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Chef features and interviews

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Jon Howe Chef/Patron Lumiere Cheltenham

Jon Howe has been chef patron of restaurant Lumiere Cheltenham since 2009, when he bought the establishment. Having studied catering at Bath College he then began an apprenticeship with respected chef Stuart McLeod at Washbourne Court in the Cotswolds, a three-rosette restaurant.  He then worked at a series of top award-winning restaurants, including Lord of the Manor in Upper Slaughter, Castle House Hotel in Hereford, The Greyhound in Stockbridge, The Three Crowns in Ullingswick and also the internationally famous Fat Duck in Bray and The Greenhouse in London. He took his first head chef job at the age of 25 at The Three Crowns in Ullingswick in Herefordshire. He not only trained under Stuart McLeod but some of the finest chefs in the country, most notably John Campbell and Heston Blumenthal. 

In his first year at the restaurant Jon was runner-up in the Cotswold Life magazine's Chef of the Year competition. Lumière then won the magazine's Restaurant of the Year category for the following two years. Jon has also competed in the TV contest Britain’s Best Dish 2011 where he served sandy and black pork loin with Cheltenham beetroot and a ham hock and smoked eel lasagne, served with onion puree and Italian black cabbage.

Jon, wonderful to come and see you both. Tell us how long you've been in your current role here at Lumiere and give us a little overview of the business, what you're hoping to achieve, what your goals are and just a little bit of background for us.

We, myself & my partner Helen, bought the restaurant in January 2009, so it will be three years this January. It is the first time that we have worked together, and the first time that Helen has worked in the industry, so it was a very big step to buy a fine dining restaurant in the middle of a recession with a Biomedical Scientist as my front of house manager, but I felt it was the right time to step out on my own and be the head chef in my own restaurant.

Our aim for Lumiere, was to create a restaurant which we would love to go to; Fantastic food - local, seasonal, something which is a little bit different, a friendly atmosphere & great service. Cheltenham is a great location for us & we have a wonderfully diverse mix of customers; anyone from young couples on a first date to our more mature guests who have eaten everywhere, to our local regulars or tourists drawn to the area for one of the festivals or the beautiful Cotswolds.

 What are your goals for the business? Where do you want to be in two or three years' time?

I'd like to be full every service, really that's the main aim of the business is to make some money. I'd like to have a new kitchen by then, hopefully that is in the pipeline for the beginning of next year. And yes, we'd like some recognition in some way, shape or form.

We've been here almost three years and I was runner up in reader nominated, Cotswold Life Food and Drink Awards for Chef of the Year 2009, just 5 months after we have opened.

Fantastic.

And we have won Cotswold Life's Restaurant of the Year for two years running now.

Brilliant.

So locally we've got a really good reputation and we'd like to take that to the next level and have a national reputation.

We've had some great reviews too" Giles Coren for The Times, various bloggers including The Critical Couple on Twitter.

They're becoming very influential now aren't they?

Oh yes, the amount of business we've got off the back of they're review is fantastic and also the networking opportunities it brings. It's been great to see the likes of Greg (Anderson) from Restaurant Fraiche, Mark (Birchall) from L'Enclume who have all have come in and they've been in the area and had lunch with us, it is great to have chefs who are working in top restaurants that that come in and see what we do and hopefully they enjoyed it.

Absolutely I mean there's been a lot on Twitter the negativity of blogs and so on but I think they're very powerful and there's a big audience there.

Well yeah, the blogs it's one person's, or like the Critical Couple there's two persons' opinion, whereas the guide is kind of a bit more of a general consensus. But also blogs are so instant - they have a great or not so great meal one day and it's there for everyone to read next, where as the guides are much more of a snapshot of how everything was over the last year.

But it's the world we live in now isn't it?

Everything's so subjective.

Everyone's a food critic now.

Yeah everyone's a food critic which makes it paramount for us as a business that every customer in the restaurant is treated as a food critic. The one that's going to make or break a business, especially as it's our business now and I'm not working for someone else, there's that added pressure on to deliver every single time which hopefully we do.

Now let's talk about your food then Jon I mean whilst I don't want to ever pigeonhole anything what would you say is your food style, the genre of your food, how would you describe it?

My food is very much driven by the seasons & produce that is available to me, I talk to my suppliers on a daily basis to see what is at its best at the moment or coming in/going out of season focusing on strong clear flavours with some interesting twists & fun thrown in for good measure.

To pigeonhole it I would say we defiantly fall into the modern British fine dining category but the food is hopefully quiet individual and personal to me and the restaurant.

Talk us through a dish that's on your menu at the moment then that maybe best describes the food that you're doing?

On our main course we've got a veal sirloin which is from a local farm, Butts Farm in south Cerny just outside Cirencester.

What's the reception to veal is it good?

It's been great, its probably our best selling main course on the menu and it's the main course on the tasting menu at the moment, again which is introducing people to something they might not necessarily have at home and there's the whole Jay Rayner's pushing veal. It's British, reared on the farm just down the road, raised with its mother, well looked after, all grass & milk fed, it's just a fantastic product, really lovely flavour.

So how is the dish servered?

