Nathan Davies is a chef very much in a purple patch. Almost overnight the 31-year-old became the envy of many an aspiring chef when his Aberystwyth restaurant SY23 was named Opening of the Year in the 2022 edition of the Michelin Guide, and a day later was awarded a Michelin star having only been fully operational for a handful of months because of Covid restrictions. With weekend tables at the restaurant now booked up until September, 2022 has so far been kind.
You wouldn’t begrudge the chef such spoils given the short history of his debut restaurant and his choice of timing. Davies launched SY23 in December 2019 having bought the site only a month before, but by March he was forced to close it when the pandemic hit. With the Omicron variant later having an impact, and Wales’ strict lockdown rules, in the past two years the restaurant has only been open for a total of nine months. So how can he explain his debut solo venture’s meteoric rise to fame?
the early days
“In a word, it was tough,” says Davies with notable litotes of the first few months of his new place. “When we first opened all we wanted to do was open a good restaurant in the area. We never really thought we would be anywhere near this sort of level at this stage.”
That’s not to say SY23 wasn’t ambitious in its first iteration. With his debut restaurant Davies, a former head chef of nearby Ynyshir, Gareth Ward’s freshly anointed two Michelin-starred restaurant, Davies wanted to take his learnings to the coastal town of Aberystwyth. “Ynyshir was the only restaurant around here to have any ambition to do anything in terms of quality or experience, rather than just feeding people,” he says. “SY23 was a new concept to the area that followed this vision. Everybody said it wouldn’t work.”
Like every restaurateur during the early days of the pandemic, Davies was forced to close his business for a couple of months, but few had been given so little chance to get fully going first. However, the enforced pause so early on in the restaurant’s life turned out to be transformative, turning it into the restaurant it is today.
When it opened, SY23 served tapas-style dishes with a little set menu of greatest hits running alongside, but Davies soon discovered it was the set menu, and not the small plates, for which people made the visit.
“In some ways although financially crippling [lockdown] was a bit of a blessing as it allowed us to consolidate all our thoughts into what we wanted from the restaurant,” he says. “We were brand new; we had struggled to get it open in such a short period of time and it was very full on. But the customers didn’t buy into the tapas menu; all they wanted was the set menu. That’s how it started.”
Coming out of lockdown, Davies reverted to the set menu format with him in the kitchen on his own cooking everything. Diners were all seated at the same time to enable him to do so and the communal experience is one that has remained even though he has since bolstered his brigade to three.
“Our style has been built out of Covid and been molded by how we’ve had to work with staff. A lot of the shit that came with Covid also brought some good things. Having a couple of months off after opening gave us the confidence to do what we want to do when we came back.”
A different tack
This style has since won the restaurant its plaudits as well as catch the eye of the Michelin inspectors. Yet things could have worked out very differently for Davies who, before joining Ynyshir, had considered throwing in the tea-towel after enduring a career in the kitchens that had left him cold.
“I’d worked in a couple of jobs where they promised you the world and you got there and it’s just a horrendous experience; you’re in the weeds and haven’t got the staff, the equipment or the backing to do what they want to do,” he recalls. “Four years ago, before I went to Ynyshir I was contemplating on giving up cooking. I said to my wife, if it doesn’t work out here, I’m done.”
Davies quit his head chef position at a restaurant in Cardiff to take on a lower chef de partie role at Ynyshir – and a £25,000 pay cut as part of the move. “It was the only job available,” he explains. “I told myself that I would go there and immerse myself and give it my all. It was the last throw of the dice.”
“Our style has been built out of Covid
and been molded by how we’ve
had to work with staff”
It was a gamble that paid off. After 18 months Davies was promoted to head chef and, along with now Casamia executive chef Zak Hitchman, was part of the team that saw Ward transform Ynyshir from a stuffy country house hotel to the culinary sensation it is today.
“Anyone who knows Gareth knows that if you give him 100%, he’ll back you 100%. I had worked with him briefly before for nine months, so I knew what he was about. We built up a massive level of trust. I knew he had my back, and I had his and I absolutely loved it. I got everything I could ever dream from it, and he changed my life. I don’t say that lightly. Working at Ynyshir was life changing.”
Ward’s never-say-die approach has had a lasting impact on Davies. He recalls the transformation the restaurant underwent to meet his vision with the chef knocking through walls and opening up the kitchen into the dining room so that chefs could serve diners their food – not because it mimicked a style of service that Rene Redzepi had championed at Noma but because there were not enough front of house staff to serve the food.
“That mentality is infectious and showed how much he wanted to succeed. The biggest thing I took from Ynyshir was Gareth’s can-do, will-do attitude; if it doesn’t work you don’t go round it, you go through it.”
