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Phil Howard – Competitions, Cooking and the Importance of Seasonality!

One of the world’s leading competitions for young chefs, the S.Pellegrino Young Chef, a global competition recognising leading young culinary talent from across the world has recently picked it UK & Ireland winner Killian Crowley, Chef de Partie at 1 Michelin star Aniar in Ireland, famed for its use of local and wild produce. , Killian will now advance to the global finals round to take place in Milan in June 2018.

A distinguished jury of chefs, who each hold a Michelin star, including Angela Hartnett of Murano, Phil Howard of Elystan Street, Alyn Williams of The Westbury and Mickael Viljanen of The Greenhouse, Dublin, tasted and evaluated each of the semi-finalists’ signature dishes based on their adherence to the competition’s five “Golden Rules”: ingredients, skill, genius, beauty and message.
Judge, and celebrated chef Phil Howard found time out of his busy schedule to talk with CLH News editor Peter Adams. Phil, one of Britain’s most admired chefs, is uniquely considered a ‘chef’s chef’ within the industry notching up years of service and influencing the industry immeasurably.

Phil took up a career “behind the stove” after discovering a love of cooking while completing a degree in microbiology. After leaving university, he travelled round Australia and found some work in professional kitchens for the first time. Upon his return, he found a role at Roux’s contract catering arm where he worked for a year. But it was after a dinner at Marco Pierre White’s legendary restaurant, Harvey’s, that Phil recognised the possibilities of fine dining. He took a role at Harvey’s, followed by a stint at Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson. The reputation for his cooking has been forged through the delivery of pleasure through harmony of flavour rather than “technical wizardry” or innovation. He opened The Square with Nigel Platts Martin in 1991 and remained at the helm for 25 years – with his food enjoying huge consumer success and great critical acclaim. He held two Michelin stars for 17 years
Upon leaving The Square Phil came to feel that he had unfinished business with food in London and whilst this philosophy will remain very much in place at Elystan Street the content of the cooking will evolve. The desire to cook simpler food prevails and with a greater emphasis on pure, clean and lighter dishes – full of vitality and flavour.

His food can be characterised as “modern, progressive French”, with punchy flavours kept in check by a rigorous approach to seasonality and outstanding technique!

So, Phil, As one of a truly distinguished panel of judges, and UK & Ireland winner now chosen, tell us more about the competition. What are San Pellegrino looking for in the entrants?

Competitions offer those who enjoy entering them a great opportunity to excel and grow, cooking in front of people while being scrutinised to a brief is a particular kind of scenario, and not everyone’s cup of tea, but chefs who embrace that kind of environment and enter competitions have a great opportunity to grow, improve, meet people, be challenged and be inspired, and I’ve always really enjoyed being involved in competitions. The San Pellegrino competition is a truly global competition recognising leading young culinary talent from across the world, taking place over 18 months, which is a wonderful, but challenging competition.

I understand that there are mentor’s in this competition, how important are mentors to the young chefs?

It is a competition with a difference, and this competition includes mentoring, which I feel is a very important part, it doesn’t matter whether you are an architect or a car designer or a cook there is something that comes with experience that you don’t have at the beginning of your career, and that applies to young chefs. Generally speaking young cooks are good craftsmen but are still looking for the grounding to ensure menus are conceptually correct and seasonal, to make sure that the quality of the cooking is at the heart of what they do. Young chefs in a competition have to outshine their fellow competitors, if cooking loses focus on what you’re doing as a chef in an attempt to be to “innovative” then you may become a cropper!

Given this competition is over 18 months ingredients and seasonality must prove quite a challenge?

It’s slightly tricky, your cooking over a long period of time but ultimately you cannot hide from quality ingredients which are key. With the finals taking place over 18 months you are cooking across various seasons, and ultimately what is seasonal in December will not be seasonal when the finals take place in June, and, as I say this is something you cannot hide from, so quality ingredients is key, I think as long as competitors prioritise at each stage of the competition then it is fine. Chefs are going to be compromised at some point since if as a competitor you say I will absolutely produce a dish for the final in June 2018 then it will be very difficult in December 2017 to produce it. While ingredients are available from all over the world young chefs must acknowledge the importance of seasonality.

21 geographical locations, various world cuisines, have you seen an emergence of particular cuisines or ingrediaents which may be the “next big thing”?

I think the truth is the world is a smaller place now in many ways, we all have the ability to see so much more and there are more ingredients now in the big hubs of the world, London is the best example, than ever before, you really can can buy anything you want and we have become a much more international world.

However, having said that I think in this country the dominant force will still probably be French tastes, or what you now may call “Modern British” which is still ultimately rooted in French techniques . There is so much more emphasis on provenance now using British ingredients and fundamentally French techniques. I have been involved in other competitions where I have seen a real emergence of New World cuisine and Asian influences but I still think most competition chefs tend to be mostly rooted in French techniques.

How important do you think fusion is, do you think introducing various cuisines into one dish can sometimes overcomplicate?

