Kitchen Pro Files: Chef Josh Boutwood

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He is 25 years old, Filipino-British, and can cook incredibly well. In this interview, Bistro Group's new Corporate Chef Josh Boutwood dishes on his Noma Restaurant (San Peligrinos' “best restaurant in the world”) experience and his musings about Filipino cuisine.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?

It wasn’t a calling. I never woke up one day and said that I’m going to be a chef today. It wasn't like that. Growing up in the scene (note: his parents have restaurants in England and Spain), made me fall in love with cooking at a very young age.

But you enrolled in a culinary school, right?

Yeah, I went to a culinary school in Mojacar, Spain. I hated it. I really thought it was the most boring thing ever because I worked in my mom’s restaurant before that. I already experienced high stress levels, have seen lots of pots and pans flying around. In school you just stand there listening to a teacher reading books. I didn't like it. So I left school after three months. And then I went to England for an apprenticeship with Raymond Blanc in Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. It's a pretty French manor house in Oxford. I fell in love with French cuisine there. After that I returned back to Spain, worked again for my mom. Got bored again. I went back to hating cooking. I needed something to refresh my mind so I went to Scandinavia. I’ve worked in restaurants there. And then I went back to the Philippines with a lot of eagerness to continue cooking.

By “in a restaurant”, you mean Rene Redzepi's Noma-- the best restaurant in the world according to San Peligrinos 50 Best. How did your Noma experience changed you as a chef?

It scared me more than anything (laughs). We would be up at 6 AM. We would be at the restaurant at 6:30 AM. We'd have to walk to the gardens and the public parks to search for the ingredients we would be using for the day. Half of the team will go to the beach. The other half will go to the inner city. We'll assemble at around 8AM in the restaurant. Get ready. Get changed. And then you're to do your lunch prep.

I remember that one job there that they gave me because they wouldn't let me cook. There's this stack of leeks taller than I am, about a thousand leeks. All I had to do is to chop them and take out the heart. I repeated this process two thousand times in a day. I remember very well how my fingers cringed from the moisture. And there's the smell of the onions. I did this 'til midday. It was horrible. Then we would go down the restaurant, help with the lunch service. Clean down, then at 5PM, take a break, eat, and we'll do it again. I go home at around one or two in the morning.

What do they do with the leeks?

They would use four leek hearts for a dish. They would take the demi-glace of roasted chicken--reduce it even more and then dehydrate it to a crisp. Then they would char cucumbers skins to create a cucumber ash. Two of the hearts will go to that ash. The other ones come as they are, blanched. A tiny one is placed in the chicken skin. And that was it.

You see, this is what I like about gourmet. A lot of people ask 'but that's just a teeny piece of potato, why is it so expensive?' But there's puree underneath. And the sauces, the juices are not necessarily butter or oil based. You gotta look at the big picture when a person presents a very minimalist or avante-garde style dish. The story is always beneath that. There's so much effort in making one little piece.

And how long did you do this?

For two months, I was there. Then I left. I noticed recently that they no longer have that item in the menu and I was like, "Oh, man..." (laughs)

Probably because you're not there anymore to slice leeks.

Probably. But when I left I picked the person to do it. Noma was good, but I had much more fun after. After Noma, I went to Trio in Sweden. It's only a sixteen seater restaurant—- very, very upscale, serving new Nordic cuisine. Trio has two guys in the kitchen, one in the floor. Before we start service, we had music on. We laugh around in the kitchen. And then as soon as 6PM comes, music goes off, light gets dimmed. And the entire kitchen is silent. There's this synergy going on. It was really amazing experience. I long for the day when I can reproduce that kind of experience in my own kitchen.

You've already worked in Europe's best restaurants. Why come to the Philippines?

Because it is home. Even though I can’t get rid of this accent, I’m still proud to be half-Filipino. I went back to Boracay to set up my own restaurant, Alchemy. Then Bistro Group gave me a call to become their Corporate Chef. I said, why not? It’s a good challenge.

When are we going to see Philippines in the world culinary map?

Now. Filipino cuisine is getting a lot of attention in the US and Europe. The front liner still is adobo. I've seen international cookbooks feature recipes of that.

What are the uniquely Filipino ingredients that would work well in a gourmet dish?

Pili nuts. It's a beautiful nut to use whether in ice cream, powder, even in sauces. Replace P4,000 per kilo worth of mushrooms with pili nuts and it will have the same effect. Durian also. There are many ways to mask the smell of durian but you'll still have that beautiful, creamy texture.

Your advise to young chefs?

Persistence and patience. When they come out of school they don't know anything. Sure, they know technique, they know sauce, and how to use a knife. But they don't know the reason why. Even if you graduated from college you still have to go through dish washing, the duties of a prep cook, a line cook. That's the only way you'll learn. Be prepared to work your way up. Even if you paid one or two million in culinary school, you still have to work your way up.

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