What I've Learned: Phil Howard

Phil Howard trained under the Roux brothers and Marco Pierre White before opening his own restaurant, The Square, aged just 24. Last year, he walked away from two Michelin stars and 25 years in charge to open the brand new Elystan Street instead. Here, the chef reflects on what his time in the kitchen has taught him.

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That first Michelin star [at The Square] was completely out of the blue. There was no signal. We just hadn't set any goals. But once you've got one, you realise that perhaps the right thing to do is to try and get the second star. And then that is super special because the second one really does separate you out. And in those days, there were only two or three of us in London.

I started cooking at university, which was in Canterbury, Kent. My mum armed me with three recipes and it just consumed me from the get-go. I knew from the moment I picked up the pan that it was going to be my meaning in life.

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My last meal would be pretty straightforward: crab salad followed by steak and chips, followed by a chocolate brownie and vanilla ice cream. What is it about that kind of thing? But in a very straightforward way, that cliché 3-course meal delivers the ultimate kind of eating experience.

I wish I'd had more training, just to broaden the repertoire. The reality is that once you're running a kitchen, the rate at which you can learn decreases rapidly because you're just so bogged down in other stuff..

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My favourite ingredient is probably an onion. It is just the base of so many different things.

Everyone asks, 'why has Tokyo, or Japan, got so many 3-star restaurants?' And chefs, including me, are very quick to say, 'well they haven't got to fucking do anything – they get a piece of raw fish, shove it on a plate, some wasabi, some soy and there it is. How hard can it be?' But of course that's being pretty crass about it. Japan has a kitchen hierarchy that is concrete. And you cannot fast track through that process – you have to go through it in order to get to the top. That's why I choose to think, 'why has Japan got so many outstanding restaurants? Well because it's got so many good craftsmen.'

The River Café is my favourite restaurant. Its cooking philosophy is impeccable, it sources the most wonderful ingredients, it doesn't fuck around with them too much. The food is delicious.

I want bums on seats. First and foremost this is a business, so my pet peeve is people who make a booking and don't come and put their bum on a seat. That's irritating: no shows.

The things that tend to stop me in my tracks are all very simple. Every now and then you put something in your mouth and go, 'shit, that's good.' And it doesn't often happen, but it's never some complex, innovative little titbit that some über chef has produced; it's normally a beautiful piece of protein or an immaculately done vegetable dipped in a dressing, or something simple.

You're only as powerful as your team.

If you stick within the seasons, nature has this magical gift of producing ingredients that have a natural affinity with each other.

It's all about pleasure. An increasing number of chefs want to shock, or to intrigue, or be innovative. It's the same with artists: some artists want to paint watercolour and some people want to put dots on a page, and we're all different. I want people to come back to Elystan Street because they just can't help themselves because their stomach says, 'that's where I want to go,' not because they want to show somebody this amazing new chef who's cooking 'clever' things.

Don't freeze white truffle. It's an expensive lesson to learn.

I went for dinner at Harvey's, where Marco Pierre White was, and it was a real lights-on moment in life where you suddenly think, 'wow, there's a whole other level.' But working there was ridiculous – somebody was sacked every day, pretty much.

You cook food without salt, it's going to be underwhelming no matter who's doing it. That's just fact.

I think people like Jamie Oliver are immense. I rate him hugely as a cook. I think what he's done for this country is phenomenal.

I grew up in South Africa, in Johannesburg, and there was no food scene there. The food was basic, rough beyond belief. My memories were of biltong, which is a delicious thing.

I don't need to achieve anything else. There was a load of hard work along the way but it's the truth. I don't feel I've got anything to prove to myself or anybody else.

Also sample Phil Howard's food at Royal Ascot's fine dining restaurant, On 5, this week.

For more information, visit ascot.co.uk.