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Chef features and interviews

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Jon Howe Chef/Patron Lumiere Cheltenham

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,"