At the Helm: Chef Josh Boutwood on Being Pandemic-Ready
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At the Helm: Chef Josh Boutwood on Being Pandemic-Ready

At the Helm: Chef Josh Boutwood on Being Pandemic-Ready

Special Features | December 10, 2021
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Testing the limits of food despite the pandemic, Chef Josh Boutwood shares how he creatively elevates his dishes to stand out in a competitive industry.

It’s no secret that the restaurant industry was hit hard amid the first throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some had no choice but to close their doors permanently in the face of depleting finances. But many other businesses have shifted to online deliveries and ready-to-cook kits to stay afloat. While this works for most restaurants, the experience is sadly lost for fine dining establishments without the ambiance and splendor of a restaurant space.

Thankfully, times are now different. With the easing of quarantine restrictions—though ever-changing at times—restaurants are back in business. Heralding a newfound sense of normalcy, many have reopened their doors for dine-in. And the same goes for fine dining establishments—though more intimate than ever.

With most eyes looking at the now, few are privy to the happenings during the pandemic. But in this exclusive interview with Chef Josh Boutwoodowner and chef behind Savage and Helm, among many other culinary concepts—we learn about how he managed to keep his fine dining establishments afloat in these turbulent times.

From England to the Philippines

Born to a Filipino father and an English mother, Chef Josh Boutwood is a product of an East-meets-West culture. In fact, his life is described to be nomadic, as he “moved from a typical English county town to the tropical beaches of Boracay and back to the vibrant food scenes of Northern Europe”. But at present, he has set base in the concrete jungle of Manila, Philippines.

“Both my parents are in the hotel and restaurant trade,” he begins, explaining his origins. “It was a very logical thing for me to get into, you know, the family trade. I was born into it and in all honesty, it’s the only thing I know how to do.”

The [F&B] industry is a love-hate thing [for me],” he says. “You can adore it, but there are going to be days when you’ll be like ‘why did I do this,’ especially now that [there’s] COVID and the pandemic… and with the constant changes and regulations.”

But was becoming a restauranteur his first and last goal in life? Chef Josh demurs: “I could have easily become an architect, [since] I went to design school as well… but, you know, it’s very rare that you get a day like that. That love for an industry [that] overshadows those ‘why am I doing this’ days. I would say about 99% of the time, I absolutely love this industry.”

When it All Began

Fondly reminiscing about how he saw his parents at work—mostly his mother working in the kitchens, how she enjoyed it, and how she was, at times, stressed with it—he describes his first steps into the industry as a lifestyle that he was attracted to. In fact, he even adds that he “hasn’t looked back since [he] was 15-years old.”

Thus following the success of his parents, who started Fridays Resort in Boracay before he was born, as well as his brother who runs a bar on the island, Chef Josh established his own restaurant in Boracay—Restaurant Alchemy—in the year 2010.

More restaurant concepts soon followed, starting with The Test Kitchen in February 2017, followed by two others—launched in quick succession: a pre-industrial restaurant named Savage, and a tasting menu room called Helm in 2018. But much to everyone’s surprise, Chef Josh discloses that he actually planned way, way ahead. “[After opening Restaurant Alchemy], I already knew that I wanted to open a second restaurant and I already had its name: Helm. I already had this concept in my mind and how I wanted to portray this concept.”

“I had just opened Savage, our pre-industrial restaurant, on our second floor. And we had this location down here, which is merely 38 to 40 square meters, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” he explains. “I could make it into a coffee shop [or a] bakery, but then I remembered that I had this concept—a concept I had been working on—and I realized [that] it could have been amazing if this place could become the Helm.”

“We rectified it in a way that it’ll be a U-shaped bar, though now, it’s an L-shape—just cause 40 square meters isn’t that big. We rectified the concept and this spot became Helm,” he finishes.

The Creative Process

Starting a restaurant, let alone running it, is a challenge—especially if you have multiple brands under your belt. To credit Helm’s success, however, Chef Josh says he could not have done it without “the help of some very good people.”

