Restaurateur Stephen Terry gives us some food for thought

Stephen Terry is the man behind one of the area’s most popular restaurants, The Hardwick. It is closed at the moment due to Covid-19 restrictions but DAVID BARNES spoke to him before the crisis about food, Monmouthshire and his plans for the future.

It was Stephen Terry’s father-in-law who saw that the property, then called The Horse and Jockey, was for sale.

“I wasn’t that keen on the place when I first saw it, if I’m honest. I was a bit reluctant as it really was in such a sorry state but with some projected vision from my wife, Joanna, I was interested.

“She knew my ability as a chef and the potential this opportunity held. If a restaurant is good enough then people will come. As simple as that. And that is what we did. One day at a time. Fifteen years have now passed and The Hardwick has established itself and remains as one of the places to stay and eat in Monmouthshire.”

Mr Terry was born in London and grew up in rural Bedfordshire. He arrived in Monmouthshire 20 years ago via 14 years in London, where he worked in some of its toughest and most respected restaurants, including Le Gavroche under the direction of Michel Roux Jr and three years with Marco Pierre White at the legendary Harveys alongside Gordon Ramsay.

He said: “I grew up in a pretty rural environment so coming to Monmouthshire after London didn’t come as a much of a culture shock.

“I bought The Walnut Tree from Ann and Franco Taruschio after being approached by them when I was still in London. I worked with them both for their last few months at the restaurant to immerse myself in the culture of the iconic restaurant before taking the helm myself and starting a new chapter.

“We won a Michelin Star at The Walnut Tree but sadly things didn’t work out between myself and my business partner, as circumstances changed, so we parted company.

“Sometimes it feels as though we’re a bit out in the sticks but in reality we’re not very far from the centre of Abergavenny. We’re on the gateway to West Wales, so if you’re on a bit of road trip heading west we are a convenient location for a stop. If you’re interested in food rather than stopping at the Golden Arches, then we’re on the radar.”

Things have grown organically since The Hardwick opened. Rooms have been added alongside an extension to the restaurant.

Mr Terry said: “The extension added 50 covers to the restaurant which brings our total to 110 covers. We’re happy with our progress and where we are today. We now have six in the kitchen and some 12 in front of house. It’s a tight ship but efficient.

“We’ve done some really nice things over the years. One of the best, and certainly most memorable, was being involved in the Nato Summit at Cardiff Castle. Prime minister David Cameron invited us to cook for all the leaders including Barrack Obama, the delegates, foreign secretaries, defence secretaries. It was fascinating.”

So, is Mr Terry hankering after a Michelin star? He said: “I haven’t really engaged with the guides so much recently. It tickled me for a while but then I got a bit bored with it. I’ve been involved in this business for a long time and, to be honest, I’m my own harshest critic. I am judged by my customers every day. The guides don’t have anything that I want.

“I’m 53 in April and I’m not chasing awards governed by people who are half my age. I have enough to occupy me with a family to look after, a business to run and staff to manage.”

He said: “My style of cooking now, as to when I started at The Hardwick, is a lot simpler. It’s more seasonal, it’s all about the quality of the produce. It’s about elevating the ingredients without being contrived. Yes, we use modern cooking techniques, but only so that it adds to the consistency of our food. It’s not about being clever for the sake of it. If I was clever I would be working in finance or property and earning a fortune.

“We’re spoiled rotten for local produce. We source our lamb, beef, pork, poultry, locally. We have great local eggs and Welsh cheeses on our doorstep. We have Ancre Hill winery up the road and some great local beers. We have fabulous fish from Pembrokeshire and Welsh sewin when the season’s right. We have Neal’s Yard Dairy just across the border. We’ve always used their products which are incredible.

“As a country restaurant, steak on the menu is essential. At the moment we have a dish which combines fillet steak and a deep fried croquette of braised ox tail, shin and feather blade of beef. It creates interest and keeps the price down. It’s a good value dish at £29.

“We get as many local vegetables as we can. Philip Jones is essential to our business. He is our local fruit and veg wholesaler and he sources us all we need. There is also a lovely lady called Joyce Watkins who lives up the road and has to be 80-plus. Whatever she turns up with, we use. She comes to the door with all sorts – gooseberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, raspberries, strawberries – she’s amazing.”

The Hardwick had planned to host a charity chef’s evening in aid of St David’s Hospice Care in March but that had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Terry was set to be joined by Michelin-starred chefs Angela Hartnett, Daniel Clifford, Phillip Howard and Hywel Jones, who hails from Newport.

He said: “I only really got to know about St David’s Hospice Care since my wife’s mother became ill last year. She sadly passed away in August. She was cared for by the magnificent nurses at the charity. They were absolutely amazing. We’ve always done fund raising in the past for Ty Hafan, we’re big supporters of them, but never St David’s. But when it touches you and your family – and they were incredible – then you feel that you want to do as much as you can.”

What does Mr Terry like about his adopted county? “We now live in Govilon and there are some great places locally we can get to when we’re not tied up at the restaurant.

“The best place to eat in Monmouthshire? Now that’s a hard one. We tend to stay in if we have a night off. It’s a treat all being together at home – it’s like a night out by being at home.

“The reason there are not more ‘Hardwicks’ is that I am the one driving it. I am here six, sometimes seven, days a week. I cook and I oversee the kitchen and make sure everything is running smoothly. It requires sacrifice but without it you don’t have a successful restaurant. The Hardwick is my baby and also my pension! But I’m not standing still. I’d always like another challenge. Last year we ripped out the bar and created something different for us – a new fantastic nine metre long bar where we serve small plates. It’s very impressive and something we’d like to do more of.

“It is aimed at local people dropping in for a bite to eat. Sometimes people are just too busy or don’t want to cook and want some simple, tasty food. It could be a quick business meeting. It’s convenient, affordable, casual and accessible. In and out in an hour, easily.

“Certainly not a new concept but something that my style of cooking lends itself to well. I’d like to replicate this as a slightly bigger version in Cardiff. As soon as I find a site, in a good location, we’ll get started. What to call it – Source & Knocky? It’s a play on words, sauce and gnocchi? Watch this space…”