Unfinished business: Philip Howard on life after The Square

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Philip Howard and Rebecca Mascarenhas on Elystan Street restaurant

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Unfinished business. That’s how Phil Howard describes the motivation behind his decision to get back into the kitchen and cook, although you could also probably attribute it to the fact that he isn’t work shy.

After 25 tireless years at Mayfair stalwart The Square, where he gained and presided over two Michelin stars for almost two decades, you could excuse the 50-year-old chef for wanting to turn his back on the pressure cooker environment of the kitchen. And, of course, he did, but only for a fleeting amount of time.

Late next month, Howard will once again don his whites when the doors of Elystan Street open, the new restaurant in Chelsea he is launching with long-term business partner and restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas.

On the former site of Tom Aikens’ famous eponymous restaurant, he will be behind the stove with fire in his belly once again and ambition in his heart. Of course, it wasn’t supposed to play out this way. The intention had been to take some time off, do some skiing and generally enjoy being away from the heat of the stove for a while, all finally possible thanks to the sale of The Square, which Howard co-owned with restaurateur Nigel Platts-Martin, to Marlon Abela’s MARC restaurant group in March.

Elystan Street was to be of a similar mould to Howard’s and Mascarenhas’ other two restaurant projects, Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes and Kitchen W8 in Kensington, with the pair installing a team and providing backing and input rather than getting involved with the day-to-day running. But when Howard walked into the restaurant for the first time, its pull proved too great.

“We had some ideas of who we would put into the kitchen,” says Howard. “But once we had signed on the restaurant, I thought ‘I can’t not cook again’. The opportunity came much quicker than I had hoped in some ways but I wanted to return to the kitchen and bow out in London cooking the type of food that is true to who I am.”

The need for change

It’s a statement that takes some time to sink in. As one of the UK’s most respected chefs – Howard was recently crowned Chefs’ Chef of the Year at this year’s National Restaurant Awards – at the helm of one of only a handful of two Michelin-starred restaurants in the country, surely he would have left the industry on a high had he just chosen to throw in the tea towel? And yet cooking at that level hasn’t provided him with complete fulfilment, he says. The culinary bucket list remains incomplete. So this is the unfinished business he is talking about.

Howard is relishing life after The Square

“[The Square] had become a bit of a struggle. I was cooking in a way that didn’t feel comfortable,” Howard admits. “It had become increasingly difficult to really engage with the style of cooking The Square had become known for. The luxurious, relatively complex and detailed food no longer represented where my food soul lay. It required a slightly dishonest energy to deliver food at the level required. The truth is, my natural level of cooking was never quite there. I always had to think one step further than perhaps was natural.”

Hard though it might be to think of Howard as anything but at ease at The Square after so much time spent there, it’s no real surprise that he would some day want to move away from a place of such intensity. The Square’s kitchen had become a crucible; it was here the South African-born chef put in gruelling 16-hour shifts six days a week for almost two decades before easing off (only slightly), and it was within its walls that Howard famously battled with and eventually overcame his drug addiction.

Those days are in the past but there is a sense of closure, and of excitement, with Howard and Mascarenhas when we meet. Our location, Fulham Palace, is fitting; the gardens provide Sonny’s and Kitchen W8 with produce, and will do so at Elystan Street too, (Howard hosts special dinners to raise money for the gardens) and the pair is very much at ease in the bucolic south-west London setting.

“We all mature in our tastes for anything, whether it be TV, music, clothes or food. As the years roll by, what you want to listen to, wear or drive changes and the food I want to cook now is slightly different to what I was cooking at The Square,” adds Howard. “More importantly, the food I want to eat now is different. The thing that drove the sale was a need for change. It was very sad to say goodbye, but not a single cell in my body regrets the decision.”

Elystan Street, however, isn’t going to see him chucking out super-rustic dishes as an antidote to the past 18 years of multi-starred cooking in some sort of gastronomic midlife crisis. The new restaurant isn’t going to be as refined as The Square but it won’t be too far off, he hints with the quiet confidence of a man who has long been at the top level. “It will be super ambitious. I expect it to feature in all the guides, and right up near the top.”

