>> Philip Howard is one of Britain's most accomplished and respected chefs. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he has avoided the spotlight and rarely shouts about his achievements, including the two Michelin stars he has held at The Square in Mayfair since 1998.
After 20 years in the industry, Phil has finally found time to pen two encyclopedic recipe volumes. Here, he talks about his journey from micro-biology graduate to acclaimed "Chef's Chef of the Year" via rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.
After completing a degree in micro-biology, you had an epiphany and decided to become a chef. Please can you describe how and why you came to this life changing decision?
Ultimately it was the first thing I came across on the conveyor belt of life that I really felt positive about. I didn't cook at all before I went to university - my mum always did the cooking - and it was one of those things that I felt immediately was going to play a significant part in my life. I had a brief spell working in a kitchen in France and I absolutely loved it. Then I went travelling for a year and was away from the pressure of following through with the education I had had, and I really
felt that I had found a world I wanted to be a part of.
You are regularly referred to a "chef's chef", someone who has "quietly notched up years of service and influenced the industry immeasurably". Is this an accurate description, in your opinion?
Yes I think it is. Whatever I've done I'm still this man in the kitchen putting stock on, making a terrine and playing around with a simple vinaigrette. Yes I have other responsibilities as a father and a husband and I like to go on holiday, but I wake up in the morning and I go to work and I have never left it. Nobody cares more about The Square than I do.
Who have been your biggest influences and why?
I had three relatively brief experiences working in a kitchen before I went on my own. The first was for the Roux brothers in their contract catering division and they gave me my first insight into refined French techniques and set me off on the journey to fine dining. Then I worked with Marco Pierre White at Harveys and he taught me about exciting, contemporary cooking. The kitchen was a high-octane environment with one superstar and a bog standard gaggle of young chefs, and I learned what was possible with limited resources. Simon Hopkinson was the most important influence. He taught me the appreciation of flavour and the importance of seasoning.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
Modern French, which is rigorously seasonal, natural, refined, elegant and sophisticated but stops before it takes the heart and soul out of the dish you are trying to create.
Nurturing new talent is of prime importance to you. What key characteristics do you look out for in prospective trainees?
It's a hugely important part of the job. It's still absolutely an industry
based on manual labour and automation and there are not many industries left like that. I look for enthusiastic, bright, ambitious people who have got a sense of urgency and a desire to cook. They have to be able to multi-task and work professionally and effectively.
What are your three kitchen secrets?
- Focus on seasonality and flavour.
- Strive for simplicity rather than complexity.
- Seasoning is critical no salt, no flavour.
Your long-awaited cookbooks (The Square, The Cookbook Volume 1: Savoury and Volume 2: Sweet) have been extremely well received.
Why did it take you until now to write them? Was it an enjoyable process?
I was going to write the books to coincide with our 10th anniversary but I knew it was going to be a big thing. I wanted to write every word of it so I had to wait until I had the time to do that. It took 20 years until I felt I could take a back seat for a few months to really break the back of it.
To be honest it's not very rewarding grinding out recipes 24/7, it's not particularly a bundle of fun. If I ever do it again it will be something completely different like 'Mountain Restaurants of the World' because I'm a mad skier.
Please could you share your favourite recipe from the books, along with your reasons for choosing it.
It has to be Crème Caramel. I'm a sweet tooth and enjoy puddings enormously. Crème Caramel, when cooked correctly, has the capacity to deliver huge pleasure. It's supremely elegant comfort food.
What is your favourite ingredient and why?
The onion. They just provide a wonderful, mellow background flavour to almost everything that you cook in the kitchen.
What has been your career highlight to date and why?
Winning Restaurant magazine's Chef's Chef of the Year last year was a particularly nice moment. I think we all feel incredibly judged as chefs so recognition from your peers is particularly rewarding, even more so 20 years down the line. Competition is so fierce so to still be acknowledged for your style of cooking after all that time is wonderful.
You have spoken openly about your battle with drug and alcohol addiction in the past. How are you feeling now?
It's very much a thing of the past but was a huge part of my life and always will be. I owe a lot of my success to the fact that I went down that journey. I think you learn the most through difficult times. It's through despair and challenges that we grow. I'm a better and more balanced human being off the back of that part of my life. I certainly don't drink, smoke or touch anything any more and life is fantastic.
Statistically, people working in the hospitality have a higher propensity to addiction. Why do you think this is?
I think certainly there are problems in the industry. It's an environment where there are a lot of young people at a vulnerable point in their life who can be easily led by their peers. It is a relentlessly pressured environment and what you do to relax and release that pressure is go out and let your hair down, which can become habitual and reliant.
