After 25 years helming The Square, Philip Howard is ready for a change. He tells Mark Sansom about setting the pace for British fine dining and true cooking enlightenment.
Born in South Africa in 1966, Philip Howard moved to England aged eight and attended two private schools in West London before studying at Kent University. He worked for the Roux family, before spending a year each at London’s Bibendum and Harvey’s. Aged 24 in 1991, he opened The Square. More recently he partnered with restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas in Kitchen W8 and Sonny’s. In September, he opened Elystan Street in Chelsea. He lives with wife Jennie and their two children in West London.
If you saw Philip Howard in the street, you’d never pick him as a chef. His wire-rimmed glasses say more ‘professor’ than ‘chef patron’, while diamond-cutting cheek bones, laser-blue eyes and 6ft 2in stature suggest he could easily grace the lens of a photographer rather than the frame of the pass. There’s no laddish twang to his voice, no clipped vowels and no statement beard or tattoos à la mode. Even the ubiquitous out-from-the-crowd haircut that permeates his peers is instead a short back and sides.
Maybe it’s his age – he’s just turned 50 – or maybe he’s just from a very different school of chefs. His parents paid fees for his, for a start. Instead of playground football, he played fives. Instead of rushing home for a family feed, he enjoyed the boarding house kitchen and the ‘thin cuts of meat and even thinner stews’ that were served.
He went on to Kent University to read microbiology, though by this stage he wasn’t the polished alumnus that West London’s Sussex House School was used to churning out. ‘I ended up with a third-class degree,’ says Howard. ‘I would’ve got a first for many things I got up to at university, but not my academic work, unfortunately.’
It was in student digs that Howard discovered his love for cooking. ‘I can remember straining spinach soup through a rusty old sieve, cooking a recipe my mother packed me off with when I went to uni,’ he recalls. ‘I stood there and knew that in some way, shape or form, cooking was going to be a big part of my life.’
‘In the early days food is about getting from A to B. It doesn’t matter what you’re cooking; it’s the simple fact that you are cooking. Taking food from raw product to end game is the only thing that’s important at this stage in a chef’s development.’ Not for the last time in the interview, I find myself sitting back and listening to Howard talk about the industry he’s been at the forefront of for 30 years. It could be his education and the eloquent way he expresses himself, but when he speaks you get the impression you’re hearing the voice of a generation.
‘It was only after I ate at Restaurant 74 in Canterbury that I discovered fine dining. Ian McAndrew was one of the first chefs in the UK to get a star and it marked the start of UK gastronomy. I was like, “OK, there is a whole world of food and cooking out there like nothing I’ve seen before.”’
Howard then went travelling around Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, before finishing in Sydney where he got his first job, as a waiter. ‘Australia’s cooking is colourful and full of vitality. The street food I ate on my travels made me realise how good an experience eating could be. I knew this would be the start of my journey and I came back wanting to honour the education I’d been granted and all the money spent on it.’
It’s important to remember that at this time in the late Seventies, cooking was not cool. The cult of the celebrity chef was still germinating, 20 years from fruition, with British food in its grease-smeared, post-rationing pomp of microwave meals and convenience foods. If a family wanted to go out and eat well, it would be to first- and second- generation family-run Italian or French restaurants. Howard realised this and wrote a letter to ten restaurants of Gallic and Mediterranean origin begging for a job. A certain Albert Roux was one of the few to respond.
‘I had no experience but was applying for jobs at the top level [back then, the Roux family had the only three-starred restaurants in the UK at Le Gavroche and The Waterside Inn]. At the time, if you had a small kitchen, you just couldn’t accommodate some 6ft bozo who has no idea what he’s doing, no matter how quickly he learns. Luckily, the Roux family gave me a shot in their contract catering division near Fenchurch Street.’ But surely he had grander designs than filling the City’s sandwiches? ‘Oh yes, but everyone makes the sandwiches at some stage in their career and I did thousands.’
After a year buttering bread, Howard moved to Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson, before a ‘wildly chaotic’ year with Marco Pierre White at Harveys. Aged just 24, he was thrust into a meeting with restaurateur Nigel Platts-Martin, where he found that Pierre White had put him forward to open a restaurant. The Square was born.
‘I was just a young chef de partie; I had no idea what I was doing,’ he admits. ‘Though there was not one chef in the country with more passion. Going from chopping veg to running a section is a difficult transition, let alone a whole restaurant, but I don’t recall feeling out of my depth. Ultimately my strengths as a chef are my palate and intuition, rather than my craft and experience. That remains the case today.’
It takes more than a good palate to run a restaurant, particularly one that earns a Michelin star three years after opening and a second four years later. The Square quickly became the first name in British fine dining and maintained its two stars for 17 years up to the point in March this year when Howard decided to sell.
To what does he attribute its success? ‘I quickly got a reputation for having highly flavourful cooking. It came from using great ingredients in line with the seasons and sprinkled with the magic dust of technique. Flavour, not process was always at the core,’ he says. ‘I’ve always insisted on being involved in the mise en place [the prepping of ingredients before cooking]. Over the years I’ve found the benefit of being in the kitchen is when I’m in the mix getting things done.’ I venture that it could be the pressure of cooking next to a guy with two stars and 30 years’ experience that brings out the best in those around him. ‘It could be, but my best contribution to the kitchen is in the minutiae and managing from the ranks. You get some chefs, like Jason Atherton, who manage to excel from afar. He can discipline, plan and work at arm’s length. For me, if I want to discipline people into cooking phenomenal food, I have to be there to lead from the front. The Square was always about a team rather than an individual.’
As we talk in the dining room of Elystan Street, his new Chelsea restaurant, Howard is in contemplative mood: ‘We’d done 25 years and I had run out of steam for that style of food. It was a quarter of a century’s graft and I had nothing left to give on a creative level. What people want to eat has changed; what I want to eat has changed.’ But surely it had something to do with the bottom line? ‘Look, if we still had a jam-packed waiting list we could have ridden it out, but the fuel was there for change and we had a buyer so we took it.’
It’s the day after Claude Bosi completed his last service at Hibiscus, another now defunct two-starred restaurant. Is it a sign of the times? ‘The dining scene in London has changed beyond recognition. Maybe two-star food has become contrived, maybe it’s losing its relevance and there’s also a lot of competition. I messaged Claude yesterday telling him I know how it feels. It’s super sad, but super liberating too.’
So if two-star food is waning, what’s next for the UK dining scene? ‘I think we’re going to become more honest in what we cook and take a closer look at what we’re doing to the planet and sustainability. As a chef you stand in the kitchen and watch box after box of produce come in. It’s hard not to take a step back and consider what it’s taken to get it here.’
And will Elystan Street fit this ethos? ‘Sure. I’m here to fire from the hip. If a supplier calls me to say he has a box of the very best clams, I’ll get them in and cook them. If a dirty big box of leeks comes in, I want to spend two hours turning them into the best dish they can possibly be.’
‘I don’t want to be cerebral with what I cook. For some chefs a recipe is like a birth-giving process. I don’t want my cooking to be like that.’ Perhaps it’s moving cooking away from the cerebral and back to basics that is the true pinnacle of a chef’s enlightenment.