A site of importance

In fact, Elystan Street couldn’t be anything other than a hugely ambitious project given its chef-patron and also the history of the site. As restaurant Tom Aikens, it was home to one of the brightest culinary talents London has seen and that’s something that still resonates today.

The ill-fated, less formal incarnation of the restaurant might not be remembered fondly by everyone, but the original was a focal point for some of the most exciting food in the capital at the time and Aikens’ presence can still be felt – Howard intends to leave the enamel plaque on the range that bears the departed chef’s name.

Howard and Mascarenhas own Kitchen W8 in Kensington

“It has certainly made me aware of what Marlon must have felt stepping into The Square’s shoes, which I hadn’t appreciated beforehand,” says Howard of the site. “I do feel privileged to pick up the baton from Tom. I respect him absolutely. He is without a doubt one of the greatest craftsmen this country has ever had. If I was to write a list of the 10 best dishes I’d ever eaten he’d have two in there. A pork belly, langoustine, haricot bean and white truffle dish, and his take on ile flottante, which was one of the sluttiest desserts I’ve ever eaten.”

The kitchen Aikens had installed also lends itself to high-end cooking but Elystan Street isn’t going to be The Square mark two. It will have some of the same DNA running through it but the food will be “lighter, cleaner and purer – more straightforward and crowd pleasing”. The restaurant will also be a more informal place – wooden floor, no tablecloths, no tasting menu – more in tune with today’s dining trends.

“It had become tricky attracting people at two-star level at The Square. The wind against us had become increasingly strong. The kind of food I want to cook now is more in keeping with the market I want to cook for. We will make it clear that this is a freshly conceived restaurant, not a continuation of what we’ve already done.”

To this end, only one person who worked with Howard at The Square, former sous chef Toby Burrowes, has been recruited for the new kitchen. “I wanted a completely fresh team to ensure there was no ‘this was how we used to do it at The Square’. The restaurant has a tangibly fresh feel about it.”

Starting again

It might not be an entirely new book, but Elystan Street is very much a new chapter in Howard’s career. With a 25-year gap between opening The Square and his second restaurant, the Howard of today has a very different mindset to the budding chef of his youth.

“One of the thing that excites me about opening a restaurant now is that it is refreshing to be approaching it as a 50-year-old man rather than a 24-year-old boy. I was never an egomaniac but as a creative person my approach was ‘here’s what I am going to cook for you, you lucky people’. Yes, I have a cooking style that will be the backbone of all the food, but my experience and wisdom says this time around we need to think about what we have to do to fill the dining room. That’s probably not an approach that has been taken with this site before.”

One of the ways the pair intends to do this is with an accessible menu that will ebb and flow throughout the week to meet the changing needs of the Chelsea demographic. Lunch on Monday to Friday will differ from that on Saturday. Sunday lunch will be different again, with Elystan Street looking to serve traditional Sunday roasts as part of the menu, and the Sunday evening offer will also be distinct to that of the other evenings.

Dishes will be diverse and accessible, with the likes of caesar salad appearing on the menu alongside langoustines with truffle. As you would expect, there will be a heavyweight wine list. The menu will also accommodate mainstream dietary preferences. Many of the lunch dishes will contain no dairy or gluten so that, operationally, the restaurant can cope with the increasing number of diners with allergies and those who avoid certain foods.

“The whole dietary thing in kitchens is not a case of judging those who have dietary preferences, but in a busy kitchen lots of tinkering is a nightmare. Many services at The Square were frankly not enjoyable because a disproportionate amount of time and energy was spent trying to deliver what people wanted. We have worked out what we can do to be accessible to [these diners] and also so they are not a head-fuck for us.”

Howard and Mascarenhas also intend to make the dining room work hard. In addition to the 64 covers, the room has a 14-cover private dining room, but the pair has no intention of it remaining empty when it is not booked. Their vision is for it to be used as an, albeit separate, communal table where diners can come in for a glass of wine and a dish or two rather than a full-blown lunch. 

