Not far from Ynyshir in Cardigan Bay, you’ll hear the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod; the sunken ancient kingdom – a Welsh Atlantis if you like – forms the foundation of one of our most enduring legends. During a massive storm in the area, the castle gatekeeper went on a bender, drowning the magical, mythical kingdom forever.
Luckily for us a modern legend has reclaimed the crown for the area; the man, the myth, the meat-obsessed maestro Gareth Ward. During autumn, five years after he arrived on these shores, he pretty much swept the board. He not only retained his Michelin Star for his restaurant, Ynyshir in Eglwys-fach, near Machynlleth, he was also awarded the coveted Good Food Guide title of UK Chef of the Year. Add to that, the accolade of No. 1 restaurant in Wales – again for The Good Food Guide – and a jump from No. 12 restaurant to No. 5 in the whole of the UK.
Now, one would think that Wales’ No 1. gastro-king would be too busy for a mid-week chat, arming himself and his great estate with his own gate-keepers. Not a chance; this is a man on a mission to spread the word about Ynyshir. And after a warm ‘eh-oop’, the County Durham-born chef is keen to share the secrets of his ‘whole team’s success’. He is especially proud to achieve The Good Food Guide’s seal of approval as he considers it his personal ‘food bible’; ‘When I first started out, at the Seven Stars in Shindcliffe, the chef gave me a copy of it and told me to pick some places I liked – it’s the guide that all the best chefs really rate. And what we’re doing at Ynyshir, this incredible place in the middle of ‘nowhere’, is something really cool. If you’ve never been to Ynyshir before – and if so, what planet are you on? – then your taste-buds are in for a wild and crazy ride. The menu’s mission statement reads like a mind-bending crossover episode of Great British Menu and Top Gear; ‘Ingredient Led, Flavour Driven, Fat Fuelled, Meat Obsessed’. Without spoiling the surprise, expect mind-blowing tastes; in short, this is definitely not a place for the faint of heart. The local Waguy beef is a case in point from Ifor Humphreys’ herd of cattle in Aber-miwl. As Gareth explains; ‘We dry age it ourselves for 234 days in our Himalayan Salt chamber, that really concentrates the flavour. Before we dry it, we render the suet fat from the kidneys, then paint it on to protect the meat. Then, as it dries, the meat content is reduced which means there’s more fat and less blood, leaving the beef with an amazing depth of flavour’. The stunning, remote location near the Cambrian coastline makes it a chilled-out gastro-destination. But don’t be fooled by the country-house facade; like many chefs, Gareth is a convert to tattoos, and his favourite decor touch is the Welsh ram’s head skull, hung proudly above the bar. Indeed, so much of what is experienced at Ynyshir are layers of the local Mid-Wales landscape, as the chef himself explains; ‘The tables were designed by a local carpenter near Machynlleth, and Sarah Jerath’s ceramics are made from stones from Nant Einion brook, and glazed with burnt ash from Ynyshir’s storm-felled trees.’ Ward arrived at Ynyshir in 2013 following his mother’s untimely death in a motorcycle accident.
His subsequent rise to the top has been bittersweet, but he’s proud of what he and his team have so far achieved at Ynyshir. ‘This place definitely saved my life, there’s something very special here. We get on very well with each other, me and Ynyshir’. Away from the kitchen, he’s spent the past year seeing more of Wales; returning in July as guest-chef at the Cardigan Bay Seafood Festival in Aberaeron and making his first pilgrimage to The Hardwick during the Abergavenny Food Festival in September. ‘I love what Menna and Glyn [Heulyn, of the Harbourmaster] are doing at Aberaeron; you just want to do well for them. And I have a lot of time for Stephen Terry, he’s a very honest chef. I ate the lamb, that was incredible.’ And following his recent wins for Wales, he highlighted some local dining picks in The Daily Telegraph, including Pysgoty and Baravin in Aberystwyth. Prior to the Michelin announcement, social media was ablaze with rumours of a second star for Ynyshir – an accolade that would have been a first for Wales. And although ‘wounded’ not to be anointed, having been ‘sucked into the excitement’ Gareth Ward is most definitely a chef unbowed. ‘We cook for ourselves, we cook our own food, and if you don’t like it then that’s up to you. I ain’t changing what I’m doing for them [the judges] – they should be changing what they’re doing for me. You’ve got to believe in what you do, and in the end, it’s all about having fun’.