Gary Foulkes loves bringing his travels to the plate. Amanda Afiya discovers that it's hip to be head chef at the Square
With culinary heavyweight Philip Howard charting its course for nearly 25 years, the Square deserves its place as one of the most highly regarded restaurants of our time. But it hasn't been Howard's only focus since its 1991 launch.
After securing two Michelin stars at the 80-seat Mayfair restaurant in 1998, he went on to be instrumental in the launch of the Ledbury, and he has also partnered with restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas at Kitchen W8 and Sonny's Kitchen.
Gary Foulkes and Philip Howard
Having first joined in 2005 from the Vineyard at Stockcross, Foulkes spent six years as sous chef, honing his craft under Weston and Howard. But, despite secretly coveting the position held by Weston, in 2011 Foulkes and his new wife decided to go travelling.
Financed by the sale of one of their houses, they embarked on the journey of a lifetime, initially travelling around Europe in a camper van before abandoning it to follow the sun to Nepal, India, South-east Asia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar (Burma) - "it had just opened up to tourists; that was an eye opener" - Hawaii, California, then Mexico. Then, after three-and-a-half months in Mexico, they flew back home and promptly went skiing for two months. Foulkes then learned that Weston was moving to head up La Trompette in Chiswick and he was invited to return to the Square as head chef.
While many chefs can barely stand being out of the kitchen for a refit, Foulkes loved his time away from the stove. "It was amazing. You learn a lot during your formative years as a chef, but you get to a point where you need to see something really different to learn even more and that's what I did with travelling."
As a result, the odd new technique has crept into the cooking at the iconic restaurant, and very much with Howard's blessing. "I use a lot of Asian ingredients for seasoning instead of classic salt and pepper. It's restrained - obviously you can't come in and start throwing curry paste around - but like the tartare you had today, we season it with white soy instead of salt because it doesn't cure the fish. So you get the flavour in there without damaging the product."
He's talking about a tartare of line-caught mackerel with young beetroot and sour cream (on the lunch menu: £35 for two courses; £40 for three) which boasts an incredibly clean mackerel flavour balanced with a quenelle of sour cream, half a beetroot and an oyster leaf.
"I know what the diners are looking for," says Foulkes, "but things have to change and develop, otherwise it stops being a restaurant and becomes a museum. I drive the menu more now than when I first came back as head chef, but it's always in consultation with Phil."
The flavours gleaned from Foulkes' travels pepper the menu - a dish of steamed fillet of day boat turbot with Japanese mushrooms, smoked razor clams and kombu dashi, incorporates, along with the seaweed, white soy and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). "They give it so much flavour, its unbelievable," he enthuses.
Similary, a warm velouté of Lincolnshire smoked eel with Jersey Royals, apple, leek hearts and oscietra caviar is seasoned with curry leaves, replacing the flavour that the salt previously extracted from the eel.
In line with the slight reduction in salt, the Square now uses less butter and cream. "I think that's the way people want to eat now. We use a lot less dairy, the food is lighter, and Phil would say himself it's a lot more precise. Phil's generation of cooks were all about flavour and I'd like to think I've taken that all on board from Phil, but also other people I've worked with like John [Campbell] - his food is very precise."
With the restaurant celebrating 19 years at two stars, I ask the inevitable question: are they hoping for three? "We're always pushing, because you want to keep improving and keep getting better. But everyone would like to get to three stars - it's the pinnacle of what we do."
From the menu
- Lasagne of Dorset crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and Champagne foam
- Tartare of milk-fed veal with burratina, white peach, artichoke and fennel
- Roast fillet of line-caught sea bass with barbecued smoked eel, Savoy cabbage, hand-cut macaroni and red wine
- Roast rib of dry-aged beef with caramelised onion, parsley and garlic purée, duxelles of girolles and red wine
- Scottish raspberry soufflé with lemon verbena and raspberry ripple ice-cream
- Dorset blackcurrants with hibiscus and sour cream
Three courses from the Á la carte menu, £95
6-10 Bruton Street, London W1J 6PU