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Five Minutes with… Simon Howlett, Head Development Chef

Posted: 18th July 2019

Lives:  Sittingbourne
Age: 48
Favourite Shepherd Neame beer? Whitstable Bay Black Stout
Favourite non-Shepherd Neame beer? Peroni

Career: 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? 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.

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.

What does a typical day 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 or awards ceremonies. 

How has your role changed? 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 estate and help with menu development. 

How has the industry changed? 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. 

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 do you 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.

What is tough about the job? 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 do you consider your biggest success at the company so far? One of my highlights was when Shepherd Neame won the Best Food Offer title at the Publican Awards in 2012, a year after I started. It showed that my work and ideas were paying off. We were shortlisted for Best Food Offer again in 2016.

Which chefs most inspire 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 is your advice for any budding chefs? Be prepared for hard work and long hours, but also be aware that the job is incredibly rewarding, particularly when you see someone eating your food and you receive positive feedback. There are also fantastic career prospects, as people always need chefs so you won’t ever be out of work. And as a chef, the world is your oyster – you can travel anywhere and cook.

What are your hobbies and interests outside work? Clay pigeon shooting, golf, attending the gym and swimming. I also love to travel, and always enjoy trying the local cuisine wherever I am.

To find out more about working with us, including our chef development programme VISIT OUR WEBSITE

We are also currently recruiting for a number of chef roles VIEW VACANCIES