Chef Interview: Phil Howard (November 2009)

Posted on: November 6th, 2009 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood
Phil Howard

Phil Howard

Often referred to as a “Chef’s Chef” Michelin Two Starred Phil Howard (left) quickly cooked his way to the top of the profession.

Nearly twenty years on, Phil continues to go from strength to strength while remaining in the kitchen of his flagship restaurant The Square.

Phil found time to talk to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide. Interview took place Friday November 6th 2009, at The Square Restaurant.

Tell us some background about yourself?

I’ve been cooking at The Square since 1991, which has been a phenomenal journey!

It was actually at university that I got passionately into cooking – I didn’t go to Catering College but instead studied micro-biology, something at which I didn’t particularly excel but following on from what I was doing at school, it was the natural next step.

There was no particular cultural backdrop of cooking in the family, although my mum is a great cook, I would say an instant and obsessive interest in cooking just happened one day at university and has fortunately never left me.

Whilst I found micro-biology fascinating I had no particular desire to pursue anything in that area as a career. So after I graduated in 1988,I took a year out and went travelling – worked in a few restaurants in Australia – and generally had some space from any perceived pressure as to what I should be doing for a career.

In 1989, I returned home and decided that my passion for cooking was the right direction and picked up copies of the Which? Good Food Guide and Michelin and applied to what I considered were the top ten or so operators.

Fortunately, I quickly got a position working at the Rouxs’ contract catering arm at Kleinwort Benson in the city. I had a wonderful year there before going to dinner one evening at Marco Pierre White’s Harveys. It was one of those inspirational moments!

I worked for Marco for nine hectic months before heading off to work for Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum in South Kensington. He too was a great cook.

During that time I redeveloped a rapport with Marco and to cut a long story short, an opportunity arose out of the association with Marco and Nigel Platts-Martin to open The Square.

It’s been a long and meandering but progressive journey – we opened The Ledbury (Notting Hill) nearly five years ago and Brett (Graham, the chef and now partner) has gone from strength to strength. I have also just opened a new venture called Kitchen W8, which I expect to serve good quality food in a relaxed atmosphere and do well.

How did your association with Nigel Platts-Martin come about?

Well Nigel (Platts-Martin) was Marco’s (Pierre-White) original backer and then partner at Harveys. Around 1990 Marco went in a separate direction to open The Restaurant at The Hyde Park Hotel (now called The Mandarin Oriental Hotel) which left a window of opportunity to partner with Nigel in a new venture.

At that point the furthest I had been in my career was Chef de Partie – I had never run, managed or contributed to the running of a kitchen in any way, so consequently was vastly under qualified for the job.

There was a whole raft of skills I was missing, not that any skill in particular was complicated or difficult to master but en masse, (and combined with a busy restaurant) it was a very steep learning curve. The strength of youth (the lack of fear), enthusiasm and willingness to learn held me in good stead.

In those early days, the kitchen was producing some of the most blinding food in London, although with so few of us in the kitchen and the covers going through the roof, we were inconsistent. You might eat something sublime one night and then wait an eternity the next and receive something sub-standard the next. In hindsight, those were great days but all part of the learning process.

How do you balance life as a chef/patron?

It is an eternal struggle. It’s probably only in the last couple of years that I’ve let go of some of the sticks with which I used to beat myself.

Over the first ten years you learn lots of things – to communicate, to manage, to delegate, to take yourself less seriously (laughing) and so on. At the same time you’re evolving your ways of working, improving your employment standards and hopefully starting to make some money.

Yet this trade remains one of the few that continues to rely entirely on a brigade of manual labour to create and recreate the product every day.

So it’s a natural, evolutionary learning process on how to get the best out of people, the best out of your systems and the best out of yourself.

How often does the menu change at The Square?

It’s taken me eighteen years to finally introduce a system that allows us to print in house and change the menu progressively. I’ve found it essential for inspiration and personal development (as well as keeping the kitchen fresh) to make changes to the menu but it’s critical that it should happen in an ordered manner. Although nothing is perfect, any change equals hard work, pain and inconsistency for a period of time, which essentially balances out professional progress, motivation and satisfaction.

The menu changes significantly five times a year, we have the four regular seasons plus early and late summer split into two. In an ideal world I would like to take all the seasonal ingredients in a long list, explore various cooking techniques, and create (from within) a complete, new and totally balanced menu in one go: The kind of time consuming, fraught, risk ridden, birth giving process that you simply cannot do cooking in a restaurant at this level.

The system we employ allows us to develop the menu sensibly, bringing in change over a period of time, while doing the things we want to do, with a strong adherence to the seasons, and being true to our goals and standards.

How would you describe your gastronomy?

The style could be referred to as ‘modern progressive French’. After twenty years of cooking there is a fundamental ‘style of repertoire’ – the ‘signature’, but we are far from a strict old school kitchen. The last few years have witnessed the development of a number of innovative cooking techniques and technologies that can benefit delivering the end product on a plate.

Where the word ‘innovation’ differs at The Square is that we don’t want to cerebrally challenge customers with combinations of ingredients or types of ingredients or even extraordinary cooking techniques. I do visit other restaurants, at home and abroad, and will often come back enthused and ultimately evolve something, some small detail, that dovetails into the repertoire.

How do you go about constructing a dish?

Fundamentally, a stomach-led approach, with a strong adherence to the seasons. It becomes a second nature or intuitive process.

I never look at previous menus when constructing new dishes as that would immediately impact on my thought process.

I list all the seasonal ingredients on a piece of paper, then write down the ten ingredients in any season that have the biggest flavours. I do this because I believe that a big part of The Square’s reputation is that the food packs a real punch on flavour, while at the same time making the most of the seasons.

