Marking His Territory: An Origin Story on The Test Kitchen’s Josh Boutwood

When Josh Boutwood left icy Sweden for warmer climes, he had no idea he was to become quite the big deal in Manila’s snooty food scene. Rogue meets the chef and dines in the private kitchen on everyone’s to-book list

by Jaclyn Clemente Koppe, photo by Jilson Tiu
This is an origins story.



After all, much has been said about 30-year-old Josh Boutwood's rise to culinary recognition. His career is well documented, his work largely appreciated by Manila's trendy food scene. He went the slow-but-sure route. He did not have a familiar-sounding name to back him up. And while he had the boyish good looks to accompany his charming English accent, he chose not to capitalize on it.

 
Years before we are seated in the dimly lit dining room of The Test Kitchen—the San Antonio Village, Makati, eatery where Boutwood and his small army of cooks prepares his signature spin on “sophisticated dining”—young Joshua Boutwood was far away from nosy, judgmental Manila, slowly and deliberately becoming the man we now know.

 

While his sous chef prepares our first course of toasted brioche topped with uni, Brie cream, ikura, dill, parsley oil, seaweed, and shrimp head powder, Boutwood takes a few minutes to chat. Given that he’s fiercely private, we are careful not to assume anything. Are you even Filipino? we ask.

 

“Yes. Half. My mum is English and my dad is Filipino,” he says. His mother, Charlotte Anne Boutwood, grew up in the quiet town of Cranfield, Bedfordshire, just north of London. In this small community, says Boutwood, his maternal grandfather is the largest exporter of potatoes from the area. Meanwhile, his mum is in the business of restaurant and hotel start-ups. “She would build them, get them up and running, then sell them,” the chef explains. “Much like real estate, really. But with restaurants and hotels.”

 

His father, Rufo Sacapaño, is from Boracay, born and bred, and the avid sabongero still lives a quiet life there. He owns a substantial patch of land right smack in the middle of all the action. “From that lake in the back all the way to that stretch where (iconic Boracay beachfront bar) BomBom is,” Boutwood explains, “that’s his land.” His parents were the first owners of Fridays, the pioneering high-end resort in the island. And this is the life Boutwood and his brother Jamie grew accustomed to, shuttling between the UK and Boracay, until their parents decided that the brothers should be settling in Europe with their mother where they could receive quality education.

 

 

Kitchen training started early for Boutwood, who learned the ropes from his mother’s restaurant operations. In Europe, it was not uncommon for teenagers as young as 15 to be working in the hospitality industry. In fact, when he tried out for his first job in London and passed, they had to wait until he turned 16 so they could process his working papers.

 

Determined, Boutwood made the commute from Bedfordshire to London, learning what he could. When his mother decided to get him some formal training in culinary school, he lasted all of two months. Watching him as he plated the second dish of cured pork reclining over an organized jumble of fried cauliflower, popcorn, and heirloom grains, it is easy to understand how Boutwood grew restless inside a classroom. “My mom started wondering why I was spending more time in her restaurant’s kitchen than at class,” he offers as he uses tweezers to strategically place wood sorrel over another well-executed dish. “Eventually, I just stopped going to school. It wasn’t for me.”

 

During one of his trips to Boracay, he met the blue-eyed Swede Nilla Ström. They made a connection and promised to keep in touch once back in Europe; soon, love blossomed. They had their daughter, Malaya, in Sweden, and Boutwood had to work through some of the coldest winters ever recorded in their area.

 

In his Makati kitchen, while he finishes grilling and plating some prime Angus striploin—with aged celeriac, mushrooms, beef tendon chicharon, and brown butter emulsion—he pauses as if frozen by the memory of that icy cold. Is that why you moved to Boracay? we ask. He snaps back to present day and replies, “Yes! Actually, it is.”

 

He leaves us to our steaks, either with the understanding that a dish this good deserves quiet contemplation, or perhaps he is simply escaping the awkwardness of having to listen to our moans as we savor the meat. He is not the type to bask in the glory of his accomplishments.

 

Not anymore, anyway. From signing the lease for his now defunct restaurant Alchemy in Boracay’s Station 2 back in 2010 up to this point where he is on the verge of opening a casual eatery in trendy Poblacion, Makati, he is decidedly focused on his career and continues to be quite the culinary juggernaut. While he supports his growing family—son Phoenix just turned one—with a cushy corporate job as executive chef of The Bistro Group, the suits keep him happy and content with The Test Kitchen where they pretty much let him do whatever he pleases. Quite the gracious display of trust and appreciation, something you would normally reserve for a seasoned veteran or respected icon. But Boutwood has paid his dues and done his time. And, in bitchy, cynical Manila where someone is always rolling his eyes somewhere, it seems that everyone is in agreement that the quiet, determined young chef is the real deal.

toasted brioche topped with uni, dill, seaweed, and powdered shrimp heads

 

 

Boutwood joins us once again for dessert, pouring us two drinks to have with the white chocolate gianduja, dehydrated egg white, lemon, and sugar, topped with wood sorrel and petals of cadenas de amor (“Because we’re sosyal,” jokes the normally stoic chef). One drink is a refreshing kombucha with a defined honey flavor, and a single origin cold brew coffee from Benguet beans. Everything about the final course is refined and deliberate, not a thing out of place. Something that resonates throughout the meal and pretty much represents the chef who put it together.

 

When men his age were busy getting into trouble, Boutwood was preoccupied with becoming the best at what he does. One of the lucky ones, he figured out what his talent was early in life, then matched it with a determination to do his best. Sitting in his dining room, watching him work, and then enjoying his creation, you recognize it immediately. And just like any journey destined for greatness, it is fascinating to watch.

 

9780 Kamagong Street, San Antonio Village, Makati City; (0917) 304-1570