Twenty Seven Steps has just won Restaurant of the Year at the Christchurch Hospitality Awards for the second time in a row. In fact, it’s won nine awards in two years. Twenty Seven Steps didn’t just spring into success overnight – it’s been the process of a long culinary evolution. Chef Paul Howells and co-owner Emma Mettrick first honed their skills at The Little Bistro in Akaroa before heading to Christchurch.
“Emma’s the complete backbone of Twenty Seven Steps,” explained Howells. “Without her, there wouldn’t be a restaurant.” Mettrick has won awards, too – she’s Christchurch’s Hospitality Hero, and deals with everything outside the kitchen at the pair’s restaurant. This frees Howells up to concentrate on the food.
Howells considers Twenty Seven Steps his most significant accomplishment, not just for its peer-approved quality but also for what its done for staff. Maki Matsumoto won the 2018 Emerging Chef Award at the Christchurch Hospitality Awards, and it’s moments like this that make Howells happiest. “To see some of the guys reach their potential is amazing,” said Howells. Seeing a chef-de-partie become a head chef in 18 months, alongside Matsumoto’s achievement shows that working at Twenty Seven Steps is helping their careers. “I’m really proud of that.”
Howells believes consistency is the key to the restaurant’s success. The kitchen isn’t too serious under his command – they play music, and condense work days so everyone gets three days off. They’re able to do this because the restaurant runs like clockwork.
“I am extremely fastidious about organisation and cleanliness,” said Howells. “Everything needs to be in its place – all prep has to be done at least 20 minutes before service.” This attitude has rubbed off on his team, who are now always ready.
He’s been surrounded by cooks his entire life. His mother was a great cook, and his older brother is a chef, too. “The bedroom we shared was strewn with chef’s whites and cookbooks,” remembered Howells. His brother Michael is who got Howells into the industry in the first place.
Since then he’s enjoyed the wisdom of workmates. “My old head chef Kevin O’Brien at Hotel Diplomat, I learnt a lot from him,” said Howells. “Plus my great mate in Melbourne, Danny O’Donoghue.” He’s also an avid reader of Yotam Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell and Nigel Slater.
All Twenty Seven Steps’ ingredients are sourced from the Canterbury region. Olives come from Robinson’s Bay, and kefir grains from Pigeon Bay so Howells can make cultured butter. Because it’s all locally-sourced, the restaurant has a menu that makes the most of what’s in season. They also like to experiment. “We’re always trying new things on our specials board,” said Howells. “We’re lucky enough to have built up a good following over the last nine years, and I like to keep them happy.”
Customer favourites at Twenty Seven Steps include aged fillet steak with Welsh rarebit, duck fat fondant, and Yorkshire pudding. “As boring as it sounds, we get huge compliments on whatever soup we put up,” added Howells.
Right now he’s excited to work with asparagus, which is finally in season. Twenty Seven Steps sources theirs from Motukarara on Banks Peninsula, and one recipe you can find it in is their latest vegan dish: smoked potato rosti, beetroot fondant, char-grilled asparagus with cashew nut aioli and crispy chickpeas.
Thanks to his culinary career, the Welsh-born Howells has worked in Ireland, France, Sweden, and England as well as Christchurch. His experiences as a chef in Stockholm stick with him in particular, as it was such a shift from what he was used to. “I moved to Stockholm in the late 90s and just working in a completely different kitchen environment to that of a British one was a revelation in itself,” Howells explained. “Everything in Hotel Diplomat was completely top notch, but effortless and simple. Their signature dish was monkfish with a lemon pot-au-feu. It was immense.”
Despite these overseas adventures, Howells and Mettrick are happy in Christchurch. “It’s the most settled I’ve been in my life,” said Howells. “There’s nowhere else I’d like to work.”