I tinker with concepts of dishes on paper, the last part is how the dish will look. Naturally presentation is an important part of the product but, in the order of things, is given focus once all the other elements are in place.

How long is the constructive process?

The seasonal nature of the menu means that we enforce a degree of change. In my book nature provides us with a set of ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other at any given time.

When I sit down to create the new menu I can usually get a dish right within a day or two. The inspiration comes from within, compared to those who might be inspired by things that they see or have elsewhere experienced. To me, either approach is valid and can take you right to the top of the profession – The constructive and creative processes at The Square happen to be intuitive, instinctive and from within.

How do you manage and maintain your suppliers?

At this level, I have the luxury of pretty much buying the best quality of whichever ingredient: This may involve, to an extent, small artisan producers.

However, running a busy seven day a week business, the supplier has to be consistent and reliable. The difference between a product arriving at 10.00am compared to 8.30am can make a big difference to your operation. So I look across the board at quality (for the price), consistency and reliability of delivery.

We’re in Mayfair and space is cramped for supplies – the space we have is at a premium and the customers have space priority. The net effect is that we rely on daily and prompt deliveries.

The vast majority of our produce is from the UK, there is some that may dip into temperate France (rather than Mediterranean) or perhaps occasionally Northern Italy. The only ingredient that does not come from mainland Europe is certain tropical fruit.

The sustainable fish debate is important and we won’t, for example, take British coastal cod. In other areas, rod and line caught goes in the ‘green box’ as far as I’m concerned.

Do you trial dishes on the set lunch for the a la Carte?

The set lunch is for keeping in tune with what’s current in the market. It is also priced at under half the cost of the a la Carte so we will use aspects of the ingredients that we would not otherwise use on the a la Carte – for example we buy thousands of kilos of langoustines a year and take the claws out and use them to make a lovely langoustine ravioli for the set lunch.

I’m a firm believer that The Square is packed through lunch services because the food is customer friendly – that is being responsive, to a degree, to the perceived need for simpler and more reassuring food at lunch time. There is of course a sprinkling of more sophisticated dishes as well as the opportunity for those that desire it, the a la Carte or Tasting menus.

What are the size of kitchen and front of house brigades?

There are twelve chefs per service where three are on pastry. We have a pool of twenty chefs to run a seven day a week operation. The front of house is a pool of about thirty.

We theoretically stagger the booking to help us run the operation smoothly but the reality is that we are staffed to meet all circumstances. When you have customers meeting up from several different offices for a table for six, the booking starts once they have all arrived, so it really is only a theoretical staggering.

What are your best sellers?

Consommé is something we do well here and is a good seller and comes with changing, playful garnishes. The langoustine dish is one of our star dishes and probably my personal favourite. There is also a lasagne of crab dish that delivers a luxurious taste punch and goes down well with customers. We also have a signature of foie gras with a tangy sweet and sour glaze. There’s always one of the lamb dishes on the spring menu that has been doing well for years.

We do a few things with pasta too and cooking with pasta is one of the most satisfying aspects of cooking at the moment.

What do you think of the apparent trend in tasting menus?

We have a tasting menu that runs to eight or nine courses and indeed sells very well. From an eating point of view my personal preference is to have a full three course meal with food I can connect with and indulge in and go back to.

We experimented for a while, trying different ‘styles’ of tasting menus, for example with several small courses and one main course. The Square has settled on an eight/nine course menu.

The tasting menu probably represents 50% of our business at dinner times and from the feedback that we get, the menu certainly delivers. From a cooking perspective the tasting menu provides more focus on protein and less on starch or carbohydrate, so it’s really ‘focused food’ and works well for the kitchen as it’s quicker and easier to plate – and people get to taste some of our seasonal favourites.

Do you eat out at other restaurants often?

Oh yes, I certainly try to – it’s all too easy in this profession to get introspective; saturated with your own thoughts and ideas from living in your own goldfish bowl. I think that professionally you’re duty bound to get into the ocean and see what’s going on and it would be an admission of ignorance to think that you know everything that you need to know to continue to develop; you never know where inspiration may come – it may be on the beach, on the tube or indeed, in a great restaurant. I ate at L’Arpege recently and had a staggering and magical tasting menu of around twelve courses; the service was quick, skillful and a fun experience.

On the other hand, the one mouthful type of courses served at certain temples of gastronomy, where you may wait fifteen minutes for something that takes considerably longer to introduce than to eat is not my preferred dining out option.

What is your proudest professional achievement?

I am most proud of maintaining a nineteen year friendship and partnership with Nigel (Platts-Martin) and the progress we’ve made with The Square. Long term partnerships in any business are hard work but I think in this industry in particular it is a real achievement. We received the first and second Michelin Stars along the way, which were big moments, not to be understated. Of course opening The Ledbury and Kitchen W8 have also come along.

What are your long term plans in the industry?

My culinary and spiritual home is at The Square and I would like to take the restaurant as far as it can go – everything we have achieved has been organic, progressive and over time and we will keep doing that into the future.

I will keep coming in every day and spending a professionally satisfying, productive day in the kitchen.

You are often referred to as a ‘chef’s chef’ how does that level of respect make you feel?

When I see that mentioned, it is incredibly humbling. Able, passionate and creative people are abundant in this trade. I am lucky in that I cook in the centre of Mayfair but I’ve had the privilege of judging in competitions that have taken me all over the country to meet budding cooks; sometimes from the most otherwise deprived of areas. It is after all, a practical skill, and real joy has come from discovering rough diamonds that become consumed by- and skilled in- this wonderful profession very quickly.

As far as this kitchen goes, we deliver honest food from the heart in an environment that is strict – it has to be – but at the same time carries a patient and developmental eye. Above all else I’m still here cooking, right where I want to be and right where I hope to be in the future.