Eating In: Table manners

There are too many chefs throwing tantrums these days, says Michael Bateman. Happily Philip Howard isn't one of them. His style may be unassuming, but the results are exceptional

WHAT kind of a modern chef does Philip Howard call himself? He's never been seen on television food gameshows cracking eggs and jokes. He doesn't throw pots, pans and insults at his staff. He doesn't stride out of the kitchen to eject diners from their seats.

So what sort of a modern chef is he? Well, very unassuming, but nevertheless one of the top dozen in the country. Though only 32, he actually believes his place is in the kitchen, improving his cooking skills - skills which rate a considerable eight out of 10 in The Good Food Guide and which have won him two rosettes in the Michelin guide.

Unusually for such a high flier, Philip is Anglo- Saxon through and through. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and moved to Connecticut in the US before his parents settled in London. However, it wasn't until he went to university (to read microbiology at the University of Kent) that he had even the faintest idea of pursuing a career in food.

It was there, while sharing digs with two mature students, that he started to cook. "It's one of those things. I really enjoyed it, minute in, minute out," he says. Cooking may be an art but it is very much a scientific process, too, and his course work fed his passion.

Take one example: salt - the most used (and abused) ingredient in the kitchen. It alters the taste and character of everything. If you understand the chemistry you'll know when to use it while frying onions. Salt draws out moisture, so if you sprinkle it on onions when you begin to fry them, it makes them sweat. The moisture evaporates more quickly and they will sweeten without colouring (starches in the onion turn to sugar).

Conversely, fry your onions without salt and they will quickly seal in the heat, crisp up and brown. Then you add the salt at the end as seasoning. A tiny change of method leading to very different results.

His parents, who had paid up handsomely for "20 years of extremely expensive, posh education" were bemused when he said he wanted to cook. But they introduced him to a family who had a chateau in the Dordogne, and he cooked there for one lovely summer. He was hooked.

A year's travel in Thailand, Indonesia and Australia strengthened his resolve. On his return, he wrote to the best restaurants and Albert Roux gave him a job in their City catering division. A year later he took his wife to dinner at Harvey's, where Marco Pierre White was performing his miracles. "I had never eaten a better meal. At the end Marco came out of the kitchen to talk to the guests, and I asked him whether I could have a job."

He had an inspirational year working with Marco and spent the third educative year of his self-imposed "university course" at Bibendum with Simon Hopkinson. All this hard work paid off when Marco introduced him to Nigel Platts-Martin, who set him up at The Square. Four years later, he won his first Michelin star.

Philip describes his style as straightforward, but he means straightforward as in classic French cuisine. Sourcing ingredients is his passion, and he claims to have more suppliers than any chef in town. "If you buy outstanding ingredients, cook them with some finesse and put them in posh surroundings, people will give you the benefit of the doubt," he says, with unnecessary modesty.

His strawberry jelly is a perfect example of how delicious a simple recipe can be.To make it, simply put 500g (1lb) whole strawberries into a bowl, add 250ml (8fl oz) water and 125g (412oz) sugar and stir. Cover with clingfilm or a lid and set over a pan of simmering water for two hours. Poured through a sieve, this will yield 400ml (14fl oz) of juice. Soften the three leaves of gelatine in cold water and add to the strawberry liquor. Chill until set.

PHILIP HOWARD'S TOP TIPS

POACHING EGGS: Break the egg into a cup of vinegar and leave for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and then poach in simmering water. The vinegar hardens the protein in the white of the egg, keeping it compact and dense.

MASHING POTATOES: For more flavoursome mashed potatoes, buy large potatoes and bake them, unpeeled, on a bed of coarse salt until the skins are crisp. Scoop out the centres and mash with warm milk and butter in the usual way.

KEEPING PUReES GREEN: Prevent chive oil, avocado puree, apple sorbet or apple juice from turning brown by adding a powdered Vitamin C tablet to the blend. It acts on the chlorophyll to stop it from oxidising.

USING UP CHEESE: For tasty appetisers, mash up any left-over cheeses in a blender with an egg yolk or two, spread on to thin rounds of toasted day-old baguette and grill.

FRESH HERBS: If your stir-fry lacks flavour, finish it with a handful of chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, coriander and basil. It will immediately jump into life.

SALAD NICOISE

Serves 4

350g/14oz tuna loin, trimmed into cylinders 3cm/112in across

4 golf ball-sized tomatoes on the vine

80g/3oz green beans

12 anchovy fillets

1 dessertspoon of tapenade (black olive paste)

8 new potatoes

4 eggs

50g/2oz mixed salad

2 tablespoons French dressing (1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil)

salt & pepper

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, crushed

Blanch the tomatoes, stalks on, for 10 seconds in boiling water. Peel, season and drizzle with olive oil. Season the tuna and cook very briefly in olive oil in a hot pan (the centre should remain raw), and cut into eight slices. Cook the green beans in boiling, salted water until tender. Refresh under running water and reserve. Cook the new potatoes in salted water, allow to cool slightly, peel carefully, drizzle with the dressing and allow to sit. Cook the eggs in boiling water for seven minutes exactly, refresh under running water and peel carefully - they will not be fully hard-boiled. Cut in half and season.

To serve

Place the ingredients as follows, in the style of a clock face: place the tomato at the top of the plate, then put a dessertspoonful of tapenade, then half an egg, then a slice of tuna, then a little bundle of green beans, then a potato, then anchovies, the other half egg, another potato, and finally the second slice of tuna. Mix the garlic, shallots and dressing together, mix some with the salad leaves and place in the centre of each plate. Drizzle the remainder around the edge of each plate. Serve immediately.

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