Stevie Parle on Dock Kitchen and London's changing restaurant scene
After the closure of the chef's iconic Dock Kitchen, the chef talks about his future plans, what the recession did for London dining, and balancing a successful restaurant empire
- By Jordan Kelly-Linden -
"There weren't any more restaurants that I wanted to work in. I'd worked in River Café, I'd worked in Moro, I'd worked in Petersham Nurseries and I didn't really want to work at St John."
This was a turning point for the young Stevie Parle. After training at the Ballymaloe cooking school in Ireland, he worked in Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s iconic riverside restaurant and other kitchens around London, but he was restless.
It was then, after running a series of pop-ups, or kitchen 'squats' as some disbelieving landlords had put it, he realised he wanted to go permanent. He knew about the building that was soon to become Dock Kitchen because, some years before, he had visited the venue alongside Rose and Ruth who had considered putting another River Café in there.
When Parle got in touch to ask if he could set up a pop-up restaurant, the landlord, however, wasn’t keen. It was only through pure perseverance – and by teaming up with iconic designer Tom Dixon, who'd taken the lease and was about to put his showroom in there – that Dock Kitchen came to be. The restaurant began as a pop-up in 2009, before transforming into a permanent restaurant in 2010.
On 23 Dec 2017, eight years on, the lease on the canalside warehouse in Ladbroke Grove came to an end and Parle's first venture was closed. There are rumours that Dock Kitchen might follow Tom Dixon’s showroom to King’s Cross, but on that subject his lips are sealed. Here, he talks to us about how he got his start, and how his cooking philosophy has adapted to London’s fast-paced restaurant scene.
When did you start cooking?
First I went to southeast Asia with some friends when I was 16. I can't believe my parents let me do that – I wouldn't let my kids do that now, no way. But I came back and earned some money for a course at Ballymaloe cooking school in Ireland, then blagged myself a job at River Café when I was 17, which was amazing. I think I'm still the youngest cook that River Café ever hired.
Who do you think are some of the most inspirational chefs you've worked under?
Rose at River Café – she was amazing. She died a couple of years ago, but she was a real force and an incredible person.
How did the chance to open Dock Kitchen open up?
So it was 2008/2009 and I was doing this series of pop-ups. Back then, no one was doing that, really. Which was not at all an advantage, because no one knew what you were talking about. Now, if you speak to a landlord who's got an empty space and say you want to use it, they're like "Great. We'd love you to activate the space, get some awareness, get some life". Back then they were like "What? You want to squat? You want to build a restaurant in a squat?"
I did a few in a greasy spoon, I did one in an old swimming pool. We didn’t even have a social media thing back then – it just spread through word of mouth. And then suddenly I started getting these calls from big fashion people and big food people saying "When's your next dinner?". I didn't actually do that many – I think I did 10, at the most. But I just got this incredible following, because, back then, you know, there was nothing interesting going on.
I don't mean that in a sort of egotistical way. The scene was just more flat, it was boring. But through a graphic designer I knew, who knew someone else, who knew someone else, who knew someone else, who knew Tom Dixon, who'd taken the lease and was putting his showroom there. I eventually got his number and called him and said "What are you doing with this space? Can I get in before you move in, because there's a huge terrace and I want to do some dinners there." And he said "Yeah, sure. Definitely."
Tom and I just cleaned up the kitchen and moved it around. He gave me a little space at the end and he put his showroom in the rest of it, and he built these little wooden shanty sheds through the space. In the daytime I had this little bit at the end that was 20 covers, then in the evening I'd use his showroom. I'd be cooking and in one room would be Charles Saatchi and Nigella and Mick Jagger and Jade Jagger in the other one, in these funny sheds in a warehouse with an old kitchen that didn't really work properly.
It was an extraordinary time. Initially we were just going to do a week, and then we thought we'd do until Christmas, and then after a year, we moved his showroom downstairs and we made it into a proper restaurant. We'd be moving all this furniture – and Tom's furniture is not lightweight – and we'd have to put it all back in just the right place. We'd have to take pictures because they'd restyle it all the time.
But it was an amazing time, it really was, to have that opportunity without spending money. No one spent any money, really. It was right in the middle of the recession. Before all that hit, I'd had a few really positive conversations about doing a proper restaurant, but I really think that the London food scene benefitted from that recession. That whole pop-up movement taught us that we don't have to spend so much money setting things up.
It was a good thing in the end that I hadn't borrowed or taken an investment of a million quid to do my first thing. It meant that we grew it organically and slowly, and you can't do that anymore. Every single new restaurant is critiqued from day one.
How were the reviews when you opened?