We've got a pearl barley, parsley and garlic risotto, some spinach, the sirloin's sous vide and then chargrilled just to finish, black garlic purée, a smoked rapeseed and watercress oil, artichokes, baby carrots and salt-baked celeriac. So something a little bit different"¦

Sounds fantastic.

"¦the smoked oil working with the chargrilled of the veal and then the quite punchy, powerful, parsley and garlic on the pearl barley seems to be very well received at the moment.

It sounds really nice. You say you've been here three years and you're obviously running your own business what do you think has been your biggest learning curve to date?

Definitely the first six months here was a massive, massive learning curve. Obviously Helen didn't come from the industry either so everything had to be started from scratch. The back of house work has probably been the worst bit, the paperwork, VAT, staff contracts, compliance with this, that and the other.

Which no one really teaches you do they? You're in at the deep end, sink or swim type of thing was it?

When I was at the Greyhound in Stockbridge I was head chef/general manager but the systems and everything were very much in place. There was an accountant in place but then to take it all on yourself and you do everything in house, accounts everything, is a massive amount of work, people don't understand that.  We've had a couple of friends that have kind of fallen by the wayside because we're 24/7, 365 and the business is the most important thing at the moment, hopefully we'll get to a stage where everything will be a little bit easier but we don't want it to be too easy otherwise I think you're not pushing and progressing.

But without those foundations you'll never get there will you so it's important.

Absolutely, we've got the foundations set now and we've got to a stage where we can concentrate more on what we're doing within the restaurant rather than in the office.  We've got a great network of suppliers now which took some time to get up; the previous owners were very different to what we're doing, they weren't local supplier based at all. I had a group of suppliers that I'd used before, which we brought in but yes getting to know the local suppliers, getting them to know me, the specs, everything that we wanted all takes time.

It takes time to build that rapport up, their understanding of you.

Yes, for example the guys that supply the veal it took us almost two years to find them and going through probably ten local butchers, spending hours with them with specs and then first delivery comes in and it's, "That's not what I told you I want," I just want very specific things, it's got to be right and the guys at Butts Farm do that.

That's what you're paying for.

Yes.

Okay what do you feel has been your greatest success to date in the three years that you've been here and it can be a dish, an accolade whatever you want it to be really?

It's probably three things I would say on that, one would be the Giles Coren review that we had November last year I think which was really good and brought in a huge amount of business for us, second would be winning the Cotswold Life Restaurant of the Year for the second year running. I didn't think in any way shape or form we'd get"¦

Three, still being here & still speaking to each other!

So you've got national and local press there which is great isn't it? You're hitting both markets.

Yeah Cotswold Life has got a massive circulation and it's great for us but I didn't think we'd win it two years in a row.

I hear you nearly missed the call? ((laughs))

Yeah. One of our members of staff had gone awol and our category was next so I'd had to go and find them and it's kind of"¦

"˜And the winner is"¦ he's in the loo' ((laughs)).

Which was interesting. Yeah that was a good night that was good and then the Critical Couple review as well going back to bloggers which was absolutely fantastic it blew me away what they thought of what we were doing. It's just nice to get some kind of feedback.

Yeah one thing about the Critical Couple is they're always very honest in what they write.

Yes.

Okay what's been your biggest frustration then about being head chef or running your own business? What makes you pull your hair out the most?

Again going back to suppliers not providing what they promised they're going to provide. Same as everybody else we've had issues with staff, been through a lot of staff. We're quite lucky now we've got a good, stable team, all very young, I think our average age is only 24!

It's always the way though it's quite painful to get there isn't it?

Yeah we've been through people that have worked here, worked there, worked at one star, two star, three star. Done this, that and the other but haven't really cut the mustard as it were with what we're doing, whether it's because there are only two of us in the kitchen and there's no hiding. Everything is made here, everything goes through my hands, everybody has to take responsibility for what they're doing.

I just think that generally there's just a big problem with staff nationally not just here but I think everyone is always struggling with staff.

Yeah you're absolutely right I read some statistic the other day that there's something on an annual basis, 50,000 job vacancies in the UK for chefs"¦

Yeah I can well imagine.

"¦which just seems staggering.

I think everyone wants to progress too quickly, the same as with us when we started the business we had to get the foundations right, I think as a chef you've got to get your foundations in place - and that takes time. Yes, we use sous vide and things like that now but you need to have the basics I think, the classic cooking methods, honed skills and some experience because if something goes wrong you've got to be able to pull it out of the bag and I think too many people come out of college and they think they should go straight in as chef de partie, they don't want to do two years as commis and demi chef de partie and get that training and get that level, they just seem to want to rise up through the ranks so quickly which I think is a big problem and I think it's almost as a result of the whole celebrity chef type of thing, it's been really good for the industry in some ways

Yeah it's a two-edged sword isn't it?

Yeah, its great that so many young people want to be a part of the industry but in some ways I think it's kind of hampered it they want to be head chef at 22, when being a head chef isn't just about being a great cook but being able to lead a team and develop your own ideas.

Yeah everybody wants to be Gordon Ramsey but they don't want to put the work in.

When I was out of college we were working silly hours, silly days a week, which you can't do any more so obviously again that's a challenge for us.

