Phil Howard: "pasta has the capacity to deliver pleasure in a way few things do"

By Stefan Chomka contact

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Image: Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Related tags: Phil Howard, Elystan Street, Pasta, Chef

Phil Howard, chef-patron of Michelin-starred Chelsea restaurant Elystan Street, on launching London-based pasta delivery service OTTO, the art of food delivery, and reopening his restaurants.

Tell us about OTTO

OTTO is yet another stab at making millions so I can buy an island somewhere and go and sit in a hammock for my autumn years. It’s different to what I’ve done before - it’s simple, it’s a logistics business really. I like the purity of it.

You already run a food delivery service at Elystan Street, why the additional business?

Having done home delivery for almost a year now it doesn’t matter how much love you put into the food it is ultimately compromised to some extent, even if it’s only marginal, because I’m trying to cook my kind of restaurant food and get it to from A to B and expect somebody else to finish it off at home. We do 95% of the cooking but still it either limits what we can do or it’s impossible for them to recreate it in the same way the dish would have been served coming from an a la carte kitchen in a restaurant. But pasta provides an opportunity for all my knowledge and expertise and craft to be delivered to somebody’s house where they genuinely stand a chance of being able to turn out something that is as good as it could have been in the restaurants, and that’s really nice.

Why choose pasta in particular?

Pasta has been on every menu I have created for my restaurants for the past 35 years. It has the capacity to deliver pleasure in a way few things do – when it’s good it’s epic. Also, if you order an Elystan Street home delivery it’s going to cost you £60 [per head] because that’s what the overheads and ingredients and labour command. The nice thing about pasta is that it allows me to be able to enter an arena which is accessible to all budgets, and that’s new territory for me. I want to use the best parmesan and olive oil but that aside the best pasta sauce is a simple humble thing. It doesn’t ask for fancy or expensive ingredients - it’s all about methods and recipes. It’s exciting to be doing something that’s completely accessible to all budgets. I’ve done so many food projects in the past, but there is something about this where I think this could be the one that really works.

OTTO-pasta-dishes

You even provide some of the pasta water with the kits, which is a nice touch

I did have insecurities about that and thought ‘god are we just going to get annihilated for being cheffy?’ but the bottom line is that pasta water is a really key part of a pasta sauce. When you get a really great plate of pasta where the pasta and the sauce have become one, the pasta water plays a significant role in that. The plan is to use the pasta water as the cooling back; we’ll freeze it and it saves on packaging and plastic but also does the job.

Where is OTTO based ?

A kitchen in Putney. Rebecca [Mascarenhas, Howard’s business partner] has a restaurant on Lower Richmond Road, and we’ve got the original kitchen and back end of the site with its own entrance for OTTO and she’ll run the front half and terrace dining room. The restaurant will also serve my pasta. David Chevalier, general manager at Kitchen W8, is going to run the show with a chef from at Elystan Street and also my son. It’s a super tight team.

Lockdown is coming to a end. Why have you chosen to do it now?

Ideas come when they come. To find a site and set up a business for scratch takes a few months. It would have been ideal to have launched it last summer. The world has opened up to the idea of delivery boxes and this is not a ‘special occasion because I can’t go out’ one this is an ‘I just can’t be arsed to cook’ one. If you can get two portions of pasta dropped through letterbox on a Tuesday and it costs £16-£20 it’s not a big investment. There will still be a lot of eating at home going on and we’re not trying to cash in on the current home delivery kit, this is a serious project for the long term.

otto-pastamaking

Tell us about the name OTTO

I originally wanted it to be called ‘Double O’ because of the pasta flour but every single name you can think of to do with flour and pasta had all gone. Otto is Italian for eight; it’s a short, sharp, neat little word – and it’s got the double O. As it happens the first menu for OTTO I wrote had eight dishes on it and there are also eight steps to the process of getting the pasta to the plate. Names can be funny things. I remember at The Square we spent a week pissed in Green’s Bar trying to think of a name and in the end we called it The Square because we were by St James’s Square.

What are your plans for it?

We’re hoping the market in London is big enough to grow OTTO into a substantial business. The plan is also to go into the retail market. London a big enough market to keep us busy for a long time.If we wanted to expand further we wouldn’t sent it all over the country but instead open a satellite kitchen maybe in Manchester and open up there  -  that’s is the plan in London anyway. We don’t want to deliver to east London from Putney so we will set up small kitchens as and when we need them as we expand. Once you get involved with a third party everything takes longer and you lose control.

OTTO-food-web

Will the Elystan Street delivery continue post lockdown?

The intention is to keep doing it if demand stays there and if it makes financial sense. The truth is that once you’re back up and running it’s really quite complicated. What I hope will happen is the restaurants will all bounce back and the home delivery business will taper sufficiently that we can just wrap it up.

Do you enjoy the delivery element?

I’ve really enjoyed the last year in a way, it’s been me and Mark [Kempson] my head chef and partner from Kitchen W8 and Sam [Astley-Dean] the chef at Church Road and we cook Wednesday to Saturday. We knock out some really great food, I don’t have to manage any chefs in the kitchen and it’s been a real joy to be able to get back and just cook in a really pure way. It’s simple suppers, Sunday lunches, not fancy singe portions, the kind of stuff we don’t normally get to cook. But I’ve been on a long enough journey and all my ambitions have been ticked off so I get just as much pleasure and fulfillment out of cooking the home delivery food and putting it into containers in the knowledge that people on the other end are going to have a great meal as I do making pretty food on a plate. However, for people that come and work for ambitious restaurants like Elystan Street that’s not what they came to do. To get a team of chefs to arrive in the morning  and run around cooking for home delivery and packing to do that and then clear it away and expect people to then recharge and launch into an a la carte menu in the evening is a big ask.

How are you feeling about the future?

There will be a lot of people with a few quid in the bank because they haven’t been able to spend it, but the reality is the financial consequences of this year have got to kick in at some point. The high street and restaurants are going to feel the pinch of that in the long term. Food business in London has become really hard because it is ferociously competitive, and the market is saturated. And from an overhead cost everything has gone up. For those restaurants that still offer great food, great hospitality and value for money there will always be business to be done. I’m really looking forward to getting the restaurants back open but I’m also quietly kind of dreading getting back to all that. I’m too old for it.

Related topics: Restaurant, Chef, People

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