GFG archives

Through the archives: Gareth Ward, from chef to watch to chef of the year – 2015 to 2020
Published 03 May 2022

Credit: Gareth Ward

In 2015, when Gareth Ward appeared for the first time in the guide, we were so impressed we named him Chef to Watch.

‘What can I say? I’m running out of superlatives… I think if Ward continues on his current trajectory he will be one of the stars of the future.’ - Inspector’s report, 2015

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By 2019, he was our Chef of the Year - in our opinion, one of the most exciting chefs cooking in the UK today.  

‘Gareth is definitely his own man, his is a unique style. On this springtime visit the cooking yielded terrific results. This was some of the most exciting food I’ve had in the last year or so.’ - Inspector’s report 2019 

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By 2020, he was number four in The Good Food Guide’s Top 50. What will 2022 bring? 

‘Part restaurant, part theatre, part nightclub and full of sheer, jumpy energy – there’s a house-playing DJ and a disco ball that comes into play later in the evening. This is not dinner, it’s a remarkable experience. Thirty-three (more or less) protein bites, no carbs and not a green vegetable in sight – this is Gareth Ward’s polished view of Britain’s multicultural food scene.’ - Inspector’s report 2022 

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But until we reveal our decision for this year, let’s look back on Ward’s career so far...  

 

The Good Food Guide 2015 – Chef to Watch 

Once a country retreat for Queen Victoria, Ynyshir Hall is an island of manicured beauty in the wilderness of Wales’ mid-western flank. From spring to summer the gardens are ablaze with colour – as are the walls of the hotel all year round, the vivid colour schemes mirroring the hues of co-owner Rob Reen’s sheep-themed paintings. The smart, turquoise-walled dining room is now the domain of chef Gareth Ward. Hailing from Restaurant Sat Bains , he has arrived aglow with fresh ideas, delivering an eight-course, no-choice menu and shorter alternative lunch option. Ward knows when to play it simple (as with airy, crusty sourdough with irresistible Wagyu beef fat), but can also dazzle with a scintillating play of flavours and textures: maybe ‘not French onion soup’ (puréed ‘miso onions’ with tofu and croûtons, and a dashi stock on the side) or a piece of Wagyu beef with a sashimi prawn, pickled red cabbage and sea purslane. Foraged foods are a favourite; fall-apart hogget comes with purslane and sea aster, gravy-rich mince, wild garlic purée and sparky little capers. A deconstructed tiramisu, with icy granita and a masala and egg yolk spray added at the table, is a charming finale. The huge international wine list covers France in detail, with prices from £24 (to £2,000). 

 

The Good Food Guide 2016  

Joan and Rob Reen’s luxurious and gorgeously arty country house hotel has long been a destination for serious eating, but under chef Gareth Ward’s tenure the bar has been raised to vertiginous new heights. He’s a chef admirably in tune with his surroundings – and what magnificent surroundings they are: the graceful whitewashed building overlooks gardens originally planted for Queen Victoria, who kept this as her country retreat. Beyond all the colour and velveteen lawns is a vast RSPB reserve – perfect for lengthy rambles – and the whole scene is cradled by mountains. Rob Reen’s paintings in the turquoise-hued dining room immortalise the sheep that roam this landscape, while Ward showcases everything from local hogget to Welsh Wagyu beef on his epic tasting menus (there is no à la carte here, nor should there be – you're in safe hands). Fruit, vegetables, herbs and salads are plucked from the kitchen garden or from the surrounding woods and marshes. Standout dishes have included the ‘not French onion soup’ – an umami feast of miso onions with a dashi stock; gently warmed mackerel with a vivid sweet-and-sour sauce; and pork belly with charcoal, seaweed, shallot and soy. Salt-baked Welsh Hill Speckled Face hogget is full-flavoured, meltingly tender and served with succulent marshland vegetables, while a thoroughly modern, deconstructed tiramisu is an intensified, transcendent version of an old favourite. The extensive wine list offers everything from classics to rare treats, starting at £24 a bottle. 

 

The Good Food Guide 2017  

It’s a fitting tribute to hotelier Joan Reen, who died early in 2016, that the hotel she created remains as beautiful and luxurious as ever. A gracious whitewashed country house, Ynyshir Hall is now owned by John and Jenny Talbot, long-standing guests and previously shareholders in the hotel. They have preserved the things that make it special – not least the jewel-like turquoise restaurant where Gareth Ward cooks to an ever higher standard, his dishes nothing short of trailblazing in their use of unlikely flavour combinations that ‘work so well you wonder why more people aren’t putting these ingredients together’. Standout examples have included gently warmed sashimi mackerel with tart rhubarb ketchup, crunchy, punchy, acidic slivers of raw rhubarb and back fat shavings; a piece of fudge made with beef fat and topped with crackling; and a duck liver and tofu pâté paired with banana, miso and verjus. There’s ample use of kitchen staff to finish dishes at the table, starting with the simple pouring of a dashi stock on to caramelised and pickled onions, tofu and crispy croûtons, to make an intensely sweet-savoury amuse-bouche, and progressing to much pouring, shaving and sprinkling in Ward’s ‘sensational’ take on Caesar salad – comprising crunchy lettuce heart, lettuce purée and onion oil, topped with Parmesan-infused milk, a panko bacon anchovy crumb, grated Parmesan and shaved cured egg yolk. A spring meal included a four-stage beef dish paired with a ‘stunning’ confit onion cooked in beef fat, topped with onion jus and cubes of Wagyu fat; and a piece of seven-month aged Wagyu beef with seaweed, puffed rice and soy sauce. A quick-fire succession of ‘original and exciting’ desserts has included a white chocolate cream with salty, umami-packed black-bean syrup; a complex, distilled and deconstructed take on tiramisu; and then a final, fresh flourish in the form of goats' milk pannacotta with nettle oil, nettle granita, lime shavings, a nettle tuile and crunchy cereal. Staff are supremely efficient but also warm, charming and ready to chat – and they do a grand job recommending wines from a list that is weighty in both content and cost. You can spend north of £2,000 if you fancy, but there are also ‘superb’ house wines for £24 and plenty in between. 

