In Josh Boutwood’s cooking, time is an ingredient

Published November 26, 2020, 2:46 PM

by AA Patawaran

The Test Kitchen throws a special dinner celebrating its first anniversary in its new location at One Rockwell

In November last year, Josh Boutwood’s The Test Kitchen moved to a new, better location at One Rockwell in Makati. It wasn’t only a change of address, the chef also decided upon moving to shift from its original tasting menu concept to a la carte.

But many other things changed for the better, such as the interior design and the lighting. In its two-story, loft-style space, with the open kitchen on the ground floor, a temperature-controlled a charcuterie and curing room on the upper floor, limited seating, and lighting that infuses the atmosphere with intimacy, if not even romance, the Test Kitchen feels very special, every visit a special occasion.

BISTRO KING Chef Josh Boutwood pre-pandemic

Last week, Josh invited a select number of friends to celebrate a particularly special milestone, The Test Kitchen’s first anniversary in its new location, particularly special because, as you know, for over eight months of the past year, we have been through the worst crisis we have ever had to go through since World War II—this ongoing pandemic and the resultant lockdowns and quarantines, which necessitated the closure of practically every establishment not only in the Philippines but all over the world.

Josh tries not to think about life before the pandemic. “I’ve been training myself not to think about the pre-Covid times,” he told me and K-Posh co-founder Monique Madsen, who was my date for the anniversary dinner.“This has enabled me to perhaps keep a fresh outlook on the dining scene.”

The good news is since the complete lockdown in March, Josh and his team have seen a steady growth of dine-in guests. The chef considers it a happy challenge to welcome diners, who would confess to him that their visit to The Test Kitchen was their first time to eat out since the beginning of the quarantine. “I take a lot of pride in having them join us for dinner for the first time since March as it shows confidence in what we are doing to ensure we keep a safe and clean dining area while still maintaining the dining experience,” he beams.

Now more than ever, restaurants are no longer just places to fill an empty void in our appetite. They have transformed into a place we go to in search of a sense of normality.’

It wasn’t my first, but it was Monique’s first or second time out in a crowd. If she had gone out before this Test Kitchen anniversary dinner, it would be with the same people, a small circle of her closest friends. But at Josh’s dinner, spotted were a lot of familiar faces, though many of them we both had not seen in person since before March, the likes of designers Rajo Laurel and Nix Alañon, chefs Margarita Fores and Angelo Comsti.

And was it worth it!

We were given a cocktail welcome of what looked and tasted like a well-thought-out gin and tonic, the house G&T garnished with cucumber lemon and pink peppercorns, just to get us ready for the parade of appetizers, including activated charcoal-cured salmon with preserved lemon, zucchini, and mint and some handmade charcuterie such as pig trotter, Iberico pork belly, and black pepper salami. The house sourdough, of course, should not be missed. Special mention must be made of the beef tartare, a work of art on the plate and a bomb on the palate (and only P560 on the new menu!), my favorite of the evening served with an egg yolk gel and in a wafer-thin pastry crunch.

COLD CUTS AND BREAD Handmade charcuterie plus the sourdough

There were many special things in each of the dishes, but nothing more special than time. “Our mantra in this concept has always been that ‘time is an ingredient,’” explains Josh. “When we opened the Test Kitchen, we began a lengthy journey of preserving a multitude of ingredients. We wanted to incorporate as much of those very first ingredients we preserved in the menu for the anniversary, like the one-year-old preserved lemons, the local green peppercorns from Cavite that we preserved for a year, and the local pork, which we use in our charcuterie program. We also sought the help of some our friends and suppliers, such as Hightower, Pacific Bay, and Wine Warehouse, which generously contributed ingredients and wines for us to use.”

If we stopped at the appetizers, the meal would have been memorable enough, but we had to give way to the mains—monkfish tail served with guanciale and chives, followed by beef short ribs drizzled with a wild mushroom sauce.

TEST SEAFOOD Monkfish tail with guanciale and chives

Josh strikes me as very intense, like a philosopher in a toque. In his eyes, you can see his brain working. I’d like to think of what he serves on the table not only as products of time but also as products of deep reflections. And, of course, Josh has been deep in thought about how the pandemic has changed the way we eat. While he did say that he tries his very best not to divide time between what lay before Covid-19 and what lies after, he does sense how things have changed. “Now more than ever, restaurants are no longer just places to fill an empty void in our appetite. They have transformed into a place we go to in search of a sense of normality,” he tells me. “I keep in mind that guests are more conscious now of the overall experience than before.”

Nor has it been easy for Josh and any of his team. “Cooking in a pandemic is hard. Obviously, we work in very hot kitchens,” he says.“The mask impedes our ability to taste regularly and so we rely on intuition more than ever. Yet we won’t complain. We must all play the part in order to reach the light at the end of this tunnel sooner rather than later.”

If not for the pandemic, which he believes will “stay with us for quite some time,” Josh Boutwood would have opened two additional restaurants this year. Meanwhile, he draws from this crisis lessons on how to set up kitchens, how to serve up dishes, how to stay in tune with what might bring people pleasure or distraction or rewards in a world that is increasingly fraught with challenges.

Taking a sip from my third refill of red wine, I would have engaged the chef in a more pensive discussion of what lay ahead, but it was time for dessert and one spoonful of vanilla ice cream with almond crumble and chocolate mousse, not to mention a bite of passion fruit tart with tamarillo gelée, was enough to make me forget there was a conversation, let alone a pandemic, going on. Oh and don’t forget the old-fashioned toffee for your last bite.

The Test Kitchen is at G/F One Rockwell, Rockwell Drive, Rockwell Center, Makati City.