“There’s no problem if it’s being used as a PDR,” says Mascarenhas, “but if it isn’t we can’t afford for it to be idle. We need to train the staff to sell it in a way that people don’t feel it’s Siberia, and we think the communal table is a clever way of doing that.”

“If you want a salad and glass of wine for lunch that’s where you’ll be,” adds Howard. “That’s unprecedented. At this level of ambition there will be no other place you can come in and just have a carpaccio of seabass and a glass of chablis.”

Elystan Street will use produce from Fulham Palace Gardens

Lunch will likely be the biggest challenge for the new venture – Aikens blamed the demise of his restaurant on a decrease in lunch trade – but the pair is unfazed by it. “Lunch arguably will be a challenge, but lunch is a challenge in London full stop,” says Howard. “People who don’t know the area say it’s a dodgy site but I’d never dream of taking on a place that I didn’t understand what was required to make it work.”

“Any site is a gamble,” adds Mascarenhas. “It has to be a combination of what the site is, who you are and what you’re going to do in it. Look at Moro. Who in their right mind thought that it would be such a roaring success when it opened in Exmouth Market?”

Concerns over the location and the Chelsea set’s waning desire for lunchtime fine dining might have been a reason why the site had sat vacant for the past two years, but Mascarenhas has a different view. She cites problems over planning, whereby an extension to the restaurant was built without the required permission, which she says made it unsaleable.

She eventually got round the problem by virtue of a change in the law that only required planning permission for ducting and ventilation, none of which the extension had. “The whole restaurant now has planning,” she says. “I took a gamble and was right.”

Instances like this reveal why the Mascarenhas-Howard partnership is such a potent one. Mascarenhas’ business nous and eye for detail is equal to Howard’s prowess in the kitchen. “We both try and give each other the best platform for us to do what we are best at,” she says. “I’m immensely grateful to Phil that I don’t have to fret about the food and he doesn’t have to worry about the nuts and bolts of the business. That’s a luxury.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t discuss practically every aspect of the business, from the cutlery to the thickness of wood for the tables. They are currently deciding how to present the menu, with both preferring an A4 piece of paper over a more elaborate option, but disagree over the finer details. “Without Rebecca I’d have just gone for the nicest but most expensive option, but now we debate it and that’s healthy,” says Howard. “There is no more passionate a restaurateur than Rebecca, she has an opinion on everything. On top of that she has an extraordinary ability with numbers and can expose margins that aren’t right. There are lots of great cooks out there who haven’t partnered themselves with the right person to help them achieve a great restaurant.”

Managing expectations

Arguably the biggest challenge the pair faces is managing customer expectations. It’s not every day a two-star chef opens another restaurant at which they will cook full time and comparisons with The Square will be inevitable. The opening will also see Howard’s cooking put under the spotlight like never before, something which he calmly admits he is relishing.

“I’m aware it will be a well-scrutinised restaurant. The success of The Square happened over a long period of time and with the other things I’ve been involved with (principally Kitchen W8), the judgment hasn’t been put on my cooking. There’s that sense of exposure I’ve never had before. It’s exciting.”

There will be no one to hide behind, either, not that Howard would ever dream of doing such a thing. Unlike the many top chefs who open a second or third site and who cook there for a bit before handing the reins over to their head chef, he intends to be in the kitchen for most services and predicts he’ll be at the restaurant 40 or more weeks of the year. “I will take more holiday than the rest of the staff, but what I’ve learnt is that the benefit of me is best felt when I’m present. I’ve managed to stay true to what I enjoy doing, and that’s cooking.”

And if the critics pan it? “We’re all sensitive flowers at heart and if someone criticises your food it’s never pleasant,” he says. “But as a cook and eater I know what good food is and I’ve been around long enough to know that I don’t need people to tell me where I’m going right and wrong. I’m coming from a place of experience and confidence.”

“I’m an old cynic,” Mascarenhas chimes in. “I’ve eaten in many places over the past 35 years. When Phil sent me his draft menu, my first thought was that I wanted to eat everything on this menu. Then my second thought was, lucky Londoners.”

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