So once you've got good staff then how important is it to keep hold of them, nurture them and train them and mould them into what you need?

It's really important, like Helen with front of house, her young girl Emma she watched the Michel Roux service programme.

Which was one of the best programmes I've seen on TV in a long time.

Yeah it was great and she watched that and she was a kitchen hand in Cheltenham Ladies' College but it kind of inspired her to want to do her NVQ, her service, and everything, so she came to us just after that, she's just finished her NVQ2 in service and is going on to her NVQ3 but her learning curve has been huge as well, probably as steep as what ours were when we took over the restaurant.

And I guess there's a great deal of satisfaction in watching that as well?

Yeah it is at the beginning she was just any typical 18 year old but now she's just grown up and matured so much and the customers love her. The same in in the kitchen Dwain hasn't come from any kind of background but just has the enthusiasm and everything to want to learn and push on, push forward with us and try and take the business as far as we can take it and he's learning every day. I try to learn something every day as well and it's just that continual learning process, whether it's tasting wines, whether it's trying a new technique, a new dish"¦

So you're evolving all the time, moving forward.

Yeah and the menu changes, it could change daily, it just depends if we put dishes and it doesn't work, it doesn't sell, it comes off, something else comes into season and there again the tasting menu's very good for that if you've got good suppliers and something comes in and it's, "I've got ten of these," it's no good putting it on the menu for the week but using it on the tasting menu and when it's gone it's gone and just keeping that fluidity and keeping everything evolving and moving rather than, "There you go there's our menu for the season," because seasons aren't that set.

It's different, you know, years ago it was autumn, spring, summer, winter, wasn't it? Now so many things are changing, there's so much more produce available that those four seasons are almost non-existent any more. I mean they're still there but menus change much more frequently.

Yeah it does, like for example we use Johnny down at the Flying Fish in Looe and it's a daily phone call and it's, "What's good today? What have you bought?"

And he's telling you bad jokes isn't he?

Yeah he's trying to get a laugh. We've got a table for the French Laundry pop up at Harrods and he's desperately trying to come with us. He's like, "Put it up to a four, put it up to a four," "I've tried but they are fully booked" I was on the phone to America, the Napa Valley for an hour trying to get it up to a four but we can't do it but yeah I've known Johnny ever since I've been in the trade.

He's done very well.

Yes it's quite scary how he's kind of almost taken over supplying everything from Sat Bains down, anything that's of any standard.

Last question for you then Jon you've kind of covered it a little bit but in an ideal world where do you and the restaurant want to be in five years' time?

As far forward as we possibly can be.

Where is that though? What is far forward? Is it accolades, is it you not doing the hours that you're doing? Is it full lunch and dinner? Was is that success measurement?

Yeah I want to be full lunch and dinner primarily, get the massive bank loan paid off and every day everything becomes that little bit easier. Hopefully in January we're going to have a new kitchen, fingers crossed, as long as everything pans out.

You want the bank loan paid off ((laughs))?

Yeah.

But I guess that's going to simplify things.

Yeah the kitchen was put in 12 years ago by the previous owners. We've made it work for us but going forward to take anything much further I mean obviously if we do get the higher level of business then we'd need to have an extra body in the kitchen and the way it's set up at the moment would make it very difficult to work like that so we need the kitchen and again be able to make us take another step forward, another step up and there's a few other little tweaks we want to do in the dining room, just little bits and bobs, nothing too major. I think that was part of the worry when we took over the business initially three years ago was not changing anything too quickly and alienating anybody else but now we're very much established, everyone knows what we do and it's kind of push changes and pushing it forward that little bit more. And ultimately yeah accolades would be great but at the end of the day we're customer driven. As long as our customers are happy, as long as there's money in the bank that's where we want to be, what we want to be doing.

I've said this time and time again the more people I speak to, the more they're cooking for their customers, the more the accolades come.

Mm yeah I think people that go chasing"¦

Thinking, "˜The guides want this, the guides want that,' I think that's the wrong way of doing it, it's worrying about what your customer wants and looking after them.

Well it's like when we took over the restaurant it had two rosettes from the AA we've been in contact with them numerous times saying, "Would you like to come and see what we're doing?" blah, blah, blah and they haven't been to see us in almost three years. Initially that really annoyed me, really worried me because it's like all of a sudden you go from a national recognised standard to nothing and it's kind of, "Is this going to affect the business?" and again that's a real personal worry but it hasn't affected us.

But probably three rosettes would put you in a different category"¦

Yeah it would but I don't think it's the be all and end all

"¦and it would make you more visible to a certain type of clientele?

Yeah but if they don't want to come and see us they don't want to come and see us we have done our part in contacting them and sending them everything they ask for, so really the balls in there court, we are far to busy to be chasing them every 5 minutes.

We have entries in Hardens, The Good Food Guide & of course Michelin so its not like we are totally unrepresented on a national level.

Sure.

Like I said we're cooking for the customers and everything so if they want to come in they come in.

Well I think that's a great philosophy and I wish you every success and thank you very much for your time. Thank you very much.

No problem Mark & thank you for coming to see us.