This alchemist could be his generation’s best chef
It seems that Josh Boutwood, chef of The Test Kitchen, had a magnificent 2017. He was a speaker at Madrid Fusion Manila, became the brand ambassador of San Miguel’s Great Food Solutions, got on the cover of the F&B Report, and made headlines with his gastronomic atelier The Test Kitchen.
I had the opportunity to try his executions at an F&B Report event at the now-defunct Allium and at a World Wildlife Fund charity collaboration dinner at the Shangri-La. Both times, he emerged competitive, displaying his culinary vigor and stepping up to 2015 and 2016’s big names like Chele Gonzalez and Margarita Fores.
I first tried his cooking 10 or so years ago at Alchemy, his restaurant in Boracay. Even back then he was already making waves with molecular and modern cooking. He was acclaimed as one of Boracay’s best. At the time, though, I felt that while he was on the right track, he had yet to grow as a chef.
And by God, he did.
I finally dined at The Test Kitchen last week and I was blown away. I think my dinner guest may have been impressed as well because he suggested a collaboration dinner with one of Singapore’s finest young English chefs, Ivan Brehm, formerly of Bacchanalia, now of Restaurant Nouri. I haven’t been to Singapore in a couple of years but my meal at Bacchanalia when Brehm was the captain of that ship was beyond stellar. To suggest that you can stand with Brehm in a kitchen is a great compliment.
It is very clear, though, why such an impression was made.
Boutwood showed not only charisma by personally serving the dishes to guests but also commitment to the exemplary execution of each dish. We witnessed—and tasted—his incredible attention to detail in his creations; impressive sourcing and research; dedication, patience and meticulousness to the processes involved; and a knack for what is simply delicious.
By commitment, I mean this: He makes his own bread. I also got to try a Kamut. “Why Kamut? Is something itchy?” I asked, to which he replied that he likes to make Kamut because of its “nice, spongy texture.” His starter had lardo that he made himself using wild boar sourced from Tagaytay. The comte for his second dish was aged 24 months. He cures his own pork for months and ages his own beef.
And the processes for each dish are mind-blowing. Beef tendons are cooked for a day and dehydrated before being deep-fried to a crisp. Etag from Sagada is used not for the meat itself as one would be inclined to do; a broth is made instead because he finds it too heavily smoked. So you just get a dollop of this as you appreciate a 54-degree slow-cooked pork loin. His chicharon is not dipped in vinegar; instead, it is dusted with vinegar powder. Sweet potato is not just boiled and diced but made into dumplings.
Can you imagine that for just one plate in your six-course menu, some items or some ingredients were worked on not just days prior but possibly for months in advance? This is the kind of cooking that can only come from a true gourmet. The guy doesn’t just “play with fire” or a torch; he doesn’t just mix and match flavors from what is already before him. He has the foresight, patience and determination to source ingredients, work some alchemy on them and then watch them transform.
When you eat at his restaurant, it is important to realize that 80 percent of the value of what is before you is attributable to the processes that the chef went through to bring you that dish. Fight as hard as you can to get past his thick English accent (his mother is British) and understand what he just explained. He will try to dismiss your determination to listen and say, “Just enjoy the food.” Don’t allow him to. Tell him you want to understand what magic he just played on the food because that is part of the Boutwood experience.
For our six-course meal (two appetizers, three mains and a dessert), he started with what simply looked like peas. You would think it’s a vegetarian dish. It wasn’t (so pay attention when he gives his course descriptions). There was lardo as well as chorizo in emulsion form.
In the second course, what was obvious to the eye was only the sweet potato and on top, shaved cheese. You would think that completed the dish until he tells you that with the shaved cheese is shaved ox heart salted and dried for about six months.
It’s these seemingly tiny details that make a huge difference in the flavors of each of his dishes and show his prowess as a chef.
He is opening two more restaurants this year and I look forward to his future projects. He is opening Savage, a restaurant serving “pre-industrial food”, in February or March; and Helm, a fine-dining restaurant, in March or April.
In the meantime, The Test Kitchen will be open until sometime February before it takes a break to allow him to open these other two restaurants. (Note though, that the Test Kitchen, being Boutwood’s playground, is by reservation only for a minimum of 8 pax but can be less on “open table” days, which are chosen randomly so call ahead.)
Do check out his restaurant. He has really come a long way from his first restaurant venture in Boracay, when he first applied what he learned from a stint at Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Denmark. As long as he remains true to his craft and is not distracted by the noise of what is trendy or the mundane dictates of misguided PR, he may just turn out to be this generation’s best chef.
The Test Kitchen by Josh Boutwood. 9780 Kamagong St., San Antonio, Makati. By reservation only. 0917-3041570.
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