Together with CCS, The Caterer invited chef-restaurateur Phil Howard to be interviewed by its editor Amanda Afiya and to share his invaluable experience with 50 young chefs. Janie Manzoori-Stamford reports
Next year, the Square restaurant in London's Mayfair will celebrate its 25th birthday. Reaching such a milestone is an accomplishment in any industry, but even more so when you consider that Philip Howard had only three years' experience when he was made head chef and that the
restaurant has retained two Michelin stars since 1998. It's an achievement that countless chefs would love to emulate, though it wasn't always plain sailing for the chef.
Howard, who battled a cocaine addiction during the Square's infancy, is the first to admit that it has been years of hard work, sacrifices and ups and downs. "But on the other hand, it has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams. I might have had some shit days, but I've never had a boring day," he says.
With a larger-than-most dining room, the Square, in its current home [it relocated from St James's in 1996] boasts a lively atmosphere that eschews any pretensions to be a hushed temple of gastronomy.
However, the scale of the operation had its challenges, as Howard admits: "In the early days, it was a lot of hard work because when you're open seven days a week and you're doing 100 covers a night at that sort of level, it's not easy. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've always been such a teamwork man. You can't try and run something like this on your own."
The only way to stand at the pass and plate every single dish sent out at a restaurant of this size is to be a complete control freak, which he says can be tempting when you're just starting out, but if you succeed in pulling your team together in order to deliver, it's empowering in the long run: "It means you're not trying to do everything and as an individual you've got so much more potential. If you try and do the whole thing yourself, you can never do any more than that."
Howard describes the Square as an honest restaurant. It's an ethos that radiates from both the menu and the style of service. The priority, he says, has always been about cooking delicious food, not trying to be too clever, progressive or innovative, and employing great people in front of house to look after the customers. This simple recipe for success has resulted in immense critical acclaim and numerous plaudits from consumers and industry peers alike, including two Catey awards (see timeline panel) and two highly coveted Michelin stars, which have been held for 17 years. Are there ambitions to go for the hat-trick?
"Of course, I've thought about three stars. We've had two for so long now that thinking about getting three is inevitable," says Howard. "I like to think I've always been honest enough and spent enough time in the kitchen plating food and doing hard services to appreciate we're not perfect. That's combined with the fact that I can't be strategic in my cooking. I have to cook what I want to cook; so often a percentage of every menu is usually quite simple because I believe in and want to cook it.
"All that really matters as a head chef is that you're effective and how you go about that doesn't really matter. You've got to get a team of people to achieve what you want them to achieve and some people choose to beat it out of [them], and other people not. The reality is three stars is all about a quality of cooking achieved consistently, and I do believe that a lot of what we do cook is of suitable quality. And I certainly think more recently the consistency has improved too."
But while the imminent publication of a Michelin guide was once anxiety-inducing for Howard, who would find it impossible not to get his hopes up, last year, for the first time, the big day arrived without all of the usual stress. "I only clicked that it was Michelin day when I saw Twitter going mad," he says.
"I thought, ‘that's nice'. It's not that I don't care any more. I want the Square to go on and fulfil its full potential with our new head chef Gary[Foulkes], but it's no longer a particular goal."
The British food scene, these days billed as one of the best in the world, has unsurprisingly undergone countless stages of evolution in the time since the Square opened, so how does Howard know which food trends to embrace and those to avoid? The Square has had its moments in the media spotlight, gracing the covers of countless magazines, but as new sensations arrive on the scene, there's pressure to feel top of the game forever.
"But that doesn't happen so inevitably and, particularly in the last 10 years as things have changed so much, I've had phases of worrying whether my career is progressing enough. What do I do to keep it relevant? Damn, I'd better start cooking my beef at 62 degrees, not roasting it in butter. And so in that time I've done a lot of eating and cooking, and seeing what other people do, but it's still about being honest."
A vacuum-packed loin of lamb cooked in a water bath might come out a consistent colour and tender when sliced, but the problem is it doesn't taste of anything, insists Howard. With that, the Square has reached a point where meat is roasted on the bone to maximise flavour. Traditional cooking techniques are employed because, he says, it's about being honest and asking: "What will actually benefit the eating and what am I just getting off on as a process?"
All this comes from a man who didn't initially set out to be a chef. But while a microbiology degree might be unlikely to sow the seeds of a love for food, being forced to start cooking as a self-sufficient university student certainly did.
"I suddenly found this thing that I absolutely knew I was put on the Earth to do," says Howard. "And it wasn't because I was particularly good at it; I just thought, this is me, cooking is what I want to do."
After graduating and a spot of travelling, he returned to the UK hell-bent on pursuing this new-found passion. He sent letters to all the great and good of the day's restaurant scene, and ultimately bagged a job offer at the Roux brothers' City contract catering business Roux Restaurants.
Howard found himself in a busy kitchen where he believes he benefited from a learning curve far steeper than any he might have found in a top-end restaurant.
"That's something to consider as a training chef," he says, suggesting that leaving college for a job in an independent restaurant has its downsides.
