Meet the chef: Ian Howard of The Athenaeum

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Having worked at The Athenaeum on Park Lane, one of London’s top five-star hotels, since 2019, it’s fair to say that executive chef Ian Howard knows a thing or two about what his customers are looking for. Curating menus with seasonal produce, Howard is not afraid to follow food trends to meet his diners’ desires. In that spirit, The Athenaeum became one of the first Grand Dame hotels to launch a vegan afternoon tea at the beginning of 2020. Today, it’s one of the most reasonably-priced afternoon tea offerings in the capital.  

Howard, who grew up in Southampton and Cornwall, studied his apprenticeship in Portsmouth before moving to Hilton Park Lane as a sous chef early in his career. Fast forward two decades and Howard hasn’t left the capital, honouring his ambition to bring both tourists and Londoners fresh and flexible menus designed to do away with pretension.  

When Howard joined The Athenaeum, the hotel’s main restaurant was named Galvin under the guise of Michelin-starred brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin who served high-end French bistro food. After an extensive revamp in 2021, however, the restaurant reopened as 116 at The Athenaeum with Howard at the helm and serves simple but refined dishes, including corn-fed chicken with Jersey royals; crispy fried cauliflower steak; and a roasted fillet of Loch Duart salmon. The aforementioned afternoon tea is also available in different forms, including savoury and bottomless, and is served in the chic but relaxed surroundings of the hotel’s ground-floor restaurant. 

Although he’s busy creating his summer menu, Luxury London managed to catch up with Howard to discuss his food’s influences and how hotel kitchens will always have a place in his heart. 

Hi Ian, tell us about your early career…

I began an apprenticeship scheme in 1988 at a small, privately-owned hotel called the Brookfield Hotel in Emsworth, Hampshire. I stayed there for a total of five years and studied at Highbury College in Portsmouth. I learnt a lot from a chef who was very good at passing on his knowledge.

Tell us a bit about your childhood…

I grew up initially in Southampton and then moved to St Austell in Cornwall with my family, where I finished secondary school. It was such a beautiful place to go to school and live. My grandparents also lived there and I used to go and stay with them during the school holidays, which is where I first became interested in food. From about 10 years old, I would be in the kitchen with my grandmother often making bread and helping her with cooking. My grandfather had a large garden where he would grow a lot of vegetables like peas and broad beans, so being able to see the produce from garden to plate really inspired me to be a chef.

What restaurants did you work in during the early years of your career?

After Brookfield, I then went to the Marriott Hotel in Portsmouth and worked up to sous chef level. Then I moved to London and worked at Hilton Park Lane also as a sous.

What were the highlights?

My five-year apprenticeship was probably the best I could have hoped for. The chef and sous chef really taught me so much and I totally appreciate all the time they gave me.

What drew you towards The Athenaeum?

[When I first joined], the Galvin’s were running the [restaurant] at the hotel. I met Chris and Jeff Galvin initially and then Joanne (the general manager). I really liked them all and had a good feeling about the move to The Athenaeum.

What influences your menus at 116 at The Athenaeum?

As always in a hotel, you have a very diverse clientele that you need to cater for, so being flexible has to influence the menus. Give the customers what they want and don’t have an ego! But also do this in the parameters that you have to work in, so produce what is fresh and seasonal from suppliers. Menus that change frequently are important.

What is your favourite dish on the current menu?

A simple roasted corn-fed chicken with crushed jersey royals, olives, shallots, wild garlic and a parsley and caper salsa. It’s a customer hit, and seasonal too.

Your vegan menus, including the afternoon tea, seem to be growing in popularity. Why did you want to launch a vegan afternoon tea? Do you think more five-star hotels should cater for vegans?

Veganism has been rising so fast and has been in the news a lot with regards to eating less meat and dairy to reduce global warming. Being in central London, there is always a big focus on diets like these so being able to cater for them is important, whether it’s for health issues or preference. Years ago there was hardly ever a dietary requirement from customers but now it’s a big topic so [I think] all five-star properties should cater for it.

The Athenaeum Hotel

Which other London restaurant do you love?

I love Elystan Street, which is Philip Howard’s restaurant in Kensington. I was always a fan from when he was at The Square [which closed in 2020]. His food is proper cooking with no gimmicks.

How do you spend your free time away from the restaurant?

[I love] trying new foods and I’m into Korean cuisine at the moment. I also enjoy watching F1 and going to the gym.


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