We got our first review there from Marina O'Loughlin. She used to do two reviews when she wrote in the Metro, she'd do a big one and then she'd do a mini one. When she went there was only seven things on the menu for lunch and they were all £6.50. She'd reviewed Polpo, because that had just opened, and she did a mini review of us and that was really good. Then Fay Maschler came and she loved it. By then the menu was a bit bigger and we were doing set menus in the evening. Everything just went crazy after Fay came because that online presence didn't exist, but also the broadsheet critics were so powerful back then. You know, a great review from Fay and then five stars from A.A. Gill – those things were game changers. Whereas now, it's less so. We don't see that same crazy rush.
Tom Dixon is moving to Kings Cross. Do you think that Dock Kitchen will follow?
I don't know. I'm not talking about that.
When you do open, will it be the same Dock Kitchen or revamped?
Yeah, similar. But it depends where it will end up. I always think that you have to make a restaurant fit the space. And Dock Kitchen was a really eccentric restaurant – it wasn't opened with a concept, so we might have to refine it and change it a bit and make it work and actually make some money – which is important.
How quickly was it that you realised you wanted to branch out into other restaurants?
It wasn't something that I wanted to do straight away. I was really happy at Dock Kitchen and I was writing quite a lot. I wrote a couple of books. I wrote for years for the Telegraph. I did a TV series about spices for Channel 4, which I really enjoyed. But they were really intense projects. I was keen not to do anything and then maybe four years after I opened Dock Kitchen, I opened Rotorino. Since then, it's been one a year and two in 2017.
Stevie Parle's restaurants – in pictures
What inspired your move into Italian cooking, such as in Rotorino, Palatino and Pastaio?
Someone said that to me the other day. They were like "Why do you just have loads of Italian restaurants? How did that happen?" And I think that it's kind of the food that I want to eat. That's what all of my restaurants are about, the whole experience. That Italian style of eating really works with modern London life, you know – antipasti, primi – however you want to call it, that way of eating is really relevant. And I just love pasta.
Which restaurants do you cook in most these days?
I generally focus on the new stuff. So whatever we've just opened, that's where I am and that's where I'm cooking, initially very, very intensely.
I won't miss a service really until I'm happy that the quality is there and the restaurant is good. And partly that's because, as we talked about before, of the pressure of an opening and the reputation of people's opinions can be formed, very, very quickly.
I don't mind if people don't like my restaurants, as long as they are as I want them to be. As long as we're doing what we want to do, I don't mind if people don't like it, but when we don't fulfil the idea, or follow through on it, then I find that really upsetting. So I'm there until I'm happy.
These days, I'm really lucky, I've got really good people like Rich who was helping me today. He's worked for me for seven years and he just knows exactly what I want, and that's brilliant because if I turn up say, an hour and a half late for this photoshoot and he's doing it, it's going to be better than if I did it.
You talk a lot about the best of British, even though you're bringing, say, southern French, Italian or North African flavours to the table.
Yes, almost exclusively. I've been working with some of my suppliers since the River Café, so 15 years or more ago – well, I was 17 and now I'm 32, so that many years. Having those really close relationships only makes a restaurant better. People talk about suppliers and seasonality and sometimes it's bullshit and sometimes it's not. And with us, it's not. Our suppliers are really, really important to us. Having those close relationships is absolutely key. We pretty much know the names of the people that are growing most of the food. We visit the farms. I haven't been doing it enough recently, but we've been lots of times and I like to take all the chefs out.
Do you think that your style of cooking is definable? And if it is, what would you refer to it as?
I don't know. I mean that's one of the sort of things, because I've always wanted to cook quite a lot of things and I get bored quite easily. It's tricky, but you know it's always ingredient-led and a rough-around-the-edges big-flavour element that I always insist on. I don't cook anything super refined, it's always stripped-back, super simple and based on produce. All of our restaurants have quite tight briefs. I feel like they're all quite recognisable as restaurants that I'm involved in. I think when you go to them, they feel the same. But overall, I like them to be different and I like that variation, it's fun.
I'm going to stop opening restaurants for a while. I want to find a new home for Dock Kitchen and if Pastaio really works, we might think about growing that. But really, I'm trying to concentrate on what I've got and make sure everything is working really well. It's tough times for the industry ahead. We're just trying to make sure what we're doing is as good as it can be and making sure that we've got the security for all those people that we employ. It's really important to me that we make sure that it's all really working for them. It's not just Brexit we have to worry about either, I think there's just too many restaurants. A good restaurant opens every week in London. It's good though. It means you have to be really good – and hopefully not really fucking gimmicky – to survive. Even if I have been known to do the occasional attention-seeking dish or something like that.
Can you name one?
No, I'm not saying...
For more information head to stevieparle.co.uk