Where do Manila’s best chefs go to eat?

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In The Test Kitchen, Josh Boutwood conjures dishes that win the tastes of Manila’s best chefs. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Josh Boutwood does not defy expectations. In the first place, he refuses to adhere to any. Whether in The Test Kitchen or in any of The Bistro Group’s umbrella of restaurants, he holds himself accountable only to a singular standard: one he has set for himself, and not anyone else’s.

His stellar, much publicized record — a multi-awarded chef trained in some of the world’s acclaimed restaurants, who climbed to the top of the class at a young age — is well-known. But few know that it comes with an unwavering conviction, one he had tattooed on his arm for good measure: a tattoo of an arrow, which he got two to three years ago. “I wanted to symbolize that no matter what brings you back, you could always go forward. And that is what an arrow does, when you pull an arrow back, the only direction is forward,” he says.

He got the tattoo sometime after he was appointed corporate executive chef of The Bistro Group, with the everyday task of turning more tables for the company’s 16-and-counting food concepts. In a booming restaurant industry, the task isn’t easy, even though he makes it seem like it is.

“It takes its toll sometimes, but you know, I take it with pride,” the 30-year-old chef says. “Everyday is a new day, so it’s always interesting. There [are] always goals to be achieved and ambitions to strive for.”

Josh Boutwood4.jpg Josh Boutwood plates a dish called 'Coop': poached then roasted Magnolia chicken with popcorn and dehydrated mustasa leaf. Photo by JL JAVIER

In The Test Kitchen, where he hosted a press lunch as the new brand ambassador of San Miguel Purefoods - Great Food Solutions, Boutwood treats us to a six-course meal that he and his team came up with just a day ago. For a meal called “Ocean,” he explains how they had to replace the mahi-mahi on the menu with parrotfish (the former wasn’t available), which he flavored with emulsified soybean oil and topped with micro amaranth, among other things. Another dish, called “Coop,” features chicken poached to 68 degrees, then roasted and flavored in its own stock. It’s topped with a bit of popcorn and dehydrated mustasa leaf — and is arguably the best one on the menu.

Most of the dishes have never been served before. The Test Kitchen is Boutwood’s laboratory, one where dishes either come to life or are shelved as ideas for another day. It bears witness to his signature minimalist style (two to three main ingredients in one dish), one that may be hard to recognize as he wears his other hat as corporate chef. It’s also where some of his friends go to play (Chef Chele González of Gallery Vask traded kitchens with him the other day), or sometimes, where his fellow chefs go to eat.

Jordy Navarra, the celebrated chef behind Toyo Eatery, calls Boutwood a “chef’s chef.” They’ve known each other for two to three years, having been in some events together. “He’s intense and serious with his work, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says Navarra. The two often go to each other’s restaurants. “Whenever he comes here [at Toyo], we enjoy serving him the style of food we do, because he does something completely different. It’s a contrast,” he adds.

Josh Boutwood2.jpg A dish called 'Surf and Earth': squid is topped with powdered Purefoods bacon (inverted with sugar) and cosmo flowers. Photo by JL JAVIER

JoshBoutwood6.jpg 'Pasture': Monterey beef cooked in a pan, glazed with caramelized onion, with yeast extract and topped with mustasa flowers. Photo by JL JAVIER

Navarra went to The Test Kitchen to celebrate his wife May’s birthday. “I think what’s great about The Test Kitchen is that it’s not about specifically just dishes, it’s how he constructs the experience … you have the whole menu balanced,” he says. “He likes these very subtle, harmonious flavors. It’s a nice, refined dining experience.”

Between Boutwood and most of the local chefs in the industry, there’s little-to-no animosity. The chefs’ circle, if you can call it, is animated not by cold competition, but by warmth and mutual admiration for each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than by how friends and colleagues speak about each other.

Boutwood also previously collaborated with chef Nicco Santos of Hey Handsome for “Borderless” last June. The two-night dinners have been tagged as an “explosive,” “once-in-a-lifetime event,” one that brought Santos’ flair for Southeast Asian cuisine and Boutwood’s “sophisticated dining” experience together. The collaboration allowed Santos to get to know Boutwood for the first time. “We’ve spent a few days brainstorming and couple of days prepping plus the two dinners … I actually thought he was my age or even older only to find out that he’s much younger,” Santos laughs. “I did not expect that amount of skill and talent for such a young age.”

