Gary Foulkes, head chef, The Square, Mayfair

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Gary Foulkes is head chef at Phil Howard’s revered two-Michelin-star restaurant, The Square. Gary grew up in Merseyside where he trained and took his first job at The Chester Grosvenor. From there jobs followed at Gary Rhodes’ Rhodes & Co in Manchester, Richard Neat’s at the Oxo tower in London , The Aubergine under William Drabble and The Vineyard at Stockcross under John Campbell before coming to The Square in 2005, where he quickly rose to sous chef and finally head chef in March 2013 after a two-year break to travel round the world. The Staff Canteen caught up with him to find how he’s coping and how his travels have influenced him as a chef.

You became head chef in March last year; how did that come about and how did it feel to be asked by Phil Howard?

I’d been here as sous chef for almost six years on and off then I left and went travelling for two years. Finishing travelling coincided with Rob, the head chef here, moving on so that’s when Phil asked me to come back as head chef. It felt great; I enjoy working with Phil and I love the food we cook here, so it was the natural step to take really.  

Two years travelling is a long time; was there a big culinary aspect to it?

Most of it really, it was a bit of a food odyssey if you like. Travel and food go together so well, you can’t really do one without the other. My wife and I went to some amazing places and had some amazing food and your eyes get opened to so many things.

Can you take us through a few of those places and things?

We started off in a camper van in Europe – in France, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy and Sicily. People think of Italian food as pretty generic like pizza and pasta and that’s about it, but there’s so much more to it than I think a lot of people realise, and that I realised at the time. We went to Nepal for a month then we went to India for six or seven months. I don’t think any other cuisine has been bastardised quite like Indian food, especially over here, but the food is so different over there. In the north there’s a lot of tandoor cooking and dry heat whereas down in the south it’s a lot of coconut, fish and fruit based cooking – there’s a massive difference between the two. From India we went to Myanmar. The food there is a bit of a mix between Thai and Indian and it’s amazing. You’d see the squid boats on the horizon at night time, fishing for squid by hand held lights and the next day you’d get a big plate of squid with chilli and tomato and avocado; it was just fab. We then went to Indonesia, Australia and Japan, which was probably my highlight of the whole trip food-wise. We ate at four three-star restaurants in Tokyo and a couple of two stars. The Japanese way of cooking is so precise; it’s so accurate; you can’t not be impressed –  it has the most intense flavours.

Coming back, did it strike you as a big step up from sous chef to head chef?

In one way yes but in another way no; I guess the biggest difference is that as head chef the buck stops with you so the element of responsibility is a lot greater, and also you’re more involved in writing menus, dish development and that kind of thing and becoming more of a manager as opposed to a doer. I think a good sous chef has to be a doer. He’s the one that has to make it happen, while the head chef needs to be directing people because you’re only as good as the weakest person in your team. I’d never have a kitchen full of egos and chefs who think they are superstars, that’s not how we run things here.

Which part of the role do you most enjoy?

Any chef becomes a chef because they love cooking so the most enjoyable part is the cooking – doing the prep in the morning, doing the service, seeing something come in the door in one form and going out the other door in another.

Do you find it hard being less hands-on now?

The head chef role here is a very hands-on role still. It’s not like a hotel or something where the head chef might be pushing paper around and living or dying by his GP. This restaurant is based on food, top end food, and that’s it, obviously paperwork and a little bit of number crunching comes into it, because it is at the end of the day a business, but cooking great food is what Phil and I are both about and more often than not we’re in the kitchen.

Phil is well-known as being a very hands-on chef; does that help you out?

Yes it always helps with stuff like dish creation to have someone like Phil around. He’s got the best palette in London in my opinion. He cooks very tasty, very elegant food and having spent a lot of time here as a sous chef under him and under Rob, who is also a fantastic cook, has taught me an awful lot.

Is it correct that one of the reasons you were brought in was to help make the food a touch more modern?

Yes I suppose so, as chefs Phil and I obviously come from different generations. I have a different technique to Phil’s but together I think they go really well. Obviously I’m naturally a more modern cook because I’m younger and different generations get influenced by different things. When I was training there was El Bulli and Thomas Keller’s food to admire. Twenty-five years ago I don’t think anyone could have dreamed that someone like Ferran Adriá would come along and flip everything on its head.

Do you see yourself opening your own place in the near future?

I think it’s a natural progression. I think everyone aspires to be their own boss one day. Having your own business gives you the life that you want to have with the business working for you and you working for the business, as opposed to being an employee all your life, so yes that’s the plan one day – unless I go and win the lottery in the meantime, then I’ll just go and live in the Maldives!

Is there any danger of the travelling bug kicking in again soon?

It’s always there but I try and get away as much as possible even if it’s just for the weekend to Madrid or Barcelona. Other than that I’m happy here doing what I’ve taken on. It was always going to be a long term project, my first head chef job, and I’m not the kind of person to do a year or eighteen months and then leave, that’s not who I am; I’ve never done that in my career, so no I’m not going to clear off and leave a job half done. View Gary's recipe for Foie Gras here View Gary's recipe for oyster bavarois here

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Editor 15th January 2014

Gary Foulkes, head chef, The Square, Mayfair