“The best way to eat that is with your hands.” And with those words Josh Boutwood brushes off whatever preconceived notions we have of his latest restaurant. We relax, roll up our sleeves, and our hands go straight to the plate of smoked shrimps that we just asked him how best to eat. Remove from shell, dip in the aioli, a bit of lemon, enjoy.
Welcome to Ember. It’s the 35-year old chef’s first restaurant within a mall, which should already make it a little less intimidating than his previous ones: The Test Kitchen, Helm, Savage—if you found those intimidating that is. Here, the atmosphere is open and welcoming, and the food is, as Boutwood himself puts it, “humble, easy to understand, and ultimately delicious.”
No molecular gastronomy surprises here—what’s described in the menu is what appears on the table. All the characters in the culinary play blocked just so— to give his audience an idea of the experience that awaits. “We don’t want to have food that’s complicated,” he says. “When you see the dishes coming out [of the kitchen] right now, you’ll immediately recognize the items on the plate. Obviously, we did a lot of work that the guests don’t see to make sure that they get the most flavor out of it.”
The Fil-Brit chef is looking especially refreshed this afternoon, but make no mistake: it’s been an incredibly busy three weeks since opening Ember. Top that with the three other restaurants he has to run, and the over 100 that he oversees as corporate executive chef of the Bistro Group (which counts TGI Fridays, Italianni’s, Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobster, Fish & Co. among its establishments).
Maybe that’s why when Boutwood takes his face mask off, his handlebar moustache, something he took on during the pandemic, is not as groomed and perky as we expected it to be. (He is aware of this, too.)
But for this lunch, the guy appears relaxed and under no pressure to perform. Just ready to break with us and answer a few questions. It was supposed to be his day off but he doesn’t seem to mind the interview. “This is an enjoyable restaurant to be in,” he tells us. “It doesn’t feel like work when I’m here.”
What he planned to be a restaurant that will take the best from the concepts of Savage and Helm has evolved into a unique entity all its own. The process of coming up with a winning formula proved much too fun he just allowed himself to arrive at something completely new. Boutwood says opening Ember has been the least stressful and quite instantaneous compared to his previous efforts. The celebrated chef admits he kept his expectations manageable with this one when it came to predicting people’s response—but he says, so far “It’s been fantastic!” The turnout is clearly exceeding all his early projections.
From our small plates—the smoked shrimps with aioli and lemon; the roasted mushrooms with comte and hazelnut; the melon chunks with thyme, topped with serrano ham—all served in sharing sizes, we later moved to the short rib, the chicken dish, the turbot. All arrived as described in the menu. All delicious and, as promised, packed—nay bursting—with flavor.
But if there’s another thing Boutwood is good at, it’s putting his guests at ease. Which he does not only by serving us our individual shares of the turbot—including the fins because we happened to mention it’s the best part—or giving us license to eat with our hands. He devotes his presence completely to our table, regaling us with stories about growing up in the restaurant biz, about the first time he realized food is more than just sustenance, about his short but sweet stint as a Boracay chef and restaurateur. He gamely answered each and every question we threw his way, even the more personal ones—about fatherhood, about his wife’s cooking, and what he’s never asked his mother until now.
Here’s the conversation. Enjoy.
Why opt for simplicity in this new concept?
I’m growing up. (Smiles.) I made my restaurants how I wanted them at that particular point in my life. I created Savage because I wanted to get into primal cooking. I created Helm because I wanted to explore fine dining. The Test Kitchen is all about cured meats and fermentation because I was into making cured meats then. Now, if I were to go out and eat, I don’t want to go for this molecular fine dining fare. I want something that’s nourishing, delicious, and easy to remember. I created Ember because I want to go to a restaurant like this.
But the thing about presenting food in such a simple manner is that diners will tend to ask, ‘Why charge so much for something so simple?’
My restaurants aren’t cheap. And it’s not because I can charge a lot. It’s because I take a lot of pride in the ingredients that I source. That being said, a lot of the time, those ingredients come at a premium price. There are going to be guests who will say that my restaurants are expensive. But when they taste the food and they understand the sourcing of the ingredients, the length that we’ve gone through to get these ingredients in, I hope that they would understand why we charge what we charge. I think Savage is the cheapest restaurant that I have. Helm is the most expensive. Test Kitchen and Ember are kind of on the same [range].
The feel of the space is very different from your three other restaurants.
Ember is extremely approachable and inviting. And that’s why we designed the menu in such a way that it’s easy to understand. We don’t want people to say, ‘This place is too classy for us, it’s going be too expensive.’
I worked closely with Kevin [Nieves] of Headroom CDV Co. on this one. I told him what I wanted, what I needed—an easy-to-understand, approachable design that’s contrasting to our existing restaurants which are very dark.
The space is 120 sqm indoors. Outside, you’ll notice the façade is quite long. Yet inside it’s like a triangular cut. We did that in order for us to maximize the seating capacity indoors and also have enough space for the kitchen equipment we need.
Ember has been open for almost a month now. From your observation, which particular demographic does it attract?
Well, I don’t aim to please a particular demographic. I feel like our restaurants should be accessible—whether you’re a pensioner, a young professional, or an adolescent wanting to have an experience. I’ve seen multiple age groups, multiple nationalities—and I can see that they’re enjoying. I’m not targeting a particular demographic. Anyone who wants to have a nice meal, a good experience, create a memory, they’re welcome.
When did you realize there’s more to food than just sustenance?
I started cooking professionally straight after high school, at age 15. I’m now 35, so that’s 20 years ago. I must have been 21 or 22 when I realized that dining out is so much more than getting sustenance.
