An alchemist at work in the kitchen

Josh Boutwood’s The Test Kitchen.


WORDS  TEODORO Y. MONTELIBANO | IMAGES  LANCER SALVA

The cool, quiet dynamo that is Josh Boutwood, at 30, poses a picture of utter self-confidence. In all likelihood, one unaware of the trajectory this guy’s life has taken might mistake the air of self-possession he exudes for conceit.

But knowing the travails he’s undergone to be where he is today—from someone virtually penniless in Copenhagen and struggling to work through waist-high snow in Sweden to being hailed as the Philippine Culinary Cup Best Chef in 2013 and 2014 and bagging a bevy of gold, silver and other medals in the same Philippine Culinary Cup at various other periods of time—you would acknowledge the fact that the man has earned his stripes, and earned them well, indeed.

Reared in England and Spain where he worked in his mom’s restaurants since he was five, the Filipino-British Boutwood, at 14, went to culinary school in Andalucia, at the Escuela de Culinario Mojacar where he walked out of after two months, and was then sent to toil in the kitchen of French chef Raymond Blanc’s famed Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, at Oxfordshire—then, and now, regarded one of the most expensive restaurants in the UK.

Working in Raymond Blanc’s restaurant, he said, was “hard knocks learning; I was 16, I got homesick and I went back to Spain to work in my mother’s restaurants.”

Unfortunately, at that point, her business was hit hard by Spain’s declining economy.  “We lost a lot,” he related. “By that time, I had found my partner—a Swedish girl—and she asked why don’t I go and try my luck in Sweden?

He did exactly that and by luck, found a slot—not in Sweden—but across the bridge from Malmo, where his partner was based—in Copenhagen, Denmark where René Redzepi’s Noma was located.

Noma had just placed third in the prestigious UK-based Restaurant magazine’s “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” listing and it was a significant eye-opening experience for young Boutwood to see Redzepi stir up the culinary world with his reinvention and reinterpretation of modern Nordic cuisine.

Still, for all the lessons he learned in the Noma kitchen, it was a life he could not sustain. “I didn’t get paid to work in Noma, and living in Copenhagen is expensive,” Boutwood said. “I came out of that experience with zero money in my pocket.”

Boutwood left and rejoined his partner in Sweden where he found a job as sous chef in Svaneholm, a castle by the lake which was a popular venue for banquets, weddings and the like. Svaneholm, some 40 kilometers from Malmö, Boutwood said, was “enormous, beautiful and was right on the lake.”

But by his second winter working there, the enthusiasm and novelty had fizzled out. “I would drive to work in the dark in the morning, it was dark going home in the evening, I had snow up to my hip, the hours were long and I just couldn’t do it any longer,” he said.

Boutwood and his partner just had their first child, and they decided to move—this time to sunnier climes. In 2010, they went to Boracay where Boutwood’s dad, a member of one of the oldest families on the island, had property.

He opened a restaurant, Alchemy, with a menu the likes of which had never yet been seen locally. “My idea was to create dishes with ingredients sourced from the area, and just offer nice food,” Boutwood said. 

“Nice food” is an understated description of the dishes Boutwood offered in Alchemy, in terms of ingredients and cooking methods, as well as presentation, influenced as all these were by his exposure to European kitchens. “We were braising pork belly with cola—nobody was doing that —and we were doing dishes like charred eggplant puree, which today is used in multiple menus through the dining industry,” he said.

In 2012, Boutwood got a call from the Bistro Group. He flew to Manila to meet with management, and the rest is history. He closed Alchemy in Boracay and today he is Corporate Executive Chef of the Group with some 16 international and homegrown casual dining concepts under his belt, including Italianni’s, TGIF,  Fish & Co., Modern Shanghai, and the latest, Denny’s, the all-day U.S. diner which was an immense hit when it opened here in 2016.

“My partner was in Sweden, pregnant with our second child and I was helping out in Denny’s, doing the 7 p.m. – 7 a.m. work shift and I would wake up at 9 a.m. to do my day job. I was very tired, very down, and my creativity was zero. And that’s not me. I’m a very creative person and all I was thinking about was bloody pancakes and waffles and I had lost it. And I knew there was no way for me to get my creativity back unless I had a place like this,” related Boutwood.

By “this,” Boutwood means his Test Kitchen (TTK) where, by day, he develops local dishes for the Bistro Group’s casual dining concepts, and at night, transforms the area into a by-reservation-only restaurant where he gives vent to his creativity.

The Test Kitchen, an intimate reservations-only restaurant in San Antonio Village, Makati, has a seating capacity of 22.

Situated in an old building under the Bistro Group along a rather nondescript area in Makati, TTK features a complete modern kitchen where Boutwood cooks for two long tables seating a maximum of 22 patrons.

I had once intended to dine at Alchemy when it was still around on the island, but alas, when my curiosity was finally piqued enough to find out what the buzz among people I know who loved to eat well was all about, Boutwood had closed the restaurant and had dived into the thickets of Metro Manila.

Thus, I was eager to have my first ever sampling of food by Boutwood, concocted by the multi-awarded chef, beyond what is offered on the menus of the 16 or so commercial casual dining concepts he is associated with, in the company he works for. 

Dropping in on him one weekend, I sat to a succession of dishes which crystallized the eloquent artistry this man has for food. 

There was a plate with a neat composition plums that had been pickled in elderflower vinegar along with pickled heirloom chocolate tomatoes touched with a bit of olive oil, then five-and-a-half-months old lamb in juniper, rose pepper fennel seed and rosemary with a dot of chili to garnish, along with Malabar nightshade (alugbati) flowers, carrot tops and brown butter snow. Those dishes had an undertone of flavor akin to a gel of plum juice cooked with wild garlic. 

Next was roasted duck trickled with smoked grapeseed oil and a sprinkling of popped sorghum, bread crumbs and wild sorrel for texture, on cauliflower porridge. 

On another plate lay a small slab of US grain-fed 21-day aged beef to which were added black trumpet mushrooms, celery puree, red wine jus, and an emulsion of bone marrow and onion.

US grain-fed beef aged 21 days with black trumpet mushrooms, celery puree, red wine jus, emulsion of bone marrow and onion.

There too, was smoked beef heart, with dehydrated porcini, peperomia, and beef tendons which had been cooked a few days then dehydrated and subsequently deep fried, and served on clean white china, with a bubbly cloud texture.

To finish, he made a sweet plate of malt and white chocolate, dehydrated egg whites and black chocolate for texture, garnished simply with chocolate mint and wild wood sorrel. Boutwood’s deft hands coaxed complex, exquisite flavors out of dishes set on simple white plates.

Guests reserving a seat at Boutwood’s tables must be a minimum of eight persons to a maximum of 22. Call him up for open-table dates where any number of persons fewer than eight could be accommodated. There is a minimum of six courses.

Single-origin coffee or kombucha, that is, lightly sweetened fermented black or green tea, are both served in crystal wine goblets.

To reserve, one must call up and have a word with Boutwood about dinner cost which fluctuates, depending on the kind of ingredients he has at the moment, and the menu, which he can only give you some sort of an idea about because most of what you’ll get from him will be a surprise.

And based on what I had sampled at his table, you can be assured that, in the hands of this young but exceedingly talented chef, the surprise he’ll spring on your plate, and on your senses, will be nothing short of amazing.


INCIDENTAL INTELLIGENCE

The Test Kitchen
9780 Kamagong St., San Antonio Village, Makati City
For reservations, call:
+63917 304 1570 – Chef Josh Boutwood
+632 403 5952 – Vanessa Monares
e-mail vanessam@bistro.com.ph
thetestkitchen.ph