Chef Phil Howard is not cooking in his two Michelin-starred restaurant, The Square, when we meet on a cold Spring morning. Instead he's at Ascot Racecourse rehearsing his fine-dining menu for the Royal meeting in June. An award-winning chef and champion of classic cuisine, I wanted to talk to him about his Ascot menu but also ended up learning a great deal about his philosophy on desserts and his outspoken views on the London dining scene.
First of all, Phil Howard has a very sweet tooth - a subject about which he holds particularly strong opinions: "I don't know why but I find that in restaurants, generally speaking, desserts are often disappointing," he tells me with air of frustration. Why? I ask. "When we think about dessert, for those of us who enjoy them, the pleasure we're looking for is the kind of pleasure that a treacle tart gives us, a great bread and butter pudding or apple crumble; those are the kinds of desserts that nourish your soul and give us pleasure".
This element of 'puddingness' and the soulful pleasure derived from it is the key component for any decent dessert in Phil Howard's (and indeed most dessert lovers') eyes. His continued disappointment stems from the fact that desserts are quite difficult to refine without losing their original essence: "In savoury cooking, you can take a modest idea or an old traditional recipe and you can refine it and make it look quite elegant and sophisticated and if you're clever you do that without losing what it was in the first place - you don't strip away heart and soul. In desserts it's very different. As soon as you take something like an apple crumble for example, if you either deconstruct it - you do some apple compote and some crumbly bits - well that's absolutely not what it was in the first place".
Homemade desserts may not be as elegant as their restaurant equivalents, but this often adds to their appeal and indulgence. "Take an apple crumble for example," he explains, "You bake it and all that sugar comes up around the edges and caramelises. So when you come to eat it, the two things come together as one and you get all the caramelised sugar with your custard or cream. That's the really important part of it. What happens in restaurants is that they think, we'd better do an individual one or a posher one - so they get a bit of compote, sprinkle some crumble on top and put it under the grill for two minutes, take it out...but it hasn't got any character".
Renowned for classic, seasonal dishes, Phil is hosting a restaurant at Ascot for five days during the iconic British race meeting. He's in good company - Raymond Blanc, Michael Caines and Angela Hartnett will be there too. Today, I've sampled Phil's strawberry ripple soufflé with elderflower ice cream, hence our dessert-focussed conversation. True to his philosophy, the soufflé is a rich mix of pudding rice, vanilla, cream and milk. These ingredients are cooked for several hours, puréed, and then folded in with egg whites and strawberry. That's what gives it a real heart and soul: "It's really important to incorporate in there enough body so that it delivers pleasure, so that it's a sensuous thing to eat." It seems a brave decision to serve soufflé en masse in an unfamiliar kitchen, but Phil relishes the opportunity to do something that hasn't been served before, "It's delicious, represents the Square very well and is relatively safe. Soufflés can be a bit precarious in the oven, but the preparation is relatively straightforward".
Hailed as the chef's chef, Phil Howard has mostly avoided the bright lights of television, unlike like many other Michelin-starred Mayfair chefs (except for a celebrated appearance on 2012's Great British Menu where his cornish mackerel with oysters, mussels, winkles and samphire won the fish course). So I'm interested to hear why he has chosen to come to the public stage of Royal Ascot: "There's all sorts of things I don't enjoy and generally speaking, TV is one." He retorts, "What I've learnt is that what gives me fulfilment is cooking, so I need to stay cooking - which is what I'm doing here. The truth is that this is what I enjoy. So I do this for a variety of reasons - it's good for The Square and it's an opportunity to be part of something special".
Changing tact, I ask the veteran chef what he thinks about the recent London restaurant revolution. Surprisingly, his reaction is one of profound disillusion: "I've eaten a lot in the last 25 years and what I know for a fact is that the majority of new restaurant openings (I think anyway), you go there, sit down, get a menu full of clever, tricksy things which at their very best are quite clever and technical. But you just know in your heart that it's not going to give you great pleasure. I'm all for invention and progress but not at the expense of the eating experience." He continues further, "I have to be honest, it's something I've become increasingly disillusioned by because I've always felt that I understand food quite well and don't understand how there is this praise and recognition for a style of cooking that whilst I acknowledge is very clever, is just so lacking when it comes to eating".
It's not all bad news though, as Phil is quick to point out: "There are a few chefs out there at The Ledbury and The Clove Club for example, who are most importantly great eaters. And even though they are ambitious and want to be progressive chefs, underpinning it all is an inescapable knowledge that food should be delicious to eat." I'm curious to know what he thinks about the maestro of molecular gastronomy, Heston Blumenthal, "Heston, to be fair, as much as I stand by what I say that most of modern cooking is a load of crap, of course you get real trailblazers about whom I hesitate to use the word genius, and Heston is one of those out there, and actually his food is very impressive".
The London dining scene has changed beyond recognition since The Square opened its doors in 1991. So given the plethora of new fashionable eateries, how does a traditional fine-dining restaurant stay relevant in 2015? "I think I'm honest enough to realise that we've had our years right at the very top, getting all the recognition... We're not about to reinvent the wheel, there's no big dramatic changes but a lot of energy has been put in to make sure we're giving our clientele exactly what they want from us." Ending on a positive note, he reassures me that traditional Michelin-starred restaurants are unlikely to fade into obscurity any time soon: "Fine dining may be a shrinking market, but it's never going to disappear because it's a wonderful thing and there's nothing quite like it".Suggest a correction