Situated in the quintessential rolling hills of the Welsh countryside, Palé Hall boasts boutique accommodation, exceptional food and a breathtaking panorama that is uniquely – and proudly – Welsh. Gareth Stevenson currently mans the restaurant’s helm as Head Chef and has brought his previous experience within the culinary world to Palé Hall, earning the quiet retreat a Michelin green star award.
“My love of cuisine started when I was a child baking at home with my mum,” says Gareth. “But, I’ll be honest, I sort of fell into cooking as a career. I did well in school I suppose, but didn’t get my predicted grades and sort of faffed around for a bit. However, when I did start cooking, it was obvious that it was the right thing for me.”
Boasting Welsh heritage on his father’s side, it was in 2008 that Gareth made the move to Wales to officially train as a chef in Deeside. After graduating, his path to Palé included stints at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Maze as well as with Raymond Blanc before working his way through the ranks with Michael Caines. Having come from the kitchens and capable hands of these previous inspiring tutors, Gareth has not only elevated his credentials at Palé Hall, but also his skilful cuisine.
“My first head chef told me that when I become a head chef, I will be a patchwork quilt of all of the chefs I’ve worked under, and that’s very true, I suppose. Now I’m inspired by my environment, landscape and team, and I put those ideas into practice using all the things I’ve learnt from my mentors.”
“Obviously, I’ve worked indirectly for Michael Caines for 8 years, so he has been a huge influence. To achieve what he has in this industry over the last 30 years is incredible. I try and instil the lessons and values he taught me in the kitchen team – we even still use recipes that Michael shared with me to create our dishes, alongside my own recipes. Over the years, I have learnt to respect the ingredient, refine to the nth degree, and to never accept average.”
Gareth’s food has evolved to become an expression of his own unique culinary philosophy, creativity and skill, which consistently wins praise and acclaim from guests and reviewers alike. The exquisite creations that emerge from his kitchen form the culinary foundations of the Palé Hall experience.
“We’ve always had a fine-dining restaurant at Palé, but it’s taken a while to get to its current guise. The fine dining now is very much focused on the two menus we run per season; starting a separate casual dining concept allowed us to cater to a wider audience and be more flexible.”
“When it comes to my culinary philosophy, I’d like to think that I put flavour first, then we evolve quite natural looking food on the plate. There’s nothing on a dish that you would struggle to identify with. We just try and elevate the dishes above and beyond.”
With the country’s emblematic mount Snowdon as the hotel’s backdrop, Palé Hall is the perfect place to showcase the best that Wales has to offer in terms of produce and the work they are doing to promote and encourage local, seasonal and sustainable cooking.
“We start with what’s in season, then work from there. So we basically make a big list of what is going to be in season, then work our way through what will be the best flavour combinations, how it will sit in a tasting menu, and then figure out how each dish will come together.”
“We also try to build strong relationships with local farmers, fishermen, producers, and suppliers so that the menus at Palé Hall allow you to really explore and discover some of the finest food from our region. The produce is always fresh, seasonal, naturally delicious and, of course, sourced and produced responsibly, humanely and organically.”
“We’ve got a beautiful aged Welsh black beef dish on at the moment that, for me, sums up my food fairly well. All the produce involved is at its peak, and it invokes a flavour memory for me, eating beef and ale pie at home with my family. We use a variety of ales and stouts throughout the dish to provide different tastes and textures. There’s a beef sauce made with stout, clove and coffee; onion pickled in a local IPA; and we make pommes dauphine with a fantastic Welsh blue cheese called Perl Las.”
“All of our meat is Welsh, we get some bits from our garden and source what we can from Wales, but it’s also important to recognise Wales doesn’t just produce amazing, natural meat, dairy and fish, it makes some top-quality drinks as well. Our drinks list on the bar is full of Welsh gins, rum, whisky and beers!”
It’s hard not to look at the hotel’s surroundings and be inspired, whether it’s the green valleys and rolling hills or just the grandeur of Palé. Either way, there is a strong sensation of being at one with the Welsh terroir and, as such, it is nature that dictates what they put on the plate through the seasons.
