At the National Restaurant Awards on Monday, Ynyshir, a restaurant with rooms nestled in dense woodland on the Welsh coast, topped a list that was otherwise mainly dominated by London.
In some ways, it was an unsurprising result for chef Gareth Ward, who was awarded his second Michelin star in February (a scoop for him, but arguably more pleasing for Wales, which has never had a two-star restaurant before).
Ward is a chef’s chef, very well liked in the industry, for his origin story as well as his culinary vision; a “big hulk of a man, who looks like he should have played rugby for Wales” according to Joe Warwick, who established the 50 Best awards on which these are templated. Having worked in kitchens since he was 16, Ward is a self-made culinary genius.
His CV is strategic and carefully curated, its two notable influences being Hambleton Hall in Rutland – the place to go for an education in classical cooking – and Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, essentially Hambleton’s opposite with its experimental and bold cooking and location under a pylon next to a motorway.
Yet “restaurant with rooms” does not begin to describe how incredibly uncompromising Ynyshir is. It started life as a traditional country house hotel, but Ward and his partner (business and romantic), Amelia Eiriksson, went in, painted it black, and put a techno soundtrack over a £ 350-a-head tasting menu that proudly doesn ‘ t even cater to allergies, and takes four or five hours to eat.
“It’s very dark, it’s very moody, it’s quite loud. It’s not a place where you go to relax, “says Stefan Chomka, editor of Restaurant magazine, of Ynyshir, before warming to his theme:” It’s not a place to go for a first date, it’s not a place you’d go for a business meeting, it’s not where you’d go for a decent conversation. ” Which does beg the question, what do you go there for? Well, you donut, you go there for the food. Obviously.
Andy Hayler, the critic who was the first person to have eaten in every three-Michelin starred restaurant in the world, says of Ward: “Because he had the Hambleton Hall training, he knows which rules to break and when, which a lot of chefs are too cocky to realize. He’s like Picasso; if you look at his early still lifes, they’re unbelievably perfect. ” Japan is probably Ward’s strongest influence, as it is for a lot of European chefs at the moment. “If you looked at the pictures of the plate,” Hayler observes, “you would guess you were eating in a restaurant in Kyoto.”
Ward started at Sat Bains in 2012 before moving to Ynyshir, where he became chef patron in 2017. Bains pinpoints his influence on Ward as twofold: the confidence that it was possible to create a “world-class restaurant in a very remote location”, and a sense of “how to put a tasting menu together: the balance, the nuances. Gareth’s nature is to cook meat, “Bains says,” and good meat is always going to stand the test of time. “
All chefs say that all they care about is ingredients, but, especially in the UK, Hayler says, “they pay lip service to that but they don’t actually do it. Even in three-Michelin-star places, the ingredient quality is shockingly low. Gareth says he’s ingredient-led and actually means it. ”
Ward was known in the past as a bit of street-angel-kitchen-devil (chef-speak for arsehole), but only because of a story he tells against himself, when he once had to do an entire service on his own because he ‘d yelled at the staff so much, they’d all walked out. “From that moment,” he told North Wales Live, “I have been different. The shouting and the swearing has stopped. ” Bains insists that he was never that bad: “He’s not at all like that – he’s a big pussycat, like most of us.” Eiriksson adds: “He’d come from that culture of kitchens where you shout at people who’ve done something wrong. That’s what he’d learned for 15 years. But he’s not at all like that, he’s a genuinely nice person. ”
Ynyshir was a leap of faith, however fine its wagyu beef. One turning point, Eiriksson says, came when Ward went on Saturday Morning Kitchen in 2019 and made that beef for James Martin: “The look on James’s face literally brought half the UK to Wales.” Lockdown could, on paper, have sunk them, since it’s tough to be a destination restaurant when no one’s going anywhere. But they got through it on meal kits, renovating and building stronger links with local producers in the meantime.