Family ties meant that Simon Howlett was always destined for a career in the kitchen and he is now putting the considerable market experience he has built up to valuable use in his role as executive development chef at Shepherd Neame, the Kent-based pub group. He discusses the changing nature of his position, the key to innovative menu development and the kind of catering equipment that is on his wish list.
Tell us about your career — when did you get into catering?
I grew up in Weymouth and started working in the industry at an early age as my parents ran a number of fast food takeaway restaurants in Dorset. After school I attended the local catering college, then at the age of 19 I moved to work as a chef de partie for Le Meridien hotel group in London. I stayed there for a couple of years before moving back to Dorset and working in a variety of hotels, pubs and restaurants, progressing to head chef.
I then became a self-employed chef, undertaking contract and outdoor catering for clients around the country. After a couple of years I decided to take on a new role as area chef for Whitbread, where I remained for seven years before moving to become development chef for Fuller’s. I stayed in that role for six years before joining Shepherd Neame eight years ago.
What attracted you to the industry? Presumably your parents were a major factor given their background?
Yes, my parents played a big role in my decision, as in addition to working for them in their restaurants, they took us travelling every summer. It opened my eyes to the cultures and cuisines of the world, and inspired my love of food.
And what about chefs — are there any culinary figures which have really inspired you?
Growing up, Keith Floyd encouraged me to get into the kitchen, as he was the first real TV chef I had seen and it looked like a great job. The craziness of Heston Blumenthal is always inspiring, and I also enjoyed the Two Fat Ladies. They cooked food simply, as it was supposed to be, without any concern for calories.
What attracted you to join Shepherd Neame?
After six years in my previous role I was looking for a new challenge, and this job seemed perfect. Shepherd Neame were really keen to invest in their food offer, and it gave me an opportunity to start a team of my own and develop a new menu approach which was really exciting. It was also great to work for a long-established family firm where you are recognised as an individual rather than just being lost in a big corporation.
You run the food development team — what does a typical day at the coalface involve?
One of the joys of the job is that no two days are the same, as we are constantly dealing with a variety of different demands and issues. In addition to managing my head office team, my responsibilities include overseeing the development of the kitchen staff across our business, including organising training workshops and helping to induct new staff.
I look after menu planning, including the launch of new menus across our retail estate in spring and autumn, deal with equipment suppliers and food suppliers, and undertake site visits and checks. I still also get in the kitchen to help at key events such as new site launches.
Many of our pubs and hotels are historic buildings so the kitchens have often been added later or expanded into other parts of the building”
Has the role changed over the eight years that you have been with the business?
When I started I was the sole person looking after Shepherd Neame’s food offer. I now manage a team of two development chefs and a development manager, and four years ago we launched a mentor scheme which has provided another source of support. Five head chefs are appointed as mentors to guide and train other chefs across our pub estate and help with menu development.
What personal characteristics help you in your role?
Patience and a calm temperament, to deal with often complex and demanding situations. Empathy is also important, as I have worked in every kitchen role from pot wash to head chef, so I am aware of and have more of an understanding of everyone’s needs.
What would you say you most enjoy about the job?
It’s not a 9am to 5pm role, I’m my own boss and manage my own time. I also find it very rewarding to watch your chefs grow in confidence and knowledge, knowing that you have helped with their development. It is also rewarding when dishes that you have created prove popular in pubs.
And what’s the toughest thing about the role?
Its complexity, with lots of different strands to keep track of. There can also be real peaks and troughs in your working week, for example sometimes working a 16-hour day to help get a new site open.
What are your views on the industry — how has it changed over the years?
There is more of an emphasis on healthier and lighter options, including vegetarian and vegan choices. There is also more demand for information on what is on the plate, particularly the provenance of the ingredients and allergens. We have some very good local suppliers that work with us, advising on seasonality to help with menu planning and sourcing the best produce in Kent.
We are always keen to invest in equipment that will help our teams work more efficiently, so if suppliers meet our criteria it should be fairly simple for them to get into the supply chain”
You have more than 300 pubs in the portfolio. Do the kitchens of each one vary dramatically when it comes to their equipment and design — or do you try and achieve a consistent set-up where possible?
I look after the 70 sites in our managed estate. Each kitchen is unique, as many of our pubs and hotels are historic buildings so the kitchens have often been added later or expanded into other parts of the building. We use similar equipment throughout the estate, but create bespoke layouts for each site. We have had to overcome some real challenges, for example when the kitchen is four floors up or in a basement.
What’s the one piece of kit that a Shepherd Neame kitchen couldn’t do without?
I would say that you can have the best equipment in the world, but in order to ensure success it is essential to have a dedicated, talented team of kitchen staff.
What have been the most significant changes you’ve made in the last few years when it comes to equipment?
One of our biggest changes has been to introduce air conditioning throughout our kitchens, to make them more comfortable work environments for our teams. We have also begun implementing energy-saving measures wherever possible, including moving to Synergy Grills that cut gas usage and also reduce the heat in kitchens.
What sort of traits do you look for in an equipment supplier — and how simple is it for new suppliers to get into the Shepherd Neame supply chain?
Innovation is key — will it make life easier for a chef? Also, is it easy to clean and move around the kitchen to allow cleaning, and is it energy efficient? We use kitchen contractors for some projects but we are also in direct contact with individual suppliers. We are always keen to invest in equipment that will help our teams work more efficiently, so if suppliers meet our criteria it should be fairly simple for them to get into the supply chain.
What are your priorities over the next six to 12 months when it comes to your kitchens and the way they are equipped?
To continue our work to ensure that any new equipment is energy efficient and cost-effective, and helps to make life easier for the kitchen team with regards to cleaning, moving and safety.