“How [Helm] became where it is now, I think, all I can say—to give you a really cliche answer—is just hard work and dedication,” he shares. “Helm is my passion project. It’s an immediate reflection of my personality. We, as chefs and cooks or restauranteurs, or anyone in a creative field, always want to create something that brings out their personality.”

Chef Josh’s creativity, however, shines in his dishes. “For us, it’s the food. And I wanted my personality to come out in a personal restaurant, such as Helm. That when people come here, they could taste what I was thinking. What my emotions are about and what I feel when it comes to food. My ethics when it comes to ingredients. And I think that perseverance and dedication has really made us how we are.”

At the Helm of His Career

A staunch advocate of using premium and at times, unique ingredients, Chef Josh weaves all this into elegant and innovative food. In fact, that’s the concept behind Helm—that even humble local produce, when used right, can be elevated into fine dishes that please the palate. A degustation experience, so to speak.

Helm’s innovative and creative concept has earned them a spot in the prestigious 50 Best Discovery List, an expert-approved collection of super dining and drinking destinations worldwide. Moreover, this recommended listing serves as a roadmap of some of the best and most sought after dining destinations across Asia, Europe, and America for over 2 million followers. What an honor that truly is!

“Because of the ups and downs of the pandemic, a recognition like this was great for my personal self-esteem and for my team as well,” he says. “It’s been a challenging 2 years with this pandemic and any great news that comes our way is much sweeter at the moment… not just for me, but also for our industry as a whole.”

Beaming with pride, he adds that the recognition has put the Philippines on the epicurean radar, which will benefit the industry as a whole. “It shows that we as an industry here in the Philippines are establishing ourselves on a worldwide map. That we are a country of cultural influences from left, right, and center and we have our own cuisine and we have our own identity. Our own epicenter of food.

Of Thematic Menus and Degustacions

While Helm doesn’t have a signature dish, since the menu changes every 3 months, Chef Josh shares that it has always been known for having a thematic menu. “There’s always a theme that anchors the whole menu and some of my personal favorite ones were the Monochromatic Menu, which was a colorboard—no words on the menu, just blocks of different colors. And each dish was inspired or represented in that color,” he shares fondly.

He goes on to share about another favorite—a Chronological Timeline of Influences on Filipino cuisine. The last thematic gustacion that was sadly cut short due to the pandemic, it was a history lesson but for food, so to speak. “We went all the way through the timelines of the Chinese merchants, the Malays, and through the American colonization, the World War with the Japanese… it was a complete timeline of what I felt was the best interpretation of how many cultures have influenced our cuisine in the Philippines.”

“This was the perfect representation of where we can dissect and refine that particular timeline into a dish that [best] represented that period,” he adds.

Using Spanish and American influences as an example, he illustrated some dishes in the theme, where replicated the Jamon Serrano by curing a pork belly in their kitchen. “When we went to the American side, we dissected a burger. [Since] we know that banana ketchup was invented in that timeline by Maria Rosso, we did a lovely brioche and we glazed it in beef that took about a week to make. We [even] had a Spam spread and we added the banana ketchup.”

While still undecided about the next theme, he’s considering a thematic menu that highlights his cooking career, though he thinks that it may come off as self-centered, but also a good way to show his skills. “It’s more of a timeline of my cooking career and where I grew up, with certain dishes that have sentimental value to me throughout my career and it’s composed of 12 courses, which all have a reference to my personal life,” he reveals.

Helm’s Pork and Eggplant Chili
Helm’s Cucumber Mustard Salmon

Navigating the Storm That is the Pandemic

But after almost 2 years in the business, Helm, like all other restaurants, was affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And while navigating it was a challenge, Chef Josh admits that he foresaw it… to some extent. That is, thanks to watching the news and seeing its slow descent into other countries around the world.

“There was no way of escaping it, so I would say we had about a month to think about the journey of navigating this pandemic, which gave us a bit of a head-start,” he explains. “Now, I strategically decided to close Savage and Helm, [as] I thought it was safer, at least from my standpoint, if I was in one area and I didn’t have to travel around the city.”

