This summer, we’re privileged to welcome two-Michelin star Ynyshir to the estate for our Chef Series. For those who dream of a coveted table at the Welsh outpost, this promises to be a sublime experience. Here, we speak with Rory Eaton, Ynyshir’s poised and thoughtful Wine & Beverage Director, to hear more about wine-matching, experiential eating and hip-hop.
Any foodie worth their gourmet Himalayan salt wants a seat at Ynyshir’s table. This two-Michelin star outpost, with dazzling chef Gareth Ward at the helm, is more than a restaurant. It’s full-scale food experience delivered “at the end of nowhere” on the Welsh coast. And, if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, it’s more than worth the journey.
Ynyshir’s philosophy – “ingredient-led, flavour-driven, fat-fuelled, protein-obsessed” – is manifested over a five-hour sitting and upwards of 30 dishes. It’s also evident in the crafted drinks list, which is informally – but brilliantly – matched with both with the food and the guest eating it.
Rory Eaton holds the enviable position of Wine & Beverage Director at the restaurant. Here, we catch up with him about his role at one of the world’s most acclaimed dining rooms.
“We probably go against the grain a little bit,” Rory explains, when we speak on a bright morning in January, sun streaming into one of Ynyshir’s ink-dark room. “I think we’re creating an experience that you probably can't get anywhere in the UK. And, in my opinion, the drinks need to reflect that.
“Dinner with us is an all-evening event. We only have 11 tables. And you don’t just come for a meal – you come for everything. There’s a live DJ who plays vinyl. We move to different areas for different parts of the meal.
“It’s very relaxed. There’s no sense of this is what you must wear, this is how it must be done. Everyone comes here and has an individual experience.”
It comes as little surprise to hear that the front-of-house team aims to deliver a “relaxed but professional” service. Rory – who’s just been listed as one of the “30 under 30” names to watch in the industry – is the definition of quiet confidence.
For guests, part of the pleasure of Ynyshir is placing yourself in the hands of this team. There’s little to choose. This is an experience that comes to you. Gareth, along with his kitchen team, create a fixed tasting menu for each sitting. Famously – or perhaps infamously – there’s no concessions to dietary requirements. Vegans and vegetarians must look elsewhere.
Rory spends each sitting with the guests, talking to them to learn more about their tastes and which styles of wine, which drinks, might interest them.
“We don’t offer a set wine flight,” he explains. With 30 courses to navigate, it would hardly be practical. “I try and find out if guests want to stick solely to wine, or whether they want to include cider or sake. I’ve got some pretty obscure drinks to offer.
“On some evenings, everyone will want drinks by the glass. And I like that. It’s an extremely personalised experience.”
Rory clearly takes a huge amount of pleasure in matching the right guest, and the right dish, with the right wine. Has he got any fail-safe recommendations? Or wines which he loves to introduce people to?
“I think Riesling’s got a bit of a reputation of being a sweet, low-quality wine. But it’s actually far from that. It’s incredibly complex and can be bone dry. The wine which people always love is a Spätlese Trocken Riesling. It can convert anyone.”
Rory’s not afraid to challenge guests’ tastes; he doesn’t simply deliver the conventional option. “I’ve got serious faith in all the wines we sell,” says Rory. “Which is why I’m confident in not listing any Champagne by the glass. We only sell English sparkling wine. And I think that’s something we’ve championed for quite a long time now.
Ynyshir gained its second Michelin star in 2022, making it part of an elite club. That second star means every guest arrives here with sky-high expectations of the food and the drink. There is no room for favours on the drinks list. No sympathy votes. Which is why Rory’s confidence in Welsh and English wines is gratifying.
“Since the 2014 vintage, the quality [of UK-made wine] has skyrocketed,” he explains. Have customers perceptions of wines from the UK kept pace with the increase in quality? “There are still some preconceptions,” Rory admits. “I like to give customers little tastes of things blind, and people just can’t believe what they’re tasting.
“When the vineyards are in the right location and there’s the right thought process behind them, these are great products and they’re going from strength to strength. It’s going to be so exciting to see 2020s coming out. We’re working with Gusbourne 2018 at the moment and it’s extraordinary.
“Plus, Gusbourne is fantastic with food. That cooler climate, higher acidity? It’s amazing, especially with some of our spicier, more aromatic dishes. A lot of people, even if they ask for a glass of Champagne, we’ll drop a glass of Gusbourne. People just cannot believe it’s made in the UK.”
Part of the joy of Ynyshir is its intimacy – just a handful of people can share an evening here. This scale also means that, for Rory, he can really explore the story behind his wines with guests. With Gusbourne, he loves the “boldness of working vintage only” he says.
“How many producers in the UK can say that? You’ve got to have complete confidence in the winemaking, in the vineyards, in your produce, you know the raw produce, in the vineyard, in the winemaker. It’s reflected in the product.
“I like its exclusivity too – the fact that you can’t find it everywhere. It’s really important to me that the drinks reflect the experience here. When people travel all this way, I want people to try something that they can’t get just anywhere. So, not only does it taste delicious but it’s really special too.”
Most top restaurants claim to be ingredient-led. Not all are. But at Ynyshir nothing makes the menu unless it’s exceptional and in season. So, with a new season – and new ingredients – arriving, Rory has to reinvent his wine recommendations.
“Spring’s my favourite season,” Rory says. “And rhubarb’s one of my favourite ingredients. We’ve changed some of the fish courses to work with it, which instantly made my new favourite pairing the sparkling Rosé. It really pulls on these flavours. For spring lamb too, I go back to Gusbourne Rosé. Sparkling Rosé is fantastic at that point in the menu.”
What about away from the restaurant? Scaling this extraordinary culinary world back to fit into everyday life must feel quite a contrast. But Rory talks with equal delight about flavours of home-prepared food and newly discovered drinks.
Finding the sweet spot where food, wine and music intersect is, it seems, a way of life, not a job. And his perfect pairing? “Well, I’ve always found hip hop and sparkling wine works well, especially if you've got something greasy on the menu,” he laughs. “You know fried chicken or fish and chips. And living on the coast means there’s always a quality fish and chips to go with a good bottle of sparkling wine.
“So yeah. For me. I think hip hop, fried foods and sparkling wine. That’s my go to.”