Fat might be a dirty word for many, but to Gareth Ward, head chef and co-owner of Michelin-star destination restaurant Ynyshir, near Machynlleth, it’s a beautiful and multi-textured thing. His sensational tasting menu is magic wand-waving stuff: 20 courses, each exquisitely composed with an obsessive’s eye, which take you from boat-fresh local lobster to six-month-aged Wagyu beef that a knife glides through like butter. But how did the self-confessed dropout kid from County Durham rise to such giddy culinary heights and reach No.4 in The Good Food Guide? We catch up with him to find out…
Have you always loved cooking, Gareth?
No, not at all. I didn’t care about food until I worked in a kitchen, though I was a picky eater as a kid. I grew up in County Durham and left school with no qualifications. My dad suggested I become a chef because people always need feeding. And that’s where it started. I found I liked the whole camaraderie of being in the kitchen – the jokes, the people. It’s like a big family. Before I knew it the cooking had become an obsession.
Where was your big break?
My first proper job was at the Seven Stars Inn in Shincliffe, cooking pub food. But it was during the five years I worked at Hambleton Hall in Rutland that I learned to appreciate ingredients and cook to a Michelin-starred standard. I liked the military discipline in the kitchen – it was like being in the army. And the flavours were out of this world! A couple of years later I was given the job of sous-chef at Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham [holder of two Michelin stars] and things really took off from there in terms of creativity. But after three years I wanted to make my own rules, put together my own menus, be my own boss.
So how did you end up in the middle of nowhere in Mid Wales?
You’ve been here, haven’t you? It’s beautiful! We’re right near the Dyfi Estuary, the coast and mountains of Snowdonia. I wanted the challenge of creating something in the middle nowhere on my own, with nothing to hold me back. You don’t have to compare yourself to others or live up to the latest food trends here – there’s total freedom. And we have access to some of the best ingredients in the world in this part of Wales.
What local ingredients feature on your tasting menus?
Just recently, because of Brexit and Covid, we’ve been able to get some incredible fish – massive crab, lobster and shrimp. So now eight of the 20 courses are fish based where previously it was almost entirely meat. There’s the great quality Welsh lamb, of course. And we forage for some ingredients: wild garlic, elderflower. We tap the birch trees for sap and reduce it by 98% to make a syrup – it’s really labour intensive!
You describe yourself as meat obsessed. What are the best cuts for big flavours?
The mistake a lot of people make is buying lean meat – it’s shit! The fat is where the flavour is, but you just need to cook it slowly. Anyone can cook a steak. But for the best flavours I like things like braising cuts and rib of beef. We have a Himalayan salt chamber in the grounds of Ynyshir. We age top-quality Wagyu beef in it for six months. It’s incredible.
Your tasting menu is 20 courses. That’s one hell of a menu. Why so many courses?
If people take the time to come this far, eating here should be an event, a culinary experience, with lots of different new flavours. Some tasting menus are over too quickly. Not here. We have 20 covers and there is one member of staff per customer.
What dishes on your menu do you love most?
It would have to be local lobster, frozen then minced and served raw, with hot Thai-style nam jim dressing with a lot of chilli. Or pork from Derbyshire, ground and marinated in a Chinese char siu glaze then cooked over an open fire. It’s insane. A lot boils down to using the best quality ingredients you can find. So my favourite dessert on the menu is tiramisu, but using really good quality rum.
If you’re cooking for yourself, what’s your favourite meal/snack?
Easy. Sunday roast with lamb or beef, or bolognese. As for a snack, it has got to be a ham and cheese sandwich.
What’s the recipe for a successful kitchen?
You’ve got to love it. A lot of chefs don’t like what they cook – they are cooking for someone else. If you asked them to eat their own menu, they wouldn’t want to. I want to eat my own food. I’m passionate about every dish on my menu. You might as well cook what you love as you only get one crack at it.
If you ever get a day off, where do you like to eat in Wales?
What are your plans for the coming year?
Right now we’re getting planning permission for a pub, which will serve simpler food but still of the same high standard. And alongside our rooms in the house and gardens, we’ve recently added three tipis in the grounds for a glamping experience, with handmade Welsh oak furniture, outside seating areas and super-king sized beds. It never stops…
You’ve got one last supper, Gareth – what’s it going to be?
Corned beef pie with brown sauce followed by me mam’s spaghetti bolognese. For dessert I would want me mam’s raspberry fluff with crushed flakes on top. I’d eat it together with her, listening to Phil Collins and Tina Turner.