Burning Man: Josh Boutwood Goes Back to Basics
"Welcome to Savage. Savage is a chef-driven restaurant. All the dishes use pre-industrial cooking techniques. We aim to be the first zero-waste restaurant. It’s all about going back to our primal selves.” No two ways about it. No wishy-washy fusion gastronomy that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be—we were getting exactly what our comely server, Lexi, said we would be getting.
Unlike those trendy au courant “Instagrammable” hipster restaurants, which are, bluntly put, all smoke, mirrors, and no real substance, Josh Boutwood’s new (but old) concept, milks one aspect of that scene: the smoke—literally. “Each recipe developed is only 70 per cent of the final flavour and then we rely on the 30 per cent that comes from the cooking method, which would be the smoke from the oakwood,” explains T.Dining’s Best Chef for 2018.
Savage’s menu conjures images of cavemen returning from the hunt with a roaring fire underway and their cave (women) going about with what they’d foraged from the forest earlier in the day. In fact, aside from the chef ’s key ingredients (fire, smoke, and ash), the kitchen is piloted on two guiding principles: one being that goods are sourced locally, and the second, operating within a next to almost-zero waste paradigm.
“But,” Boutwood backtracks, “We are civilised savages. The word ‘savage’ is basically a bridge to connect us to a primal point in time where we relied on simple methods of cooking. We’re not sugarcoating any of the dishes. It is essentially just fire that brings out the essence, the flavours [in our food].” And while “dining” for early man became an interactive group activity, dishes here are, likewise, designed for sharing more than for personal consumption (although solo savages are welcome).
Still a work in progress, the 60-seater space is framed by industrial-chic walls punctuated by graffiti and stenciled outlines depicting Darwin’s theory of evolution. The tables and chairs, which aren’t of uniform height, are all from restaurants that The Bistro Group (of which Boutwood is Corporate Chef) formerly operated, and refurbished to suit the Savage vibe. Lest it became recycled firewood, the musically-inclined Boutwood is in the process of repainting one of his “very old trashed guitars” to mount on the wall.
Once behind the L-shaped bar of the open kitchen, the chef glows orange as he fans the meats and vegetables on the grill furiously with a traditional Filipino fan to maintain a temperature that is workable for each cooking process.
Soon, a trio of appetisers emerge: grilled bread and house butter (of The Test Kitchen fame; his sourdough is baked fresh every day and his burnt, to-die-for butter takes on an almost caramelised, nutty flavour); devilled eggs with smoked oil and ash (a textured, bite-sized dream with a nice garlicky and salty crunch to it); and then a fresh salad of sweet grilled pears, capicola, and rocket leaves heavily sprinkled with pine nuts and sunflower seeds.
Without revealing any kitchen trade secrets, Boutwood goes as far as to share that he works with four baseline flavours. “We were not that creative when naming the marinades so we named them 1, 2, 3, and 4 just to keep it simple,” he jokes.
An example of such is the tuna jaw, yeast, and miso (marinade No. 4). Mixing a very savoury yeast extract with an emulsion of fermented soya bean, the marinated tuna is then basted on the grill constantly, rendering the dish sweet, salty, and earthy all at once. “The smoke of the oak wood and charcoal bridges the contrasting flavour profiles of the yeast and miso very nicely,” he says. Taking the creation to a whole other level, texturally and presentationwise, blanketing the soft meat are crunchy golden-brown breadcrumbs (leftover from the night before), locally-foraged oxalis (or wood sorrel) which tastes like sour apple skins, and edible pink cadena de amor (chain of love) flowers for a touch of sweetness.
Next, the lamb chops with mint and malt are served with the fragrant Savage rice and addictive charred leeks and burnt butter. Sprinkled with fresh mint leaves, the perfectly chargrilled chops go down a treat when smothered in the supercharged spicy mint sauce. The leeks, meanwhile, dripping in all that buttery goodness, are truly worth returning for.
A second trio comes out, this time for dessert. To start, a Pavlova-like tart of meringue, strawberries, and vanilla. For a distinct layer of acidic sourness, the strawberries are cooked inside the bonfire with lime leaf and distilled vinegar, and then balanced out with a generous smear of vanilla cream.
Owing to the chef ’s British roots, his superbly gooey sticky toffee pudding probably had a permanent spot on the menu before anything else. Served on a hot-to-touch skillet, the makeshift cardboard placemat beneath was a cute albeit in-theme way to protect the table. These apparently come from the boxes that the fresh produce is delivered in and double as a means to light the fi res, too.
A sweet nod to Boutwood’s partner and the wild card on the menu, the kladdkaka is a densely rich and fudgy Swedish chocolate cake. “When we lived in Sweden, we indulged in what you call ‘fika,’ which is the art of enjoying coffee and relaxing. One of the more popular cakes to pair with coffee is this and it’s always been a dish that is comforting to me,” he shares. What makes his special? “Before plating it, it goes straight into the bonfire for five minutes just so that it picks up those smoky notes that you want,” he shares.
While Boutwood quotes in his Instagram bio, “Contrary to popular belief, I know very little about wood,” for a chef who embraces the flavour-giver, perhaps this tongue-in-cheek descriptive ought to be changed.