When chefs in Manila want to try something out of the ordinary, they go to The Test Kitchen along Kamagong Street in San Antonio Village, Makati City.
The Test Kitchen—an exclusive, reservations-only private dining restaurant for a minimum of eight and maximum of 20 persons—and the six- to eight-course menu are personal creations of award-winning Filipino-British chef Josh Boutwood Sacapano, known in the industry simply as Josh Boutwood.
“But I rather not know who are dining, especially if they too are chefs,” the 30-year-old told The Sunday Times Magazine during an exclusive media luncheon where he was introduced as the newest endorser of Great Food Solutions (GFS), San Miguel Corporation’s foodservice arm.
Boutwood holds the distinction of two-time World Food Expo’s Philippine Culinary Cup of the World Chef of the Year. In 2016, he won three medals including a gold at the Food Hotel Asia Culinary Challenge in Singapore.
Born in England to a Filipino father and a British mother who are both restaurateurs, he went back to the place where he grew up—the paradise island of Boracay in Malay, Aklan. This was after formally studying culinary arts in Spain and earning apprenticeship in the 5-star luxury hotel-restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire with chef Raymond Blanc as his mentor.
His stint under the tutelage of Noma’s Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen, Denmark then as Sous Chef at Svanehol, Slotts in Skane, Sweden and his own style of cooking gave birth to Alchemy, which immediately became a hit to diners of Boracay.
Getting high ratings in all food and restaurant reviews, Alchemy and Boutwood became additional attractions for Boracay visitors. His main focus at that time was “to promote the use of local and sustainable ingredients and put creativity and madness together under one roof”—his very own restaurant, Alchemy.
Boutwood’s popularity grew outside Boracay and he soon became the corporate chef of Bistro Group—a conglomerate of restaurants that include TGI Fridays, Italianni’s, Fish & Co, Flapjacks, Pig Out, Krazy Garlik, The Stock Market Café, Bulgogi Brothers, Ma Maison, Watami Japanese Casual Restaurant, Texas Roadhouse, Moe’s, Denny’s, Modern Shanghai and Village Tavern.
But even with his mega busy schedule and neck-deep responsibilities, he still manages to generously lend his hand to other projects—contributing recipes to food magazines and cooking at Madrid Fusion Manila and other culinary events. He does not see himself hosting a cooking show, though—at least not in the immediate future.
Despite his proverbial plate being full to the rim, Chef Josh could still take more— one of the reasons why he decided to open The Test Kitchen that carries his signature style.
“We don’t have a set menu, it’s just based on what’s available for the day. However, I follow the triangle of taste – salty, acidic or sour and sweet,” he revealed to The Sunday Times Magazine.
They don’t have names for the dishes too, except that it gives the idea what the course is – like “Surf and Earth” (products from the sea and soil that may carry squid, powdered bacon, cauliflower and cosmo flower petals; “Ocean” (products from deep waters that may have parrot fish, or mahi mahi, and roe with virgin olive oil); “Coop” (poultry that carries chicken, carrot and popcorn; “Farm” (products from the piggery that carries pork loin, chorizo Bilbao and peas); “Pasture” (products from grazeland that carries beef, sunchoke and mustasa flower). The dessert could come with avocado ice cream, boiled brown egg white and polvoron.
Since they don’t serve cooked rice at The Test Kitchen, the chef prepares special black rice ice cream made from five-day fermented black rice—a surprising twist that satiates the palate.
Customers can see how the courses are prepared and can in fact interact with Boutwood and his associates. Near the bar is the area where meats (mostly lamb) are hung for five months before getting utilized for his culinary expertise.
He affirmed, “We are not a fine dining restaurant. It is rather ‘sophisticated dining’ as we put emphasis on the ingredients instead.” He added that he rarely put more than three on a plate, maximizing each of the element’s potential by applying different techniques.
Training from childhood
Boutwood, who also spent his growing up years in Spain, did not just wake up one day and decided to be in the culinary industry, as his parents have restaurants in England and Spain.