Crème caramel with Golden Raisins and Sauternes >> Serves 8
The cooking of the crème caramel is all-important. Like other baked custards, if undercooked it will not set; if overcooked it will split/curdle. Overcooked custard (cooked at too high a temperature or maybe simply cooked for too long) becomes too firm and develops minute air-pockets and an unpleasant grainy texture.
The caramel needs to be dark and flavourful enough to provide a genuine counterpoint to the sweet creaminess of the custard. While the Sauternes for the crème caramel need not be a world class bottle, it still needs to be decent. Save a better wine for the jelly, where it is effectively served in its raw state - the better the wine, the better the jelly.
Start the crème caramel base the day before so it can infuse for at least 12 hours. Put the golden raisins to soak in Sauternes and make the Sauternes jelly the day before too. Soak the raisins for the purée at least 6 hours in advance. All that is then required is to make the purée and cook the crème caramels.
Crème caramel base:
- 450ml organic double cream
- 250ml organic whole milk
- 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
- 250ml Sauternes
- 165g organic eggs
- 75g organic egg yolks
- 125g caster sugar
- 50ml Sauternes
- Approximately 60 golden raisins
- 3 gelatine leaves
- 400ml Sauternes
Golden raisin purée:
- 150ml apple juice
- 50ml Sauternes
- 200g golden raisins
- 150g caster sugar Caramel
- 175g caster sugar
Crème Caramel base:
- Put the cream and milk into a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to the bowl along with the empty pod. Whisk to disperse the seeds, then leave in a cool place to infuse for 12 hours.
- Pour the Sauternes into a heavy-based pan and bring to the boil. Boil until reduced by half, then set aside to cool.
- Combine the eggs, yolks, sugar and reduced Sauternes in a large bowl and stir with a whisk until smooth - do not over whisk or you will aerate the mix and make it frothy. Add the vanilla infused cream mixture and stir with a whisk until completely combined.
- Remove the vanilla pod, then set aside, covered, in the fridge.
- Warm the Sauternes. Add the raisins and set aside to soak for 12 hours.
- Soak the gelatine in cold water for 5 minutes, or until softened. Put half of the Sauternes in a pan and heat to near boiling point. Squeeze excess moisture from the gelatine, then add it to the hot Sauternes and stir until completely melted. Pour into a container, add the remaining Sauternes and stir to mix. Cool, then cover and place in the fridge to set.
Golden raisin purée:
- Bring the apple juice and Sauternes to near boiling point in a pan. Add the raisins and set aside to soak for 6 hours. Put the sugar in a heavy-based pan and set it over a high heat. When the sugar starts to melt, swirl the pan gently so it melts and caramelises evenly. Continue to cook until it turns to a golden caramel. Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid, add them to the caramel and stir to combine. Stir in their soaking liquid. Bring to the boil, then pour into a blender and blend to a smooth, glossy purée. Pass through a fine sieve into a bowl. Transfer to a squeezy bottle and set aside.
- Put the sugar in a heavy-based pan and set over a high heat. Melt the sugar, tilting and shaking the pan (and stirring if you have to), so it dissolves evenly. Continue to cook until it turns to an even hazelnut brown caramel. Carefully add 30ml water, remove from the heat and stir until the caramel has dissolved. Divide this caramel sauce equally between 8 ramekins (7cm x 4cm) or disposable foil moulds and set aside to cool.
To cook the Crème Caramels:
- Pour the crème caramel base into the moulds, to within a few millimetres of the top. Set the moulds in an ovenproof dish or tray and pour enough boiling water into the dish around the moulds to come three-quarters of the way up their sides. Place in an oven preheated to 110°C/Gas Mark ¼ and bake for about 40 minutes.
- The crème caramels are cooked when the centres are no longer liquid but there is still the slightest wobble in the centre when the moulds are gently moved (they will finish cooking and set evenly soon after being taken out of the oven). Remove the dish from the oven and set aside to cool to room temperature.
- Lay out 8 shallow bowls. Run a knife around each crème caramel to loosen it from the mould, taking care not to damage its appearance. Gently turn out the crème caramels into the bowls, with all of their caramel sauce. Surround the crème caramels with little scoops of Sauternes jelly and the plump soaked raisins. To finish, apply a generous squeeze of raisin purée to the top of each crème caramel.
For your chance to win both of Phil's books, see Country Club (page 30). This recipe is also featured with the other guest recipes - click here for more reciepes of the month
Article taken from September 2013 issue of Stir it up magazine. Get your copy here