Embracing his mentors
Ward has had other influences on Davies, not least his cooking style. In its description of SY23, Michelin states that Ward’s ‘influence is clear to see at this modern restaurant’. Is this something that he minds?
“You can see the influences, I don’t hide away for that,” he says. “In fact, it’s something I’m very proud of. I embrace it because [Ynyshir] is one of the best restaurants in the country, if not the world.
“At a restaurant you’re telling a story with your menu as well of where you’ve worked. I worked with Stephen Terry for a short while and there are certain things I’ve picked up from him that I use. A chef’s menu is their CV, they put it down on the table and people can see they have worked here and there and has put all of that experience into one menu. It tells a story of where they have been and what they have done, and I love that.”
SY23 is by no means a version of Ynyshir in a different location. While Ward’s restaurant is known for its long, multi-course menu of often one-bite dishes (a meal is typically around 30 dishes) often with an Asian influence. Davies’ 20-cover restaurant, by contrast, serves a 10-course tasting menu of dishes that have a distinctly British feel to them. “Our food has to be different because of the delivery. Gareth’s courses are almost all one bite, they are really quick and fun, while with us you’re getting more on the plate. three of [Ynyshir’s] Dishes are about the same size as one of ours, so we have our own style.”
While the feel of SY23 has echoes of the dining room at Ynyshir, not least because Davies played a role into helping Ward refurbish his restaurant, it’s a different environment. “I wanted to create something that had more of an emphasis on service. It’s a slightly more formal environment than what Gareth is doing.”
Davies looks for the best ingredients in the local area, which he says can limit his cuisine. “I’m not buying hamachi from overseas, so instead it’s mackerel or bream, and that sets us apart as well. SY23 will keep evolving and it will naturally become further apart from Ynyshir as we continue to develop.”
“Instagram is fantastic for sharing things,
but it can be such a dangerous thing
for young chefs”
SY23’s menu features foraged and local ingredients, used fresh or preserved, with dishes cooked simply over fire. Menu items could include things such as scallop with seaweed and burnt butter; crab with preserved elder; and lamb with black garlic and mushrooms. Desserts, meanwhile, could be strawberries with elderflower and cultured cream; and Cox apple with wood sorrel and granola.
In addition there’s Y Sgwar, an all-weather, outside dining area with fire pits built into the tables and overhead heaters. Open Wednesday to Sunday for breakfast and lunch, the style follows a more informal tapas approach that has more of an Asian bent with dishes such as lobster, fennel, soy; cockles, bacon, and dashi; and pork belly and hoisin.
As a chef who openly acknowledges – and celebrates – the influence of his mentors, he is wary of how the digital landscape has changed the way some chefs look at dish development. Social media, and the trend for sharing dishes online, has both helped the creative process and hindered it, he believes.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago people who worked with Pierre Koffmann were putting trotters on the menu because they had been there and learned from the master. The biggest problem we’ve got is young people are trying to rip off dishes from Instagram and that’s when it doesn’t work. There are things that we do here in the restaurant that only work if you know the technique – the five-day processes and the investment in time and care in the product that you’re turning into a dish.
“We don’t just grill lamb ribs, we find the producer that gets us a cut with the right fat content, that is butchered in a particular way and brined it for a certain amount of time before grilling. Instagram is fantastic for sharing things; I love browsing through it, but it can be such a dangerous thing for young chefs. They might copy something, and it might look good and make a good picture but the depth of flavor isn’t there. Working at Ynyshir I learned how to push flavor into food and that the way it looks afterwards.”
Outside of his kitchen, Davies reached the finals of this year’s Great British Menu with his starter, which was inspired by the BBC TV show Merlin, and which comprised braised lamb neck, fermented grains, miso onion purée, pickled shallots and beer broth. Both the Michelin star and his TV appearance helped put bums on seats at the restaurant, but he says that this will probably be his last appearance on the cooking competition-as a competitor at least.
He describes the Michelin recognition “as a bit cloud nine stuff” but it is not the guides that dictate his cooking style. His focus, he says, will be on continuing to evolve the experience at SY23. Guests currently arrive at the restaurant at around 6.30pm and can stay until midnight if they wish, with no tables being turned and no pressure to rush, which Davies says is crucial to the experience.
“My business partner is very forward thinking; we will continue evolving. There is plenty of tread left on the tires but they key is the experience.
“I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world including Frantzen (in Stockholm), which blew me away. The food wasn’t that much different to a two-star restaurant, the quality of ingredients was really high, but it was the experience that made my evening. That’s what I want to create here. I want people to come to us and say ‘oh my god what a beautiful evening’.”