“It wasn’t a calling. I never woke up one day and said that I’m going to be a chef today. It wasn’t like that. Growing up in the scene made me fall in love with cooking at a very young age,” he said in one of his early interviews.
His early formal training was cut short because of things he deemed routinary.
“I went to a culinary school in Mojacar, Spain but did not really enjoy it. I thought it was boring because I worked in my mom’s restaurant before that [to which]I already experienced high stress levels, have seen lots of pots and pans flying around. [Then] in school you just stand there listening to a teacher reading books,” he related.
He then went to England for apprenticeship with Raymond Blanc in Le Manoir aus Quat’Saisaons, a French manor house in Oxford.
“I fell in love with French cuisine there, then I went back to Spain, working again for my mom.”
As young people normally do, the then up-and-coming culinary genius got disinterested anew. Thankfully, he was determined to further hone his skill, albeit in a new environment.
As such, to refresh his mind, he packed his bags back to Scandinavia where he immersed in the world’s best, the Noma of Rene Redzepi—named as one of San Peligrino’s 50 Best Restaurants.
‘Leeks’ in his career
Recounting his experience at Noma, he said gourmet looks simple but there’s puree underneath. The same holds true with his training on getting the best ingredients for the day.
Although he stayed at the world-famous Danish restaurant only for two months, his stint there must have played an important part in his way of running The Test Kitchen and all his other restaurants.
“We would be up at 6 am and at the restaurant at 6:30. We’d have to walk to the gardens and the public parks to search for the ingredients we would be using for the day. Half of the team will go to the beach, [while]the other half will go to the inner city. We’ll assemble at 8 am in the restaurant, get ready, get changed and then do the lunch prep,” he recounted.
Interestingly, Boutwood was given a job to take care of the leeks as they would not let him cook yet.
“There’s this stack of leeks taller than I am, about a thousand leeks. All I had to do was to chop them and take out the heart. I repeated this process 2,000 times in a day. I remember very well how my fingers cringed from the [leeks]moisture. And there’s the smell of the onions. I did this till midday. It was horrible. Then we would go down the restaurant, help with the lunch service, clean down, then take a break at 5 pm, eat and then do it again,” he continued, adding that he usually went home by one or two in the morning.
Explaining the importance of his job at the time, Boutwood said that four leek hearts were used for a special dish of the restaurant.
“They would take the demi-glace of roasted chicken, reduce it even more and then dehydrate it to a crisp. They would char cucumber skins to create a cucumber ash. Two of the hearts will go to that ash. The other ones come as they were – blanched. A tiny one was placed in the chicken skin. And that was it.”
Using the same principle, the chef explained that there is so much effort in making one little piece in gourmet.
“A lot of people ask, ‘But that’s just a teeny piece of potato, why is it so expensive?’ But there’s puree underneath. And the sauces, the juices are not necessarily butter or oil-based. You gotta look at the big picture when a person presents a very minimalist or avant-garde-style dish. The story is always beneath that,” Boutwood noted.
Boutwood considered his stint at Noma a good experience, but shared that he had much more fun after.
“After Noma, I went to Trio in Sweden. It’s only a 16-seater restaurant—very upscale, serving Nordic cuisine,
with only two guys in the kitchen and one in the floor. Before we started service, we had music on. We laughed around the kitchen. And then as soon as 6 pm comes, music goes off [and]lights get dimmed. And the entire kitchen becomes silent. There’s this synergy going on. It was really [an]amazing experience. I long for the day when I can reproduce that kind of experience in my own kitchen,” he recounted.
He concedes that it was at Svaneholm Slott in Sweden where he honed his skills and technique, while still managing to integrate them into a modern style of cooking.
With a lot of eagerness, he came back to the Philippines, in Boracay specifically, and in no time created buzz in the local gastronomic world.
“Philippines is home [for me]. Even though I can’t get rid of this [British] accent, I’m still proud to be half-Filipino. I went back to Boracay to set up Alchemy, then [the]Bistro Group offered me to be their corporate chef. I said, ‘Why not?’ It was a good challenge.”
Some trade and travel magazines as well as websites say that Filipino cuisine is the next, if not already, big thing and Boutwood could not help but agree.