“The whole landscape is basically designed for sustainable livestock production. When you look at it, it’s just pure green pastures, beautiful rolling hills, great soil, and a good amount of rain. There are a lot of historic family farmers, cooperatives and producers, so there’s not been a huge drive to mass production nor a lack of care for the environment and the produce.”
“There’s a word in Welsh, hiraeth, which to my understanding, is a deep longing for something – your home in particular. The Welsh are fiercely proud of and care for their home and history, and I think you can see and taste that in the produce.”
“We get our meat from our local butcher called T. J. Roberts & Son in Bala, 3 miles away. Our eggs come from a producer called Cae Pant, which is literally across the village from Palé. We use natural and fruit yoghurts from Llaeth y Llan in Denbigh for menu prep and breakfast servings. Our bread for sandwiches is from Henllan and Denbigh. Usually, we get half of our cheeses for our cheese offering from Caws Cenarth in Pembrokeshire. When it is in season and sustainably sourced, we will pick up fish such as mackerel, sea trout, sea bass and lobster from the West Coast. The quality and the choice is really phenomenal.”
Paying homage to the man who built Palé Hall over 150 years ago, Gareth cooks out of the Henry Robertson Dining Room. Adorned with ornate plaster ceilings and a marble fireplace, this light and airy room was designed to impress and is the perfect setting to serve afternoon tea, as well as Gareth’s two decadent tasting menus.
“A lot of people come and dine or stay at Palé and describe it as being like in Downtown Abbey. Owners Mr and Mrs Harper wanted Palé to feel like a home from home, but also to feel like a grand old country house should, so there’s no unnecessary modernising. It all feels very grand and natural.”
“I want the guests to feel like they’ve been on a bit of a journey that reflects our produce here in Wales, but also the journey that I’ve been on which influences the flavours I put together.”
The restaurant’s success is undeniable and reflects the hard work of the staff who continually strive to improve and who have deep respect for the local surroundings. Palé Hall has invested in its own future and the land by sourcing produce carefully and selecting intelligent equipment that aids sustainable practices.
“I think fine dining is continually evolving through different trends; some stick around longer than others, but a lot will depend on how or if we get through the current staffing crisis in the industry. On a sustainability front, I think provenance is at the forefront of diners and chefs’ minds, especially since the horsemeat scandal and other shameful food chain discoveries. It’s something we as an industry can influence the wider public with. People used to avoid some of the cheaper cuts, now they buy so much they are more expensive than some prime ones! If we can have the same effect with sustainable food, we are doing something right.”
“Currently, Palé Hall works with suppliers to reduce plastic in packaging, we try to source fish that is caught in a specific manner, we’ve lowered our carbon footprint by sourcing more local produce and we have been using biodegradable vacuum pack bags.’
“At some point, I’d like one of our tasting menus to be sourced entirely from within Wales. There’s a lot of work to be done with sourcing and planning on that front, but I think it’s possible.”
It seems that Gareth’s vision could soon be a reality, with this work already being well underway thanks to not only the natural terroir but also the Welsh Government’s ‘strategic vision’. With plans to create one of the most environmentally and socially responsible supply chains in the world over the coming decade, the initiative reinforces Wales’ position as a stronghold of responsible hospitality.
Likewise, not just a quiet retreat offering luxury and culinary indulgence, Palé Hall is taking heed of sustainability advice and is flying the flag for the future of Welsh hospitality. With their eyes on the future but their hearts in the past, Gareth’s team offers honest, quality food in an impeccable setting. Much like the rest of the passionate souls involved in Wales’ food and beverage industry, everything here is made with love, care, skill and respect for nature.
For centuries, generation after generation, the Welsh have been honouring their land of pastures, mountains, orchards, forests and rivers, showcasing its excellence at every turn. Award-winning and status-protected, Wales’ food and drink is a homage to its natural origins, the hands who made it and the culture that created it, and experiencing this taste of purity and passion is well worth the trip to this virtuous nation.
To find out more about Wales and its food and drink offerings, visit the Welsh Government’s website.
Images by Chris Terry