Josh Boutwood3.jpg Juggling a corporate job along with everything else, Josh Boutwood remains one of Manila's most dynamic and innovative chefs. Photo by JL JAVIER

One would think that Boutwood’s and Santos’ styles would clash in a collaboration. “My initial thoughts were that it would be difficult because our food is so different,” says Santos. “[But] I think [Boutwood’s] willingness to collaborate and absence of ego made the whole process very fun and easy.”

Just this month, Santos saw Boutwood execute a Filipino tasting menu at a Nespresso event. “I was blown away with how he flawlessly executed a Filipino tasting menu. I think if there’s one thing we can probably infuse in our next dinner, [it] would be more Filipino flavors and cooking techniques,” he adds.

But what Santos took away from working with Boutwood transcends the plate. “Other than being an amazing cook, chef, and mentor to his team, I can relate to him more as being a father,” he shares. “I can feel how much he loves his family, especially his kids, and that’s something that really inspires me. Hopefully we could also plan playdates with our kids rather than just dinner collaborations.”

Josh Boutwood8.jpg Sourdough bread with Magnolia butter. "At The Test Kitchen, everyday, depending on his menu, [Josh Boutwood] changes the bread. To me, that’s really good," says artisanal baker Richie Manapat. Photo by JL JAVIER

JoshBoutwood7.jpg Dessert is called 'Sweet': Magnolia avocado ice cream with crunchy dehydrated egg whites and pop rocks that fizzle in your mouth. Photo by JL JAVIER

Back at The Test Kitchen, we’re excited to taste what Boutwood has in store for that day. The thing with a minimalist menu is that the wide canvas of the plate renders the food in high definition. One has to be careful with details, as Boutwood is. You have to be as passionate about the beef as you are for the bread, which, for that lunch, is a delectable sourdough.

“He really cares about the end product, the whole meal, the customer’s experience,” says Richie Manapat, one of Manila’s experts in artisanal bread. “He cares more about it than a lot of chefs in the Philippines.”

Manapat met Boutwood  in a Madrid Fusión Manila event a year or two ago. “The great thing with Josh — what I always tell people — is chefs will work a lot for their ingredients, their beef, or lamb, or whatever. But when it comes to their bread, a lot of chefs in the Philippines will just buy cheap, ₱3 to ₱4 peso bread, to start the meal,” Manapat explains. “And it’s great that Josh, being a chef, not being a baker, still at least considers homemade bread. At The Test Kitchen, everyday, depending on his menu, he changes the bread. To me, that’s really good.”

TeamJoshBoutwood.jpg Chef Josh Boutwood works closely with his team in The Test Kitchen. "I spend more time with them than my family," he laughs. Photo by JL JAVIER

How does Boutwood remain grounded and reach these heights at the same time? Is it because he takes precise care when others overlook, as Manapat says? Is it because of skill and talent, as Santos recalls? Is it because of how he ‘constructs the experience,’ as Navarra puts it?

Here’s what I see, as I savor what chef Josh Boutwood has prepared on my plate. There’s a perseverance to take life one day at a time, to strive to do well as the morning begins, and to promise to do better as the day ends. He sits down for an interview, smiling and polite, even as I am aware how long his day has been. He’s funny, he’s accommodating, and he breaks the awkward silence. He tells me about a book.

“I have a big black book on my office where every single idea is written down. And we do often go back to that book and take a look at what we did right down there. And after some time, your mind evolves and you look back at it from a different angle, and you think, actually, that might work, let’s try it again,” he says. “You kind of look at it the opposite way and find a different way of doing it. So failures can turn into successes, it’s just how the way you look at it.”

In the end, there’s nothing remarkable or extraordinary about what chef Josh Boutwood does. What’s remarkable and extraordinary is the man himself, his face glowing beneath the light of a warm kitchen lamp, as he lets the fullness of his element take hold.

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The Test Kitchen is located at 9780 Kamagong St., San Antonio Village, Makati City.