“Now, Filipino cuisine is getting a lot of attention in the US and Europe. The frontliner still is adobo. I’ve seen international cookbooks feature recipes of that,” he shared.
Boutwood further noted that Manila has created an epicenter that can rival any other country’s capital when it comes to food and cuisine, and that the Philippines is on the cusp of something unimaginable.
“The rivalry between chefs here is close to nonexistent and everyone wants the other to succeed. I have never experienced that anywhere else in the world. The evolution of the Philippine dining scene can only be predicted by the restaurateurs’ and chefs’ capacity to create new concepts. I have no doubt that we are going to be the center for culinary destinations very soon, if we are not already.”
And of all indigenous ingredients that would work well in a gourmet dish, he said that pili nuts and the pungent durian are the best.
“Pili is beautiful to use whether in ice cream, powder, even in sauces. Replace P4,000 per kilo worth of mushrooms with pili nuts and it will have the same effect. Durian also. There are many ways to mask the smell of durian but you’ll still have that beautiful creamy texture.”
The perfect taste
Chef Josh uses the highest quality products for The Test Kitchen. Even the correct temperature, say at 68 degrees, is employed to get that perfect taste.
He still sources his ingredients from the market, but the main elements—beef, pork, poultry—and concoctions are from a company known for its quality products whether it’s fresh, frozen or ready for preparation.
And because of his known patronage, the country’s premiere beverage and food corporation took him as its first endorser for its food service division.
“We focus more on industrial users like restaurants and food outlets and no other expert in the food business can best represent what we offer than Chef Josh Boutwood,” San Miguel Foods, Inc.-Great Food Solutions Vice President and General Manager Helene Pontejos told The Sunday Times Magazine.
Citing the strictness of restaurants on the quality of products served in their menus, Pontejos added that they are happy that their products passed the meticulous standards of Boutwood.
Just like other chefs who became media sensations, thereby becoming hosts of their own culinary show, the sophisticated dining expert cautioned that the downside is forgetting the elements of excellent cooking.
He said that as the menus in The Test Kitchen are seldom repeated, he does not even eat the dishes he and his team painstakingly prepare for the restaurant’s patrons.
“I am a selectionist and only use products when I feel they are at their prime. I do not complicate an ingredient to mask its true flavor and prefer to let it speak for itself. When an ingredient is prime, I may choose to use it while its flavor is at its peak or even until it becomes weak or faint. I put emphasis on local products but choose not to be bound by them. Although my personal style of cuisine is ingredient-driven, my dishes are usually comprised of only three major ingredients,” he shared.
As his culinary expertise is now known far and wide, there is naturally a demand for his presence in the upscale and densely populated Bonifacio Global City.
He shared his excitement over the idea but cautioned, “It will never be a duplication of any of the restaurants I opened. It will be entirely different.”
“In fact, it’s going to be the exact opposite of the modern technology which The Test Kitchen employs. It’s gonna
be as basic as savage cooking,” he revealed referring to his new baby, Savage restaurant.
And by “savage,” the chef meant using only firewood, coal or charcoal in cooking and most minimum ingredients to bring out the flavor of beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables.
“Savage is going to be the bastard brother of The Test Kitchen. He is rough around the edges, not serious at all, and will only serve small plates. A perfect fit in the poblacion neighborhood. Everything served will be pre-industrial, meaning nothing will be cooked using gas. Grilling and roasting will be the cooking methods of choice,” he intoned.
Persistence and patience
Finally, having been purified by the proverbial hottest of all culinary fires, the “Chef’s Chef” has a simple advise to aspiring experts of the kitchen.
“Persistence and patience. When they come out of school they don’t know anything. Sure, they know technique, they know sauce, and how to use a knife. But they don’t know the reason why. Even if you graduated from college you still have to go through dishwashing, the duties of a prep cook, a line cook. That’s the only way you’ll learn. Be prepared to work your way up. Even if you paid one or two million [pesos]in culinary school, you still have to work your way up,” Boutwood ended.
And for someone who has been down there, done that and climbed up there, everything Chef Josh Boutwood says makes sense.