Interview with an Innovator

Ynyshir’s Gareth Ward: ‘People are starting to look at sea-cuterie and fish butchery. I expect it to be all over menus next year'

The Michelin-starred chef talks to Tom Gatehouse about his process when coming up with new dishes and why he bought a fish tank to make his current favourite dish.

1 November 2019
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image credit: Tim Green

Ward on Paper – CV

  • Ward started off working in pubs before joining Hambleton Hall, the acclaimed country house hotel in the East Midlands
  • Enjoyed stints at Seaham House in the North East and Hart’s in Nottingham before joining Restaurant Sat Bains as sous chef
  • Joined Ynyshir as head chef in 2013, winning a Michelin star a year later, before becoming joint-owner (and chef-patron) in 2017

The year 2019 has been pretty good to Gareth Ward.

His restaurant, Ynyshir, was named the 9th best restaurant in the UK in the National Restaurant Awards in June. Meanwhile, his uniquely meat-centric haven on the western edge of Mid Wales is one of only 18 UK restaurants to hold five AA rosettes.

Ward’s rock n’ roll, Michelin-starred kitchen is a melting pot of innovation and experimentation, with the Geordie chef boasting one of the UK’s only Himalayan salt chambers in the grounds surrounding the restaurant.

Spurred on by an ethos of ‘fun-dining not fine dining’; Ward and his team “constantly play around” with all sorts of meaty ingredients. From 300-day aged beef to Wagyu hearts to grate over dishes; Ward oversees a veritable playground for chefs, and they come from all over the country not only to learn but also just to see the 6’6 giant in action.

And to top it all off, Ward and his partner Amelia Eriksson welcomed a baby boy into the world in August. “His name is Karl and he’s amazing,” he told Food Spark. “It is another big thing for me to do - it’s been a bit crazy really!”

Here, Ward opens up about how he approaches creating new dishes, delves into his love for Singaporean chilli crab and details his new programme for overwhelmed local beef suppliers.

 

I was just working in a pub before I joined Hambleton Hall – I didn’t know what food was about before then. I remember the feeling of walking into the kitchen for the first time – it was unbelievable. The atmosphere, the food, the ingredients, everything was like nothing I’d seen before.

Getting the job at Ynyshir opened everything up. I was ready for the fight and to test myself, to see what I could do. I was so hungry and full of ideas and it was time to really express myself. I was really lucky to have been given the opportunity.

The whole place has exploded since I took over a year and a half ago. Now I have free reign, it’s my decision for everything. Since I’ve had full control it’s been a lot less stressful. We’ve managed to really put ourselves on the map over the past 18 months.

My head chef and I just got back from a trip to Sweden. I bought him tickets for his birthday and we had a bit of a light adventure. We went to Frantzén in Stockholm, which was pretty special and a big eye opener.

Inspiration, for us here, is always ingredient led. We get a new ingredient or a sample of one and move from there. We have an overarching style and it’s up to us to get a dish from A to B.

It’s certainly not easy but it helps to you know where you want the dish to be, the direction you want to go in. We’ll get a new piece of beef in, for example, and we’ll play around with it, finding where we want things to go, what we want it to taste like. Sometimes we get there overnight, sometimes it takes years! But we don’t stop playing – we never stop. We’re always looking at how can we make things better.

We had a bit of an issue with our wagyu supplier recently as we’re so busy and they can’t keep up with demand. So, together, we decided to come up with a new programme which is also a way to make the product better, which is what we’re all after. Our supplier is now killing less animals and slowing his stock down. And, as the animals are older, we get a product with more fat in it.

image credit: BaconOnTheBeech

My favourite dish at the moment is definitely the chilli crab. I went to Singapore years ago where I was first introduced. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever had and I think I ate it every day. But I forgot all about it when I came back. It never progressed in my head. A few months ago, me and the boys were talking about it and I thought “We have got to do chilli crab!”

To do chilli crab properly, I bought a crab tank. When you have it in Singapore, it’s live crab from a tank that’s smashed up with a cleaver, thrown in a wok with loads of stuff and then thrown on the plate. Fresh as you get. So we take ours out of the tank, cook them just before service and serve them straight away. Always super fresh and they never see a fridge. We don’t pick or touch it once smashed so you might find a bit of shell in there but I don’t care. That’s the whole thing about chilli crab. You want huge chunks of crab. We have our own chilli crab stock to go with it. It’s unbelievable.

We’ve been ageing our own fish in the salt chamber. We age them between four and 10 days depending on the fish and simply serve it raw. They have the most incredible texture and flavour - I'm blown away every time. I’ve not started doing sea-cuterie but there's lots of people looking at it, so maybe one day, you never know. Everyone’s raving about the new book from the fish butcher, Josh Niland. I expect it to be all over menus from next year.

I try not to do things that other people do and stay away from big trends and things if I can help it. That keeps us authentic. I find that lots of city restaurants do the same thing and I’m not interested. I’ve got to get people to come all the way out here and if I’m doing the same as everyone else, people won’t travel this far.

My best mate Alex Bond, has a plant-based restaurant, Alchemilla, and it’s brilliant. Most of my family are vegetarian too so I’m definitely not against it. I’ve tried a few meat alternatives but not massively because I just love meat! I could never order veggie at a restaurant.

Every now and again, everyone has a Marmite dish, something that diners might either love or hate. We had one recently – aged deer. We were really ageing it in the salt chamber and it was very strong. We served it with a black bean paste, which was sweet, salty and chocolatey, diced fat and a light deer soy. That was soy infused with roasted deer trim. The dish was like beef and black bean but with a next level strong flavour.

image credit: BaconOnTheBeech

We make our own mac and cheese for our cheese course. We use Keens cheddar from down south. It’s one of only three real cheddar cheeses in this country made the real way.

We use lots of tofu to make mousses and things in the restaurant and, to make the cheese sauce, we infuse soy milk with onion, bay leaf and cloves. We strain that and then put tofu, the infused soy milk and the cheese in the blender. It’s instant cheese sauce with no flour. Honestly, it’s the silkiest, thickest, glossiest cheese sauce you’ve ever had in your life. We get awesome eggs here and we make our own egg pasta macaroni and also grate pickled black truffles over the top. It’s insane.

Having the best ingredient you can buy is the most important thing for me when making a new dish. That, then flavour. You also need to keep it simple. Making things too complicated is a common mistake with chefs. You have to have confidence in your skills and keep it reigned in.  

Ynyshir is nowhere near finished and we want to keep getting better. We’ll never rest.

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