Jonathan Howell's Wanderlust Turned Him into a Star Chef
Head chef Jonathan Howell is the man behind Oslo's new food and drink hotspot. Although the Brit from Newcastle never dreamed of becoming a star chef, the popular restaurants at Summerro are fully booked every night of the week.
"My real passion was for travelling, and that's what eventually pushed me into the world of food. When you're a chef, you can work anywhere in the world."
"I wanted to travel, experience different places and gain experience from various kitchens. It was either work as a chef or do something in the travel industry."
That Howell ended up as a chef is something neither he nor his family could have predicted.
"If someone had asked my mum, "did he cook at home?", she would have flatly said no", he recounts with a laugh.
"I often hear stories about chefs with a deep food history, about a grandmother who made this and that, but I don't always believe they're entirely true. My grandma always made "chicken or beef stew", and of course, it was delicious", says Jonathan.
Eventually, Howell found great pleasure in cooking, and all those who love good food can be grateful that chance led the Brit into the culinary profession.
"I enjoyed the cooking profession at school; it interested me more and more, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen."
From the classroom, things progressed rapidly. As a fifteen-year-old, he went straight from secondary school to an apprenticeship at a restaurant while taking a management course at college one day a week.
"Everyone on that course was over 30 years old, and I was 17-18 at the time."
That he would be a man juggling many balls was perhaps already determined when he was a teenager. At 19, he was in the kitchen at his first Michelin-starred restaurant, and since then, as Howell himself says, he has been everywhere.
"I've worked in so many places. Hotels, restaurants, pubs, brasseries, and everything in between."
Quality is my "thing"
After all the experience he has gained, one might think that Howell has a specialty, but the Brit does not have a signature dish or a particular "thing" that defines him.
"I've picked up a lot over the years I've worked as a chef. You see the best and the worst, and the experiences I took with me were important."
"When you're young, you might have an idea of what you want to do, but it's not necessarily what the guests want", says Jonathan.
It is clear that quality and consistent dishes are important to him, more than the type of food, and that is perhaps why he has been so successful in the food world.
"I learned early on that the foundation of what you do is crucial. Not just gimmicks or what looks nice – fancy food that looks better than it tastes."
"It's the quality that's important. Whatever you do, do it well", he believes.
It is precisely this that Howell aims to achieve at Sommerro: quality from raw ingredients to the plate every single day for a long time to come.
Sommerro Became the Challenge Howell Needed
Before Howell came to Sommerro, he worked as head chef at Festningen. He was there from the very beginning, building the restaurant into one of Oslo's best.
"In many ways, I felt it was my restaurant, so it was difficult to make the decision to leave when everything was going really well. But when Sommerro came on the table, I thought that this adventure would never happen again in Oslo; I have to do this."
Howell says it's hard to imagine anyone else investing so much detail and money into a hotel.
"I wouldn't have been interested in working for a regular hotel. It had to be something truly special, and it was clear to me that Sommerro was exciting and new", the chef explains.
Huge Success for Sommerro
As Director of Food and Beverage at Sommerro, Jonathan Howell is responsible for all food service in the house, Lysverker Scene, the Cinema and the event venue Krohgsalen, as well as the hotel's breakfast, meeting room catering, and room service. In short, just about everything.
Since its launch in September 2022, Sommerro has been a huge success. With around 1,500 restaurant guests passing through the doors daily, it is always full, and recently they made the prestigious Condé Nast Traveler Hot List for 2023. The list is one of the travel industry's most important, and Sommerro, both as a hotel and a food destination, is highlighted as a place one must visit, but it hasn't come easy.
"Sommerro has worked well from day one. That was also an ambitious goal we had, but we made it happen. All the kitchen departments have functioned well, and it's wonderful to see that all the hard work has paid off."
And hard work it has been. In the beginning, Howell was present around the clock, from breakfast to the last dinner service.
"I was involved in everything to ensure the food was the way I wanted it to be. Now I'm not as involved in the daily food service. I wear the suit more often than the chef's uniform. We have very skilled people working in the restaurants, and they take much of the responsibility. We have worked hard to get the right people in place. Everyone has a common goal of creating something special for the guests", he says.
Norwegians Dine Differently
In many ways, Sommerro is very un-Norwegian.
The building is more reminiscent of something you would find in Paris or New York, but during the 15 years Howell has lived in Norway, he has seen a significant change in our restaurant habits.
Although dining out is not as big a part of everyday life for Norwegians as it is for the Spanish, British or Americans, the Norwegian restaurant market is growing larger and larger.
"It's no longer just special occasions that make people go out to eat, but Norwegians are a completely different type of guest than, for example, guests in Stockholm. Here in Oslo, there is a greater cost involved."
"This means that guests expect more, and I find that they have good knowledge of food and wine", says Jonathan.
Afternoon Tea with a Twist
Sommerro houses seven restaurants, each offering unique experiences. One of the restaurants is the very cosy spot "To Søstre". Here, afternoon tea is served, which naturally brings Howell closer to his homeland.
"Afternoon tea is huge in London. It is full every single day of the week, and people enjoy themselves throughout the afternoon. Not just with tea, but with cocktails, a glass of champagne, and of course with delicious sandwiches and cakes."
Before opening the doors, Howell and the team travelled to London for inspiration for Sommerro. The Brit has taken the best from classic, traditional afternoon tea, but has added a little Sommerro twist to the menu.
Afternoon tea at Sommerro is designed to be different by offering a slightly more exciting menu. The pastry team, Jared Jiann Lih Chuah and Aziz Muhammad, are behind this menu, which changes according to the seasons and the raw ingredients in season. Their champagne trolley offers the best from Les Cinq Filles and also features an exciting tipsy tea menu and a wide selection of non-alcoholic drinks. Sommerro is, incidentally, the only restaurant in Norway that serves authentic "clotted cream", which they buy locally from Biri Gård.
"For me, afternoon tea is a social affair where you enjoy yourself with family and friends. You start at the bottom with sandwiches, then move on to scones with "clotted cream" and jam, before finishing at the top with the cakes. My children love it", reveals Jonathan.