I’m quite old school, but not old-fashioned! I have very strong beliefs with cooking, and think that there are things that are right and wrong, and there are colours and flavours that work beautifully and aesthetically well together, which brings us back to the point of seasonality, nature tends to produce ingredients in any given area of the world that have a natural affinity with each other, I don’t know why that is the case, but it is.

And, it’s something I have always respected, if young chefs cook seasonally and stick within your regional climates you just have within a season a wonderful harmony of flavours. Japan is a great example it has its own flavours its own seasons unlike other parts of the world, and it has its own wonderful repertoire of classical and delicious things, and we need to respect and acknowledge that.
It doesn’t mean though that you cannot dip in and out of the cuisines, but you really have to do it with a “deft touch”. I also think that suppliers now are great at communicating through various forms of media products that have enabled local and seasonal foods to become more prominent which is a great thing, I see no need for shunting fruit and vegetables around the world, it’s not sustainable and it’s not necessary!

To give an example, for me salmon goes with asparagus, watercress and Jersey Royal potatoes, and doesn’t go with parsnips swede and quince, and that’s not because were stuck in a rut, or not adventurous, it’s just some things work Ingredients are so much better when they’re fresh, they’re abundant they’re at their best in terms of quality there at the cheapest, for me there is really no argument about not cooking seasonal on any level it is pure ignorance or laziness! For a professional chef it is demanding to stay rigorously seasonal since you’re constantly having to change a menu which is always evolving and always moving forward.

Back to the competition and perhaps in a broader sense, what advice would you have for emerging chefs?

I think that would be the same as I have always given, learn your craft! Craft cooking is hugely important, I find this difficult to say since I didn’t do as I suggest, but, I suffered as a consequence and I can only emphasise the point once again, learn your craft before you start to climb the ladder!

Having a good grounding and learning your craft makes your career path immeasurably easier. Once you progress and responsibilities take over you find yourself concentrating on many different things and it’s much harder to learn once you’re in management or head chef, so it makes sense in your younger years to concentrate on cooking, moving around trying different things, thinking about what your goals are and ensuring that you are gaining experience and working in places that you know are going to be helpful for you in your career. I would also add always stick with quality, great food is great food whether it is a burger or langoustines with truffle but make sure you are learning in an establishment with an emphasis on quality.

You are very well known for working with shellfish/seafood would I be right in saying this is your favourite ingredients?

Fish and shellfish are wonderful ingredients to work with, I have cooked dishes almost all over the world and I categorically maintain that we, Great Britain have got the greatest fish and shellfish in the world. Scotland produces scallops, langoustines, lobster, razor clams, clams, mussels, and there is nothing to match them, and even more so are the variety of prime fish species that we have, turbot, dover sole, red mullet, john dory, all these amazing fish, we really do have exceptional fish and shellfish and they are a joy to use.
But, having said that 25% of our menu is vegetarian, and has proved to be immensely popular, we offer an equal balance of vegetarian fish and meat, it’s not about perfection it about progress, and we do try to make sure we have an equal balance.

When it comes to equipment in the kitchen you say was an item of equipment you could not do without?

Hmmm, what would that be? Probably a microplane in a funny kind of way. I very much rely on traditional techniques, I’m not absolutely reliant on any one piece of equipment, but, I suppose it was a heavy piece of equipment it would be a combination oven, they are really “great bits of kit”. For me, microplanes have become an really interesting item because if you want something to impart flavour quickly into whatever you are trying to impart flavor, you have to establish as much surface area as possible for the transition of flavour to happen, and the microplane does that in a split second and very effectively, doesn’t matter whether it is garlic, truffle, bone marrow, Parmesan a sharp microplane does a great job of creating immense surface area for something to impart its flavour at the last minute and I use them a lot.

Taking into account the emergence of new techniques you think cooking is becoming a bit too complicated for the layman?

I dare say there are some pieces of equipment you won’t have a home such as a water bath or a Combi oven so there is definitely a boundary that emerges that perhaps wasn’t there before, if you were to perhaps look at some of the cooking techniques Simon Rogan uses for example you will never have any of that equipment a home, diffusers, vacuums, distillers.

However, I think as things go in cycles and you look at techniques such as molecular gastronomy then the pendulums swings pretty swiftly back to where it once was, and whilst we have learned some great things in that journey people have come back to caring and buying locally, buying quality ingredients and treating them quite simply.

There is a contemporary style of cooking that is the net result of all that that journey which is interesting fun and sensational.
I think that whole movement to embrace various techniques has been wonderfully beneficial to the industry and to cooking as a whole, but I think at the same time, we have seen through some techniques which may be pretty but not the same as, or as good traditional techniques, and people have come to realize that a lot what we call “new techniques” are not as good as once thought!

CLH News Will be following UK and Ireland winner Killian with great interest in 2018’s San Pellegrino finals in Milan, and will keep you all updated!

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