The man behind Helm, Test Kitchen, and Savage is always searching for another challenge to meet.
It is said that one’s roots are responsible for who they become. For Chef Josh Boutwood however, his “roots” are also his “routes.”
The chef spent his early childhood in the United Kingdom, before moving to Boracay, then proceeding to live a nomadic lifestyle in Spain. There, he traveled with his mum as she took over old restaurants, refurbishing them with concepts, before inevitably moving on to another project somewhere in the plains of Andalusia.
Boutwood would study classical French cuisine, discover his love for Italian food, and take on a Swedish partner before going back to the Philippines with a one-year-old daughter, to start a fine dining restaurant in Boracay. There, he lived a dream life of wearing board shorts and t-shirts, cooking and serving for tourists in the island paradise.
Most chefs would be set for life. But little did the future head chef of the Bistro Group know—his journey had only just begun.
Ahead of the crowd
The chef remembers the “laboracay” scene of 2011 and 2012. He laments how tourists arrived in droves, affecting the fine dining atmosphere he wanted to provide to his guests.
“It was then that I was invited by the Bistro Group,” he shares. “Back then we only had 37 restaurants on seven concepts, which was for me, coming from one, was already a lot.” He was offered full creative control along with a lucrative salary during the off-season. He agreed to serve for 6 months.
“I thought I’d come on board, work a bit, make some money then head back to my paradise— perfect arrangement.” He stayed a decade on board.
“I just loved it! The corporate atmosphere, working on menus, new concepts…” To date, the group has expanded to 126 restaurants with 24 concepts—not including Chef Josh’s personal projects. “I loved the (first four years)—there was just solid growth, everything was going well and then—I asked to leave,” Boutwood shares.
He said he needed a challenge, something new. The group fully supported him, inviting him to open a new concept with his vision, with them. “At first I was apprehensive,” he shares, “Casual versus fine-dining, the setup and economics are different. The ambiance is different. The crowd is different.” But the Bistro Group was persistent, so he relented. And thus his test kitchen became Test Kitchen.
Test Kitchen was aptly named, for it not only served as a trial of his dishes to the public, but also a litmus to whether or not the local market could sustain such a concept.
“We knocked down walls, expanded the place and had this communal seating arrangement which for Manila, and especially for what you were paying for—was fairly new,” Boutwood says.
The first version of Test Kitchen originally opened along Kamagong in the Rockwell area. It was well-received. And while that iteration closed due to untimely roadworks, the chef brings his and his team’s considerable experience to Helm restaurant at BGC’s Arya Residences.
“We curate experiences. Everything is tailored to the customer,” he says. “From the menu, what ingredients we choose, how we prepare them, serve them… the cutlery, the dining accouterments, right to the music and the little details that make every occasion memorable.”
The chef is quick to mention, however (jokingly) that he doesn’t want people to have once-in-a-lifetime memories. “Our menu changes every four months, and so does the place,” he says. “So we want them to come in, have a great time, then come back and see what’s new a few months later.”
Boutwood gestures expansively at Helm’s openness, which brings the guests in direct eye-contact with the chefs.
“Our first 2020 menu, for example, is based on Philippine history,” he says, laying down then Helm’s menu on what looks like faded parchment inscribed with a timeline. It stretches from the cultivation of rice (3400 BC) to the arrival of the Spanish (1521AD) right up to today—a culinary journey consisting of over half a millennia.
“I wanted a solar system based one,” the chef confesses, “But the team ran into a problem around midway—all the planets were too cold!”
The Jan- March menu includes Sorghum Eggplant Pork, Tapioca Rendang Beef, and Wagyu Wasabi Shittake. Each meal is made up of 12 to 14 courses, and each course is between three to four mouthfuls.
“We synchronize the music to how fast we should serve,” says Boutwood, who says that as a rule—they don’t make their menus public. “We can’t not meet expectations if there aren’t any! We want guests to come in, be surprised, have a memorable experience, tell their friends.”
The chef shares that they rely on social media but more on word of mouth for their business.
“Which is challenging, because there’s an old adage that says if you serve a good meal, that person will tell two friends,” he says. “But if you serve a bad meal, they’ll tell 10 people!”
With regards to catering to an international palate, Boutwood says that their “cuisine is like stew—many ingredients cooked over a long time to produce a delicious taste.”
He adds though that: “And like stews, they are an acquired taste. (The team’s) job is to make Philippine cuisine more understandable. Not diluting or deconstructing, but explaining the roots and influences that contributed to our wonderful food culture.”
It’s this razor-thin line between success and tragedy in the work that keeps Boutwood excited, however. He echoes his earlier desire to leave the Bistro Group once things got too mechanical.
“I’m always going for the next thing,” he emphasizes. “There’s always another challenge to meet—I can’t just rest on my laurels. That’s not fun. Fun comes in the challenge, alone or with your restaurant, a team—driving for the next thing, and not content staying stagnant.”
Like a nomad constantly seeking new culinary horizons, he has opened Savage, a concept that shuns modern cooking methods for more primal means.
“At the end of the day we’re simply people who cook and serve food, so we can make money and put food on our own tables,” he says. “There’s nothing glamorous about the sweat and the toil, really. But the life, the thrill, the experience—there’s nothing like it… If people want to get into this, they have to live it, breathe it, even sleep it.”
Apt words for a nomad whose gastronomic dream seems to be an ever-broadening culinary horizon for the local scene.
This story originally came out in the November 2020 issue of Lifestyle Asia.