Growing up, I hardly went to other restaurants. My mom had restaurants, so you’d think we’d check out other restaurants. We never did. Because we were always busy with our restaurants. We’d have maybe 10 minutes to eat before dinnertime comes—that was purely for sustenance, that wasn’t a family dinner. I never really had those family dinners. So I never really understood this whole experience of eating until fine dining took off in the late 2000s to early 2010s, when food became more like a statement, a status symbol. Then your mind slowly transitions to: how can I create a restaurant that one would go to to create a memory? That’s what we always want to achieve: create a restaurant where people can make memories.
At 15, did you ever think you’d become the chef you are now?
I thought [working in the food industry] was a job. I thought it could pay bills. But at 15 years old, I never thought I would be in this situation now—having four restaurants, with 50 people working with me, and taking care of 105 other restaurants at the same time. I never would have thought about it.
Even when you were exposed to the restaurant business at a young age?
Never. I think I might have suffered from imposter syndrome—thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here.’ [Becoming a chef] was never a masterplan. It was never my goal. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time. I’m thoroughly grateful to the Bistro Group for giving me a chance to open my restaurants in Manila, and I continue to open restaurants.
At the age of 15, my goal was drinking, partying… (Laughs)
Were you in Boracay then?
At the age of 15, I was in Spain. I was in Boracay from age zero to two, seven to 11. Then I moved back to the Philippines in 2010. I spent two years in Boracay [where he opened a restaurant called Alchemy], then I came to Manila.
Do you have fond memories of running Alchemy?
I do. It’s slightly blurred because of the amount the alcohol I had consumed (Laughs). Every night we would be drinking. Every morning we’d have a hangover. But you didn’t feel the hangover because you got used to it. That was normal how you wake up in the morning. It was probably a good thing that I got out of Boracay.
But Alchemy was a good restaurant.
Yes, I enjoyed it. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. It was a very nice spot. But beginning of 2011, the island started to become popular as a party destination. And having a restaurant like Alchemy there, it was never going to sustain itself. Restaurants didn’t have much increase in sales during those parties. People went there for the drinking and they’d buy cup noodles in the super market. I was quite happy to leave the restaurant in 2012.
Do you still go to the market?
Yes. I often go to Farmer’s Market. I’m able to get inspiration by walking through the market and checking out what’s going on. You see products that you don’t see when you just scroll through the purchasing system.
Do you eat in other restaurants?
No. When I have the time, I’d rather check out how our other restaurants are doing. If I eat in another restaurant, I will start thinking—how are they doing it? It’s not relaxing for me. So I’d rather have food delivered via Grab or Food Panda, and eat in the comfort of my house.
What food do you order?
Last night, I ordered Andok’s. I also enjoy a good burger. [I order] Mc Donald’s. It’s convenient and consistent. You know what you’re gonna expect. I also like a good ramen. But I go to a ramen shop to eat ramen. I like tsukemen. I go to Mitsuyado Sei-men in Jupiter Street in the afternoons and early evenings— it’s quiet around that time.
Do you cook at home?
I can’t cook at home. I find it challenging to cook in a condo kitchen. It’s too small, I don’t have anyone cleaning after me. It’s just slow. You turn on the cooker and you have to wait. Here [in the restaurant], you put the pan down and it’s instantaneous. There are things that I find hard to adjust to. So I’d rather skip it.
My wife cooks at home. She cooks a variety of things. She’s not scared of trying. She doesn’t eat much meat. She eats chicken but it has to be breast. She’s very conscious of her diet. So we have a very healthy-ish lifestyle at home. A lot of fruits and vegetables. Not much meat. That is why I eat Andok’s when she’s not here. (Laughs)
It’s Father’s Day two Sundays from now. Tells us, how is Chef Josh as a dad?
I have rules since I grew up in a very strict household. I think rules are important in terms of manners and respect. But I’m also lenient when it comes to other things. I very much like for my kids to enjoy life and have fun and to have as little boundaries as possible when it comes to growing up.
My girl is 13, she has more boundaries now. But my son being five years old, I’m like, ‘Enjoy your childhood. Do what you need to do—football, karate, breakdancing. Play with whoever you wanna play with.’
Your mom was a veteran restaurateur. Has she ever been to your restaurants?
Mom has only been to Helm and Savage. She hasn’t been back for four years. She’s in Wales. She hasn’t tried the new The Test Kitchen since I moved it from Kamagong to Rockwell. She has yet to try Ember. Mom is 75 now so I worry a little bit with long journey. But I’m thinking of going there instead of her coming here.
Have you ever asked what she thinks of your food?
I’ve never asked her. She’s been running restaurants her whole life. I think I fear that if she will not like it, it will niggle in my mind. So I’d rather not ask.
You became a corporate chef at Bistro Group at age 24. Why take on such a huge responsibility at such a young age?
I was driven by challenges even as a young boy. The Bistro Group offer came at a perfect moment. It was rainy season, they called me up. ‘Do you want a challenge?’ ‘Sure, I’ll take it.’ And I never left. I just passed my 10 years. It doesn’t feel like I’m working for them; I’m working with them. We understand the goals we need to achieve—create restaurants, make revenue. They let me do things the way I want it done.
How often do you think of new concepts and ideas?
I’m constantly doing it. I always have a small notebook or my phone with me, so that when an idea comes, I’d write my ideas down. I could be just walking at the mall. My mind is constantly thinking about food, combinations, and ingredients. So I write down the idea before I forget it. When something else comes to my mind, that idea is gone. It’s much like a dream. My family gets annoyed with me because I literally just stop to take notes. (Laughs.)
Ember is located at the ground floor of Greenbelt 3 Mall in Makati City. For reservations, call +639164201600.