Philip Howard, head chef and co-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant The Square, has described being named as the Chef's Chef of the Year as a 'humbling' experience and a pleasing realisation that people haven't forgotten his restaurant despite newer, high-profile eateries.
Howard also predicted the re-emergence of the popularity of restaurants occupying the centre ground as opposed to those focused on pioneering techniques and named Simon Rogan as his personal chef of the year.
Since opening in 1991 The Square has, often quietly and professionally, carved out a reputation as a high-quality restaurant led by Howard's simple and seasonal French cookery.
The Mayfair eatery has held two Michelin stars for fifteen years and has received strong reviews and accolades yet it, and its head chef, have not enjoyed the celebrity status many other long-standing two-star restaurants such as Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons have.
"I am honest and aware enough to appreciate where The Square sits in the hierarchy of restaurants in the UK," Howard told BigHospitality the day after being named the Chef's Chef of the Year at The National Restaurant Awards . In the same ceremony his former sous chef Brett Graham made it a hat trick of wins for The Ledbury.
On the night Howard described the title as 'humbling', something he expanded on when we caught up with him after his commitment as chair of the judges for the National Chef of the Year 2012 final had finished.
"The restaurant landscape has changed and some phenomenally talented chefs are coming through so to win anything in any given year you feel that you have got to have outshone anyone else. Given the likes of Brett or Simon Rogan, for an old dinosaur like me to collect the top prize is amazing."
Hit and miss
For Howard the recognition of his peers was also a vindication of the consistent style of cooking he has pursued at The Square; a style he argued was now coming back into fashion.
"The truth is what we do is not the most exciting stuff in the world – it is not trying to be. We just try to do a great job of providing fantastic hospitality and serving delicious food."
"The reality is most of the attention is heaped on new restaurants because there are an awful lot of them and they demand and warrant attention or people that are doing something that gets themselves noticed."
“The pendulum has swung out as far as it is going to and it is just beginning to gather momentum back towards the centre which is how life goes and how it should be. Without the chefs breaking new ground cooking would never progress and we all benefit from that but the truth is it is still incredibly important to have restaurants that just focus on very pure, proper, accurate, delicious cooking."
"People are beginning to really appreciate that given the hit and miss style that is often seen in some of the newer, younger restaurants," he argued.
Howard, who co-owns The Square with Nigel Platts-Martin and The Ledbury with Platts-Martin and Graham, also operates Kitchen W8 and Sonny's Kitchen with restaurateur Rebecca Mascarenhas.
However following his win the chef is now planning to focus on The Square once more.
But who would his choice for the award he scooped be? "Simon Rogan. I worked alongside him on The Great British Menu last year and I thought his relationship with ingredients was a real joy to see."
"His ability as a cook is that he has embraced technology and innovation and used it with such understanding and intelligence but what you see on the plate is very natural and you have no idea what went on behind the scenes."