was preserved over a year ago.”
He’s even installed a salt chamber and has started ageing fish alongside meat. “It’s pretty insane,” he says with a grin. The level of detail and planning is colossal (“the cooking is the easy bit”).
Ward and Eiriksson have plans beyond the demands of foraging and preserving, too. Ideas for glamping, a pub, bakery, shop, summer festival and a secret cocktail bar (“I thought of that last night!”) are all smouldering away.
“I want to make it into this really cool almost mini-village, where people come for 48 hours and have a great time,” says Ward. “It’d just be awesome. If we can get there, I’d be well happy.”
For now though, he’s busy enjoying his open, aggression-free kitchen. “It’s like cooking at home, innit?” says Ward contentedly. “That’s how I look at it, and it is; this is our home, this is our kitchen, and these are our guests.” And Ward’s guests are sent home with a slice of caramel-coloured apple tart each, because he’s never quite done feeding you.
The Ynyshir experience
Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms serves lunch Saturday at 1pm, and dinner Wednesday-Saturday at 7.30pm. A 19-course lunch or dinner costs £140 per person. Rooms are available Wednesday-Saturday. Packages start from £250 per person for dinner, bed and breakfast.
For more information, visit ynyshir.co.uk or call 01654 781 209. Address: Ynyshir Restaurant and Rooms, Eglwys Fach, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 8TA.