He did, however, keep The Test Kitchen in Rockwell open, since he lived near it. But with dine-in being unavailable during the first few months, Chef Josh had to change things around. “We had to redevelop the menu in a way that would suit what was currently happening. And that was takeout and delivery.”

And just like a lot of restaurants, he relied on deliveries as his lifeblood. But aside from a menu that was fit for deliveries, Chef Josh also offered ready-to-cook options. “We saw that many people were cooking at home more and more—it’s a lovely sight, really. I was doing the same. But we wanted to make things a little easier for guests who want to experience something a little more gourmet. So we made a ready-to-cook line [where] they could create wonderful meals at home, relatively easy.”

With ready-to-cook options like truffle chicken, pork neck ham, and pasta noodles made from scratch, Chef Josh was able to keep afloat during those months of lockdown. What’s more, he started a Test Kitchen MNL YouTube channel to guide even the most inexperienced homeowner. And the result? A gourmet meal that you just need to reheat and serve. We do the hard work, so you don’t have to,” Chef Josh says simply.

A Slow but Steady Recovery

Even with turbulent changes on quarantine restrictions and lockdowns, Helm was able to open for dine-in about 4 to 5 months after (though Savage had to close its doors much longer, due to being understaffed). But after a long hiatus, Chef Josh admits that the back and forth of opening was challenging—both for him and his staff. “We’ve been juggling that as best as we possibly can [by] ensuring my team get their salary at the end of the month and making sure that income is coming in.”

Thankfully though, the availability of vaccines and the decreasing COVID-19 cases are something to look forward to. “We’re on survival mode, but things are looking brighter—that’s why I smile more now,” he laughs.

Given the restrictions on dining in, Chef Josh can only entertain up to 4 guests. But even so, he hopes that the splendor from the pre-pandemic days will return—especially when he could host 12 people at a time. “When you enter Helm, you’re greeted by a large L-shaped marble slab counter. The kitchen itself is submerged by about half a foot, which means that [we’re] eye level with those sitting down and we are only a meter and a half away from each other.”

“When we’re cooking, it’s right in front of you. You’ll see everything that’s getting done—from cooking to the plating, and the explaining. It’s a very personal, intimate experience,” he adds. And even after the pandemic, he intends on keeping the same, intimate setting.

Shortrib with Pineapple Soy

Future Plans and Parting Words of Advice

Seeing light at the end of this long and dark tunnel, Chef Josh reveals big plans and new concepts to come. With destination restaurants like Helm are out of the way, he plans on opening two new restaurants in Greenbelt and Ayala Triangle, which have higher foot traffic.

When asked about what advice he can give to aspiring chefs and restauranteurs, Chef Josh isn’t one to mince words. A result-oriented and driven person by nature, he says: “Never give up. There’s going to be roadblocks along the way. You have to have patience, perseverance, and dedication.”

“I have to say that patience is the most important. Perseverance is project-based,” he continues. “There’s going to be many failures, but you will get to where you want to be. Dedication, I think is lifelong. If you can set a goal in your mind of where you want to be [without telling others your goal], based on my personal experience, I will drive that dedication until I get there.”

While awards do give a boost of confidence and make you happy, Chef Josh cautions against resting on your laurels. “I didn’t want to dwell on it for too long. I was like ‘okay, that’s done—where do we go next?’ I don’t look back. I don’t stop and reflect. I’m constantly going forward.”

“This world has many opportunities for everyone, but it’s how driven are you that matters. For the young entrepreneurs or the young chefs, they’re hyped up [in college]. But as soon as they graduate, they’re met with something different,” he opines. “It is only until they understand that that they can go and push to achieve what they thought was their end goal.”

Simply put, Chef Josh offers a dose of reality check for the youth—saying that once they comer to terms with what is expected and what is real, they’ll be able to work hard and do their best. And although not optimistic like most, its realistic, but firm nature pushes you to work hard, pandemic or not.

Photos from Chef Josh Boutwood

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