Phil Howard (See Chef Interview) is a chef’s chef with long established top end restaurant multi-Michelin starred success under his belt at The Square. Phil has also invested in others – witness the rise of The Ledbury (see Brett Graham Interview). Together with business partner Rebecca Mascarenhas (above), Kicthen W8 in Kensington and now Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes are two joint ventures that are proving that understanding the recipe of your target market while combining skills into the perfect blend, are key factors when delivering success in the tricky restaurant business.
Here, Phil and Rebecca speak to Simon Carter of fine-dining-guide, interview took place in late May at Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes.
Rebecca, tell us some background about yourself?
Rebecca Mascarenhas: Many years ago I trained as an actress and was reasonably successful, but that profession wasn’t for me, it didn’t suit my temperament: I don’t like to wait to get a response, as an actress you have to audition and they may or may not want you, my personality is more suited to being a doer, an entrepreneur.
When I stopped I was unemployed so started waitressing, which was my first foray into the restaurant world. I was working at the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, which I loved, although I was still thinking of it as a temporary job while considering my options for the future. After about a year Bob Payton, who I worked for, encouraged me to do a management training programme. This served to further whet my appetite for the industry and I realised that I was really interested in food as a potential career.
I then worked for Victor Lownes (of Playboy empire fame), who had set up a restaurant, as his restaurant manager, however due to (in hindsight serendipitous) circumstances I soon found myself effectively running the business, which was both a challenge and an opportunity. The business turned around from loss making to extremely profitable. In all honesty, the only reason I left was that I asked for an equity share, which was not forthcoming. I had always had an instinct to run my own business so in 1985 I drew up criteria for what I wanted in a restaurant of my own.
In 1986, I was at an estate agents one day and saw this property (Sonny’s) come up. I made them bring me over to view it immediately. I fell in love with the place and put an offer in straight away.
What has Sonny’s meant to you over the last 26 years?
Rebecca Mascarenhas: Well it has witnessed the span of the best part of my life, I’ve had children while owning the restaurant, I’ve got to know a wonderful neighbourhood in Barnes and met some fantastic people. This restaurant has meant, and continues to mean, so much to me and I’m very grateful for the experience.
What has Sonny’s meant to this neighbourhood?
Phil Howard: Well I’ve lived in Barnes for ten years. Barnes is an area that is perhaps stronger than the term neigbourhood; it is very much a community, enclosed by a lovely loop in the river Thames and an attractive area for a whole variety of reasons.
The village nature of Barnes is very important to the people who live here and Sonny’s has a centre of gravity about it – a jewel in the crown of the village. Many people who lead ambitious, perhaps corporate lives, need a local peace haven where they can switch off the pressure valve, relax and enjoy themselves.
It has been pitched perfectly for where it is and who it is feeding over a long period of time: You are served by an eclectic, normal, relaxed and friendly group of front of house staff and eat the kind of food that allows the customer to just unwind. On the whole it’s not food you have to think too much about, although those words do not do justice to the eating experience. In general the restaurant has been and continues to be an important part of the Barnes jigsaw.
How did your association together begin and what are the attributes of a successful business partnership?
Rebecca Mascarenhas: I phoned Phil up one day, out of the blue, to discuss the possibly of a different take on a quality restaurant (that turned out to be Kitchen W8).
Perhaps top end (Michelin standard) chefs go through a kind of journey; always striving to stretch themselves to find perfection, then when reaching a certain point, perhaps step back and ask themselves where and what would they like to eat when they dine out? As a result new horizons and opportunities arise.
Phil Howard: We all have ambitions – to achieve objectives in our careers in whatever way our talent and drive is geared; we also develop and mature as chefs and as people at the same time. At some point everything comes together and you reach a level of satisfaction in your goals, perhaps also as you get older and wiser you realize there are many ways of gaining fulfillment in cooking while running a successful business.
The challenge is to find the right opportunities for new ventures. I’ve reached the stage in my life where I appreciate that what some might call simpler food (compared to The Square for example) warrants just as much love and care in the cooking. A part of my role at Sonny’s Kitchen is communicating that message effectively to motivate and manage ambitious young chefs appropriately.
Rebecca Mascarenhas: In terms of the overall attributes of a strong and successful business partnership, having the right blend or chemistry is fundamental. It’s like a good marriage: Do you get on well? Do you add value to the partnership in different ways? Do you grow as a team? Do you share mutual respect? Do you share the same values? And so on. Now that we’re working on Sonny’s Kitchen, we have had the benefit of a great history as a business partnership (with Kitchen W8) and know that we work very well together. This breeds mutual confidence moving forward.
As an example of the business side of the venture, over the last 26 years the human resources aspects of the restaurant trade have become so much more complicated; a welter of legislation has come through that needs dealing with on a day to day basis. In fact the gamut of responsibilities for a restaurateur today are quite breathtaking.
Phil Howard: Yes, I’ve always found the notion of chef/patron a puzzling one – how a chef can deal with the coal face of a kitchen and front of house day to day while managing to run a business has appeared the impossible challenge. Why should either the chef or the restaurateur have the skill sets to do both? It’s ideal for two different people with different abilities to come to the table (so to speak). I find it ideal to work with someone where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; someone like Rebecca who compliments and adds value to what I can do and vice versa.
Rebecca Mascarenhas: We also have mutually valuable address books that come with know-how and experience. On each side of the operation, one or other of us can nearly always say “I know someone who can!”
What first attracted you to the proposition of Sonny’s Kitchen?
Phil Howard: As a centre point of the village, Sonny’s has always had a personality, a soul and a thumping heartbeat; the challenge of protecting and preserving that while taking the restaurant forward is very exciting.
What first attracted you to the proposition of Kitchen W8?
Rebecca Mascarenhas: Well I originally had the site but was humble enough to realize that the end product was missing something and could be improved. Phil and I sat down and wrote separate plans for the property and then overlaid them. Almost word for word we were in harmony and produced a blueprint for the way forward.
Phil brought Mark Kempson into the restaurant and he has made it his own, having breathed new life into the soul of the restaurant. It’s an ephemeral but palpable thing but I believe wholeheartedly that a restaurant has a soul that just feels right the moment you walk in and we’re blessed to have that with Kitchen W8 and (here) at Sonny’s Kitchen, too.
What does Sonny’s Kitchen have to offer as a food destination and a social meeting place?
Phil Howard: It’s great to be able to fulfill people’s needs on more than one level: To be the place round the corner that customers can enjoy on a weekday lunch time through to the special occasion evening for diners. I feel particularly exposed and personally responsible for the offering here as the majority of customers are people that I meet in the street – it’s where I live – whereas at The Square you might feel slightly anonymous at ten paces (laughing).
Ultimately, in this day and age, if you do something well enough people will travel to dine at your restaurant. However first and foremost, the aim of the repertoire, is to suit the environment with something we both believe in and if we believe in it, we trust the customers will do, too.
Rebecca Mascarenhas: I would add that the definition of excellence has changed in recent years: Years ago, you knew what excellent was and now excellence is pitched at many different levels with each being equally relevant and effective.
We’re now managing people’s expectations as to what to expect from Sonny’s Kitchen – the ethos will be the same – we’re sensitive to many years of loyal clientele and easing them into the refreshed offering, at the same time as broadening the scope of opportunity for new clientele to enjoy what Sonny’s Kitchen is all about!