 

The Good Food Guide 2018  

It may be a destination restaurant, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this fine country manor house ‘doesn’t have too much truck with tradition and convention’. The house itself is charming but informal: the bar could happily grace a brasserie or town house in any busy metropolis, while the tiny dining room is open to the kitchen and 'it’s the chefs rather than the waiters who bring each course'. Gareth Ward’s menu is a clever and meticulous no-choice affair – a celebration of local produce infused with Japanese flavours and real skill. But most of all, his cooking is about flavour. ‘Not French Onion Soup’ offers confit alliums with seaweed and tiny cubes of tofu, covered with dashi, a veritable explosion of sweet-savoury umami flavours. Lamb spare ribs, salted and slow-cooked for hours, are finished briefly in a Green Egg barbecue and are tender yet crisp – the very essence of lamb – ‘and best eaten with fingers’. Duck liver is melted and re-formed with soya to make the lightest mousse and served with a grating of smoked eel and concentrated birch sap. Fudge hits the ultimate salt-savoury note with the use of Wagyu beef dripping in place of cream, while tiramisu is constructed at the table with rich gels of sugar and coffee, frozen mini-balls of cream and coffee sprinkled over the top. So, allow plenty of time – lunch consists of at least nine courses and takes more than two hours, and dinner will take around four. With this much to eat on such a culinary journey you may think the chef's table, with at least 19 courses, de trop, but halfway through the meal, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t go the whole hog because you won’t want it to stop. The extensive wine list ranges wide, offering thought-provoking bottles and glasses 

 

The Good Food Guide 2019 – Chef of the Year 

The winner of our 2015 Chef to Watch award has justified the faith we had in him – he comes through as a passionate, enthusiastic talent, cooking to a level that demands to be considered among the very best. Gareth Ward doesn't just ape trends, but is that rare chef who genuinely creates his own inimitable style with a19-course extravaganza, which may last four hours (there is a truncated version at lunch). Working with fantastic Welsh produce, Ward delivers flavour in punchy small bites. His industrious kitchen bakes, pickles, ferments, cures and bottles, although a magpie creativity draws as much on Far Eastern flavours as European. This is modern British cooking at its most deliberate, delivering touches of sheer brilliance in, for example, a sharp, umami-laden ‘not French onion soup’, described as 'an absolute blast of freshness'. Or in an Aylesbury duck leg that’s ‘like a superior Peking duck’, and in a sensational mini burger of wagyu beef topped with pickled lettuce and a dab of sourdough mayo. Other highlights from our spring meal included a spoonful of intense duck liver mousse with birch syrup, topped with a delicate spelt biscuit and a grating of smoked eel; and the two dinky servings of exquisite lamb riding high on minty, salty sweetness. And the dishes keep coming: a nugget of voluptuous Manjari chocolate and tofu mousse with a crisp shiitake wafer and shiitake oil; and a glorious take on sticky toffee pudding – compressed mejdool dates, a tiny blob of vanilla ice cream and sticky toffee sauce poured over. Completing the picture, the bar and dining room have a wonderful simplicity into which furnishings and the open kitchen slot sympathetically, while staff are young and enthusiastic yet thoroughly professional and add to the impression that this is very much a serious, unique restaurant. The wine list does the place justice, pulling together fine drinking from reputable names and forward-looking producers, with most available by the glass. 

 

The Good Food Guide 2020 

When the opening shot is ‘not French onion soup’ – a clear, crunchy, seaweedy-sour broth of a palate cleanser – and a tiny wagyu burger, all crisp outer and soft inner, delivers a robustly umami hit, you know you are in the hands of an unconventional chef, one who creates a dining experience like no other. Gareth Ward thinks about flavour, not in a classic three-course way, but through a full-throttle series of punchy bites that you won't forget in a hurry. This is confirmed with the vivacity of pork belly char siu, and again with Aylesbury duck from Fishguard that plays on the sweet notes of a superior crispy Peking duck in just a few glorious mouthfuls. Everything on the 20-course tasting menu has a contribution to make, from superb sourdough bread, which arrives with miso-flavoured cultured butter and Welsh wagyu beef dripping, to the balanced acidity of the elder vinegar that cuts the richness of a just-seared scallop winningly paired with aged wagyu fat. Equally deft is the beautifully aged Welsh lamb, which arrives in two parts: a tiny rib, rich with crisply rendered fat, and then a nugget of meltingly tender loin, all minty, sweet and salty. Among desserts, sharp, intense rhubarb is offset by a rich egg custard, and a dish that has fast become a signature eclipses any tiramisu you’ve ever had. There’s an unfussy mood in the understated dining room, which is dominated by the open kitchen, plus genuinely committed service, mainly from chefs. Masterly wine advice is on hand, too, whether you want help to guide you through the list, or pointers on matching a series of glasses. 

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Ynyshir
Ynyshir. Credit: Ynyshir/Instagram