10 minutes with: Ian Howard

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th March 2015
As the head chef of one of Virgin’s Limited Edition locations, Ian Howard has a high standard to maintain. Ian and his team at Babylon Restaurant, situated at The Roof Gardens in Kensington, pride themselves on making all guests feel like the star not just the celebrity faces who regularly frequent this unique place. The Staff Canteen spoke to Ian about his career, food style and the beehives on the roof! rooftop gardens low resI had heard a lot about the The Roof Gardens before my first visit and I had high expectations after hearing stories that they have real flamingos hidden among the foliage. I wasn’t disappointed! The garden’s themselves are impressive, and jumping in the lift to Babylon Restaurant on the next floor I was equally impressed with the view of the capital from this vantage point. But a good view doesn’t guarantee good food – that’s down to the produce, the kitchen itself and the 16 chefs, as Ian Howard explained. Since starting at Babylon he has completely spun the kitchen around and upgraded it, he’s also increased the number in his brigade. He said: “Every chef has a way they like their kitchen to run and when I started it just wasn’t flowing the way I like it to. I changed everything around which was quite scary for the brigade at the time – but I’ve not changed it since then. “The amount of equipment I’ve been allowed to buy since starting is a huge emphasis on Virgin and The Roof Gardens and how the business is run. They really back you, obviously it’s not a blank cheque, but if you can justify it they will accommodate you. It makes a big difference, just for the working environment alone – it makes us an attractive employer.Virgin Limited Edition “A lot of young chefs are looking now to cook great food, have a bit of a life balance and work in a nice environment – which I think I’ve managed to create while being here.” He added: “The volume of what we do has increased significantly since it first opened so the kitchen had to be right. In our peak summer times we do between 1800 and 2000 covers a week, which is a lot for a 120 cover restaurant.” Ian got into cooking as part of a youth training scheme in 1988, based in a small hotel just outside Portsmouth he spent five years there before moving on to the Marriott in Portsmouth, leaving there as a sous chef. “Working in the small hotel when I started out was a brilliant environment to learn in,” explained Ian. “It had a bit of everything and the chef took the time to nurture and teach me. I would work all day every day and in the afternoons if there wasn’t any prep to do we’d order in whole fish, whole pheasants, and turkeys at Christmas time and butcher the whole thing down. “For me it’s about choosing the right place to start learning as a young chef. London is so busy and so business driven, that the time you need to train and teach people unless you have the infrastructure of the staff you can still do it but it’s not always the case so people need to look at that when coming in to the industry.” Heading to London aged 24 for a stage at the Hilton Park Lane, Ian says ‘the big smoke was calling’ and for him it was the attraction of the best restaurants and hotels in the country. He said: “It’s changing now, there are more and more outside of London such as Le Manoir, but back in the day if you wanted to be in the best places it was London or nothing. Virgin Limited Edition“Once I got to London and experienced the 5 star hotels and the standard of food, I wished I had done it earlier.” Ian honed his skills at The Savoy, The Landmark London, The Belvedere and Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones’ private members club The Harrington. “That was a bizarre place,” explained Ian. “The amount of money that was spent on the project blew everyone’s mind!” He added: “Working in the River Restaurant kitchen at the Savoy under Anton Edelmann, which was by far the hardest job I’ve ever had. The daily pressure of what you had to do – there were never enough hours in the day. It was a tough environment and an aggressive kitchen at that time. “It was set up as an old style, hierarchy kitchen – there were 16 of us working as sous chefs and we would just run from section to section.” Before making the move to Babylon Ian was working as head chef for Gary Rhodes at the Cumberland Hotel which he had done the set up for. He said: “Gary was always in and out of the kitchen, as time went on I was doing more and more of the menu myself although Gary was still very much involved. “After three years I was ready to move on and in 2009 I came here.” While being at Babylon Ian has introduced the seafood terrace and the winter terrace, which offers hot baked cheeses, so the outside space is now used all year. Ian said: “There used to be a barbeque on the terrace – I wanted a seafood bar and it took a few years and I had to persuade a few people that it was the right thing to do but the sales speak for themselves.Virgin Limited Edition “It’s run as a separate section and all the chefs want to work it in the summer time!” At Babylon they serve modern English/European dishes, so an Italian risotto may include a crown prince squash from the farm they use in Kent. Ian said: “We use as many local ingredients as possible and sustainable, as we are in the Sustainable Restaurant Association. We have three stars which is a very important factor for both me and the company. “I like the team to meet the suppliers, so I’ll take them to Colchester to see where the oysters come from for example.” He added: “That’s what drives the menu changes so what’s in season, what’s good quality and what’s local..” So after six years at Babylon does Ian have a signature dish? “I think of signature dishes as something the customer comes back for or requests,” said Ian. “Don’t get me wrong some chefs, like Gary Rhodes for example do have their own dish – he had steak and kidney pudding and that would be on the menu of every restaurant he opened.” Virgin Limited EditionBecause Ian received such good training and nurturing he likes to provide this for his own chefs, so for example during game season he likes to get a selection of game birds on the feather and gets the team to prepare them. He said: “We go in the gardens and pluck them, guests have been out there while chefs are on the benches plucking birds. It’s almost having that country restaurant environment because we have the gardens outside. We have beehives on the roof and we have our own home made honey, which we use in the cooking – it’s on our Jerusalem artichoke dish at the moment. And the chefs are always out in the garden collecting fresh herbs, or strawberries, when they are in season.” Sustaining a high standard is Ian’s key focus now, he said: “I want to try and keep it as fresh and different as we can every year. Coming up with new concepts and dishes where we can to integrate into what we do already is key to this. It’s about personal standards and maintaining those.” By Cara Houchen @canteencara
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 6th March 2015

10 minutes with: Ian Howard