"[After a year at the restaurant] you might leave being able to make a fantastic rye soil or an amazing oyster meringue, but if you're really honest, it's not particularly useful for all but the select few.
"In a small brigade you cover the ground so much faster because you're always in the shit and understaffed and you've got to do it. You'll become a great cook pretty quickly. If you thendecide that your calling is to make an oyster meringue, you can find somewhere to do it. The key is to learn the trade [first]."
While the job was laying the foundations of Howard's skill base, it was a night out for dinner that would do the most to shape his culinary ambitions. A meal at Marco Pierre White's legendary restaurant Harvey's introduced him to a level of cooking that he had no idea existed. Howard was so completely blown away that when he was lucky enough to end up in conversation with White at the end of the night, he asked for a job.
"I worked at Harvey's for about a year and, like pretty much everyone else, my exit was with a P45 and not through my choice," he explains. "I was absolutely furious that he sacked me. I was working six days a week and more and he sacked me one night for boiling a bloody pomme purée."
Up for a challenge
Howard, who has never been known for being hot-headed, rang his ex-boss the next day and let him have it. It would turn out to be a good move ("I think he liked that I challenged him") because the pair stayed in touch after Howard went to work at Bibendum with Simon Hopkinson, who is widely regarded as one of the first chefs to really bring provenance, seasonality and flavour to the foreground.
White would regularly invite Howard back to Harvey's to try new dishes. While it was an exciting prospect, it was laced with uncertainty, as far as the bill was concerned.
"Jen [Howard's wife] and I would go down at the ripe old age of 23, earning no money at all, and sometimes he would give us Champagne, wine, a menu and no bill, which is kind of what he insinuated when he called," says Howard. "Then sometimes we'd get a bloody bill at the end of it and, at that point in your life, you can't handle a bill like that out of the blue."
The couple became determined never to be caught out like that again. One day, White called again and Howard felt certain that this latest offer was definitely a promise of a freebie. Having convinced his wife of this, the pair went for dinner and, once again, they were presented with a bill.
"Jen had a big problem with that and she made that very clear to me in that hushed little dining room," remembers Howard. "The maître d' obviously went into the kitchen and said ‘Monsieur, we have a problem on table two'. Marco came out and said something like, ‘What? You can't afford your dinner?', which I didn't take too lightly, but my wife went mad.
"They started having this huge argument and, in the end, he took this big wodge of cash he kept in his apron from the betting shop, threw it down, and said: ‘I'll cover your bill'.
My wife said ‘I don't want your money' and he said, ‘Well, if you don't take it, I'll burn it'.
"This was towards the end of service and there were quite a few people in the restaurant. He took this pile of £50 notes and sparked it up on the tabletop in Harvey's and just burnt the lot… and we paid our bill! It was classic."
Such a tempestuous relationship makes it all the more remarkable that within a year of leaving Harvey's, White approached Howard about an opportunity at his planned new venture with business partner Nigel Platts-Martin.
"Marco asked me to go back to Harvey's and said he would train me up to be the head chef [of the new restaurant] which, at my age and with Marco where he was, I just couldn't say no to," explains Howard, who through what he describes as a slightly bizarre chain of events, ended up as Platts-Martin's business partner on the new restaurant, without his former mentor. And so, the Square was born.
"What's nice about the Square is we had no vision about what we were trying to achieve when we opened it. I had a huge amount of passion, a little bit of knowledge and a razorsharp partner. We opened a restaurant and tried to make people happy, and that's all we've really done, seven days a week, for 25 years."
1989 Philip Howard (PH) goes to work with Marco Pierre White (MPW) at Harvey's
1990 PH is sacked by MPW and goes to work for Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum, alongside chefs such as Bruce Poole and Jeremy Lee
1991 PH patches up his relationship with MPW and returns to Harvey's; Harvey's co-owner Nigel Platts-Martin (NPM) opens the Square with PH as head chef
1994 The Square is awarded its first Michelin star
1996 The Square relocates from St James's to Mayfair
1998 The Square is awarded two Michelin stars; PH wins the Chef Award at the Cateys
2005 PH and NPM open a second restaurant, the Ledbury, with protégé Brett Graham as chef-patron
2006 The Ledbury is awarded a Michelin star
2009 PH opens a third restaurant, Kitchen W8, this time teaming up with restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas
2010 The Ledbury is awarded two Michelin stars
2011 Kitchen W8 is awarded a Michelin star with former Square sous chef Mark Kempson in the kitchen; PH is named Independent Restaurateur of the Year at the Cateys; PH wins Craft Guild of Chefs Special Award
2012 PH makes his debut on the BBC's Great British Menu and his turbot dish is chosen for the banquet
2015 PH is announced to be running the Panoramic restaurant during Royal Ascot
CCS is proud to support respected chef Philip Howard at this unique event. ‘An Audience with Philip Howard' was both stimulating and, at times, extremely frank and honest. It was fantastic to hear first-hand some of his experiences over the years, as well as the advice given to the aspiring audience.
Having previously had a pleasure of working with Phil as part of the CCS's The Quarterly magazine, we knew this event would prove to be incredibly insightful.
Antony Ward, marketing manager, CCS