Following Gareth Ward’s appearance on MasterChef in late 2019, Ynyshir – a destination Michelin star restaurant with rooms located near the coast in Mid-Wales was fully booked and set for a record-breaking year in 2020 before COVID hit. Not to be put off, Gareth and his chef-led team used the time wisely and are now back in a newly renovated Ynyshir, with plans to open a pub next door in 2021. 

Did you always know you were going to be a chef? How did you get started in the kitchen?

I had no idea whatsoever. As a kid I lived in the middle of nowhere in the Durham countryside, so I only really went to school to see my mates. I wasn’t interested in learning, I was a picky eater and I really didn’t have a clue as to a career until my uncle took to me one side and said, I should be a chef because everyone needs to eat so I’d always have a job. This made complete sense to me so after a careers interview and NVQ assessment, I started in a pub called the Seven Stars in Shincliffe.

Did it take long to get settled in the kitchen? What sort of training have you had on the way?

After not really having much passion for any one thing, as soon as I entered a professional kitchen, I knew I had found my place. In terms of training, I did my NVQ level three, but I really believe 99% of what I learnt, I picked up on the job and in life. I have been lucky to work under some fantastic chefs, whether it was Billy Cox, a Scottish chap who would turn up to work in freshly ironed whites and a tall chef hat at the pub, or Alan O’Kane, who did some temporary work in the pub kitchen and was the first person to tell me that I had talent and should really look at progressing into better kitchens. As a young chef, it was these words from
Alan which gave me the confidence to try and improve and succeed in this industry.

Who has been your biggest influence and why?

I would say Aaron Paterson, who was head chef at Hambleton Hall. I remember walking in the kitchen backdoor on my first day and just being amazed at the set up. He was incredibly friendly and welcoming, plus his passion and knowledge of ingredients was infectious. My time under Aaron opened my eyes to ingredients and raised my game massively.

You have a very unique style – where did this come from?

My passion for ingredients comes from my time at Hambleton Hall and this is where I really learnt to cook with military precision. I see my time at Sat Bains’ as more of a finishing school and I was really only able to develop my own style when I joined Ynyshir. I have been lucky to have very supportive owners, which has allowed me to be creative and have absolute freedom. Due to the location of Ynyshir, we’re not the type of place that receives walk-ins so we needed to stand out and excite to guarantee bookings and get people making the trip. This has enabled me to really push the boundaries with unique tasting menus concentrating on ingredients, dishes and flavours that I love. I often look at dishes I love and then think – how can I make this the best version with the best ingredients, making it explode with flavour?

Where do the Asian influences in your dishes come from?

I have never really travelled far and wide, outside of a trip with Sat Bains to Singapore where I first tried the Singapore crab, so I’m proud to say that I have done 99% of my learning via eating. We’re lucky to have such a diverse selection of food available to us in the UK so you don’t need to travel thousands of miles. Just be experimental and try new things. I didn’t set out to create Japanese inspired dishes but I have always felt certain ingredients can add so much more when used as a seasoning, as opposed to just plain old salt. With big tasting menus on offer, we also had to get rid of rich stocks and jus’ as they are filling and heavy, so miso pastes and soy-based dressings can help fill that flavour gap.

I hear you have some incredible meat on the menu and you age it yourself?

I’m proud that Ynyshir is meat and fish-focused. We are protein-led, and I really believe we’re the best destination restaurant in the UK for a menu that just does what we do, no compromises. We have our own Saltan Himalayan salt chamber in the grounds of Ynyshir so we age our own meat including some cuts for 300 days. I have used Welsh Wagyu in the past but we now exclusively source from Japan. Our aim is to offer the very best in the world and the Japanese A5 Wagyu just can’t be beaten.

Where did you get into aging, preserving and fermenting?

I’d done a fair bit before but when arriving at Ynyshir, I quickly realised that there were challenges when it came to sourcing certain ingredients. We’re a long way from anywhere so getting certain things in the best condition was a problem. Due to this, we started to look at what we could do better in-house and it went from there. We ferment, preserve, tap birch trees to make syrup and forage for elderberries in addition to aging meat.

What do you love most about your job?

I still get a buzz in the kitchen and continue to run my section each service but I really love the team dynamic we have been able to build. I spent some of my early years in the stereotypical kitchens where you’re being screamed at daily. At the time, you just accepted that was the way it was and I probably wasn’t the most pleasant at times myself. It was only when I joined Ynyshir that I realised there had to be another way. For the business to work, we needed to find and retain a quality team of chefs and that isn’t always easy when you’re in an isolated spot. The team we have now are so close and unbelievably good at what they do, which makes my role so easy, I just get to cook and make our dishes better. For example, my head chef is a 21 year old called Lewis from the North East who joined me when he was 18. He has the respect of everyone in our kitchen, even older more experienced chefs, and being able to watch him develop has been amazing.

You appeared on MasterChef but have turned down the opportunity to go on Great British Menu –why and is it something you will do one day?

I felt the Great British Menu wouldn’t really give me the ability to showcase my style and it is also quite a time-consuming process. My core focus at the moment is Ynyshir and developing the business so maybe it will be something I look at in the future. MasterChef was incredible last year, as was my appearance on James Martin but they are more about how it can help the business as opposed to one day having a line of cookery books. My home is in the kitchen.

How was your 2020?

It was obviously a horrendous year for so many but a tale of two sides for us. We were fully booked and set for a record-breaking year so the hospitality closures wrecked that. In one way though it helped us do things we would never normally be able to do. It made us have a re-focus and dissect all aspects of the dishes, our offering and the business. It gave us time to work out who we are and more importantly, who we want to be. During the lockdown, we were able to renovate and transform the look and feel of the venue, plus we have become more chef-led with a chef-run kitchen even added in the hallway to greet guests.

What are your plans for Ynyshir in 2021?

Our pub will be hopefully be opening in spring 2021 and we’re all very excited. It will offer all day Sunday lunch, our own beer, awesome bar snacks and just somewhere we can walk to and have a drink!

And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…

Top kitchen tips?

1. Don’t drop nitrogen into hot oil

2. Always be in your kitchen

3. Label everything and write everything down

What is your favourite ingredient and why?

Wasabi. It’s very underused but brilliant for seasoning. I use it on meats and fish. It really opens up the flavour and adds a subtle sweetness.

Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it?

I’m going to share this Welsh Wagyu Beef Rib with Shiitake recipe for the simple reason that it’s delicious and probably the dish from my time at Ynyshir, that I love most.