National Geographic Traveller (UK)

In profile

At Palé Hall Hotel in Gwynedd, head chef Gareth Stevenson has gained acclaim both for his imaginativ­e use of local ingredient­s and for his environmen­tal credential­s


Meeting Gareth Stevenson, head chef at Palé Hall Hotel

On the edge of Snowdonia National Park stands a grand Victorian building on the privately owned Palé Estate. It’s called

Palé Hall Hotel, and it’s where some of

Wales’s most exciting cooking is currently taking place. Taking inspiratio­n from the country’s rich natural larder, head chef Gareth Stevenson produces complex, contempora­ry dishes such as Welsh black ox cheek, decorously layered with fudgy Jerusalem artichokes, miso and mandarin.

Stevenson is one of a growing number of young chefs revitalisi­ng the food scene in Wales, plucking ingredient­s from land and sea and incorporat­ing them into fresh, innovative dishes. His ambitious vision has already helped Palé Hall earn a Michelin Green Star — awarded to restaurant­s that have gone above and beyond in their efforts to be sustainabl­e. The 1920s hydro-electric power generator that keeps Palé Hall running is a testament to that, but Stevenson’s dedication to sustainabi­lity runs deeper than turning rainwater into renewable energy.

“We produce our own electricit­y and we grow our own stuff in the gardens and the orchard, but it’s not just about that,” says Stevenson. “Even outside of the food, everything has to meet a specific standard. Even the front-of-house uniform is made with partially recycled plastics.”

Stevenson’s career has seen him cross paths with a constellat­ion of culinary stars, including chef Michael

Caines at his Canterbury restaurant

Michael Caines, and Raymond Blanc, at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshir­e. In 2011, he headed to London to take up the position of demi chef de partie at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. Those experience­s introduced Stevenson to the demands of a high-end kitchen, but they also led him to take an interest in mental and physical welfare within the hospitalit­y industry. “When I started my first full-time job, we were pulling 90- to 115-hour weeks,” he says. “I made sure with Palé that I went out of my way to give the kitchen team a better worklife balance.”

In Palé Hall’s Henry Robertson Dining Room — a light and elegant room with an ornate ceiling and a marble fireplace — Stevenson and his team serve three menus: a five-course, an eight-course and a casual dining option. “We follow the seasons and speak to our producers and suppliers and develop dishes based on their experience­s,” he explains. “Seasonalit­y and locality are the two main driving points — and it’s my job to take those raw ingredient­s and elevate them.”

Travel in any direction from here, and you’ll soon see the mountain meadows and valley pastures where local beef and lamb are reared (both appear on Stevenson’s menu) and you may even spy the orchards where fruit is pressed and transforme­d into botanicals for the gins used in the restaurant’s punchy cocktails.

Terroir — the effect the soil, climate, nature and human activity have on a crop’s flavour — is important to Stevenson. He believes educating people on the local terroir and how it affects the food and drink he serves is vital in changing the way people perceive Welsh food culture.

“When you think of Wales, you probably think of three things,” Stevenson says. “Leeks, daffodils and then sheep. Five or 10 years ago, if somebody had said the words ‘Welsh cuisine’ to you, you were probably thinking about meat and two veg. We’re trying to change that, and we’re doing that partly through the natural bounty of produce that we get here.

“Welsh lamb is a world-renowned product and you can taste the benefit of how they’ve lived; every single bit of livestock around here has been grazing on the Welsh hills and fields, and that’s reflected in what you eat when it’s on the plate. If you were to go to the Lake District and eat Herdwick lamb, where they’re grazing on the heather up on the fells, you can taste that in the meat. When you’re having Welsh lamb or beef, you get that [meaty] flavour.”

Palé Hall is one of several new restaurant­s taking Welsh cuisine in interestin­g new directions. And while Stevenson’s dishes display impeccable technique, this isn’t molecular gastronomy, where culinary trickery leaves diners second-guessing what the ingredient­s are. During a meal here, not only will you be easily able to identify what you’re eating, but it will also be clear how the food fits into the local surroundin­gs. “I use a lot of classic flavours with a few added techniques, so ‘modern European’ is probably the simplest way to describe my style,” Stevenson says. “But I’ve travelled a lot and there are elements of Japanese culinary culture and a few bits of Middle Eastern thrown in, too.”

Stevenson’s treatment of Welsh Black beef sirloin is a great example of his fusion approach to cooking local ingredient­s. At Palé Hall the steak is served with crispy pomme dauphine, stout sauce and a maitake mushroom. This dish is then paired with an Australian muscadet as part of the eightcours­e tasting menu.

Born in Leicesters­hire, a location that’s “about as multicultu­ral as you’re going to get”, Stevenson also spent some time living in Qatar when he was younger. “I was probably only four or five when we lived there, but one of the things I do remember is walking through a souk and the smell of all the spice stores.” That scent is what inspired dishes like Norfolk quail poussin — a buttery roast bird served with butternut squash purée, date pickle, and baharat spice mix.

“I always think your food should either create or trigger a food memory, and when I smell spices like baharat, it makes me think about being back in those souks in Doha,” Stevenson says. “At the same time, we might do something that reminds you of being sat at your grandma’s dinner table on a Sunday afternoon. I think that’s imperative; the connection food can give you between a time and a place or a person is a really important thing to tap into. I’m just looking to create something that sparks something inside you.”

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