F&B

Josh Boutwood’s Alchemy—From The Test Kitchen to Savage

What should restaurateurs do after reaching a career peak? For Josh Boutwood, it’s reinvention

Photos by Jeeb Baldonado

Often, what follows a creative peak is pressure. Departing fresh from unanimous acclaim and on to the next restaurant or concept, the chef is asked a harrowing question: What now?

And whatever specific form this pressure takes on—stagnation, paralysis, a surplus of ideas—the ultimate test, it seems, is to never repeat oneself.

What has worked before may be detrimental the second time around. Iterations of what once was a novel idea are to be avoided because it is precisely novelty and the distinctive quality it entails that will save a concept from eventual obscurity. To not get lost in the crowd of new restaurants opening every week, it’s necessary to rebel against repetition.

The Savage team at work
Preparing the grilled corn with harissa and garlic emulsion

“I don’t believe that we should replicate ourselves in different locations,” says Josh Boutwood when asked about the differences between his new restaurant in Arya Plaza called Savage and its predecessor, The Test Kitchen. At Savage, Boutwood has performed an obvious alchemy: The 20 seats are upped to 60. Elaborate kitchen equipment are traded in for a lone three-meter grill. Complex cooking techniques have been stripped down, essentially, to grilling.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the dichotomy, to see The Test Kitchen as an emblem of hyper-refinement and Savage as its cruder, rougher antithesis. But to dwell on the external differences would be missing the most effective strategy at play at Savage: The way in which Boutwood and his team have reinvented themselves is actually less pointed and a lot subtler than the caveman paintings and the pre-industrial cooking methods would lead you to believe.

CREATING A ROBUST FLAVOR
Barramundi, Arugula, Preserved Lemon & Olives

The details of the strategy are in the food. It is the dishes, not the restaurant’s interiors or its established character, that let the diners in on the secret. “The goal was to create a robust flavor. The recipes should make up about 70 to 80 percent of the actual dish. The remaining 20 to 30 percent should really come from the aroma of the smoke from the grill,” explains Boutwood.

At Savage, Boutwood has performed an obvious alchemy: The 20 seats are upped to 60. Elaborate kitchen equipment are traded in for a lone three-meter grill. Complex cooking techniques have been stripped down, essentially, to grilling.

The deviled eggs with smoked oil and ash is deeply textured and has a pleasant pungency; the charred romaine with anchovy garlic dressing is refreshing in its smoky aftertaste; the flaky, salty barramundi is topped with preserved lemons and olives that cut through the dish’s fat and saltiness; the tuna jaw is tender, slightly sweet, and comes with a rich and complex miso emulsion; the sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream is simply inimitable—these dishes, while varying in their respective flavors, all possess a uniform bitterness, a robustness, that makes for a flavor profile unique to Savage.

Devilled Eggs, Smoked Oil & Ash
Tuna Jaw, Yeast, Miso

It’s a thing of its own, this flavor. It’s a breaching of the limits observed in The Test Kitchen where Boutwood and his team “relied solely on a few ingredients,” yet it bears the same commitment to detail, precision, and intentionality that defined Boutwood’s previous creations.

“For this restaurant, it was a little bit different because I don’t like to take the normal way of opening restaurants. There’s more heart and personality that went into this,” says Boutwood.

“It’s a different blueprint from The Test Kitchen, but we’re still sticking to what we believe is our triangular balance system, which is about ensuring that we’re able to get the dishes to be meeting the sour, salty, and sweet aspects that the palate subconsciously requires.”

Charred Romaine, Anchovy Garlic Dressing
Sticky Toffee Pudding & Vanilla Ice Cream

With Savage, Boutwood has indeed avoided repetition—but certain things remain the same. There is still an “addiction to challenges,” some markings of refinement (the plating will tell you as much), and a heightened sense of ambition to take on ostensible impossibilities and see how they pan out. It’s not a total departure from The Test Kitchen, exactly. His ideas about flavors and textures just took on a different medium, a different form. “An opportunity to really push myself to create two completely different styles of restaurants and cooking methods. Hopefully I can pull them both off simultaneously. Flawlessly.”

ON SOURCING LOCALLY AND REDUCING WASTE
On the grill: sourdough bread, tuna jaw, barramundi

Another thing the food will tell you: The inversion of previous tactics isn’t built solely on breaching limits and on simply not doing what was already done before. Probe the chef and his team further regarding the ingredients they use, for instance, and their answers will be proof enough of the kind of effort through which the Savage menu was built.

“We wanted to source locally as much as possible. Partly to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. With The Test Kitchen, it was different… I wasn’t afraid to import more ingredients, but here, I wanted to take a different approach. I’m not saying that a hundred percent of our ingredients here are local because I still have beef that comes in from the US. But the goal is that by the end of the first year anniversary, we’ll have about 80 percent of our complete menu set up to be locally sourced.”

Sourcing locally, Boutwood elaborates, is something that goes hand in hand with waste reduction and should eventually allow for the implementation of a zero-waste policy. The goal is more realistic as it sounds, partly because Boutwood is aware of the complications. “It will take the participation of suppliers and producers, and all of these other factors to ensure that we get that zero waste up to a hundred percent. Right now, I think we’re only covering 83, 85 percent of that goal. So as early as now, we’re sourcing out metal straws, we’re trying to reduce the amount of plastic that our suppliers are giving us, and we’re keeping our composting system in check.”

ON SETTING UP RESTAURANTS AND THE FUTURE
Boutwood preparing the grilled barramundi

The Bistro Group (for which Boutwood works as the corporate chef) opens more or less a dozen restaurants every year. Despite that intimidating number, the process of opening these restaurants is actually quite simple because of the systems that naturally exist within a commercial organization. Savage isn’t like any of these restaurants—it’s not something that relied on those systems. “For this restaurant, it was a little bit different because I don’t like to take the normal way of opening restaurants. There’s more heart and personality that went into this,” says Boutwood.

It’s a thing of its own, this flavor. It’s a breaching of the limits observed in The Test Kitchen where Boutwood and his team “relied solely on a few ingredients,” yet it bears the same commitment to detail, precision, and intentionality that defined Boutwood’s previous creations.

The period of conceptualization and execution of the idea that is Savage took over a year. Perhaps it’s only really a personal project that allows for this much customization, for this amount of space for reinvention, which, again, in Boutwood’s case, is done with the intention to avoid replication while simultaneously retaining his core values.

These two things (especially the latter) are evident in the way he thinks and talks about each of his restaurants—they’re always considered in reference to each other so that there’s continuity, there’s a link that connects The Test Kitchen to Savage, and Savage to whatever project will come next.

“Downstairs, we have a concept that will come into fruition very soon. Although we’re kind of keeping it wrapped up a little bit as we don’t want to disclose what we’re doing quite yet, the concept is going to be kind of the alter ego to Savage. It’s leaning more towards The Test Kitchen side, but it’s not exactly The Test Kitchen. Readers will just have to try to connect the dots to figure out what I’m doing.”

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