Chefs tend to be optimists by nature, but the past year would have tested the resolve of the sunniest characters. Stevie Parle is one of London’s best-known chefs (and “much loved”, according to the style bible Gentleman’s Journal), renowned for the variety of restaurants he’s opened in the capital over the past decade or so.
It’s the prolific nature of his businesses that caused him the most grief during 2020. When London was locked down for the second time at the end of last year, he had three restaurants open: JOY at Portobello Dock, and two branches of down-to-earth pasta chain Pastaio.
“We were closed for the whole of November, then we were told we could reopen, so we opened in December thinking we’d at least get to the end of the year. But after 10 days we got shut down again with 24 hours’ notice…”
The restaurants had been fully booked through Christmas (“Pastaio alone does several thousand covers a week”) and his three head chefs had done all their ordering, “so we had thousands and thousands of pounds worth of stock in the fridges.” What happened to it all? “The team took some, we sold some in the shop, and gave some away. It was an awful time, really.”
Parle, who nowadays considers himself more of a restaurateur than a chef, started his career – like many of his generation – at River Café in London’s Hammersmith. He was there from the age of 17 for “a good few years” and returned when the legendary founder Rose Gray became ill (“I couldn’t really refuse her”). The restaurant instilled in him a passion for Italian cuisine. “I started at the River Café so I’m kind of stuck with it now.”
At 36, there’s a sense that his life has come full circle. A pioneer of pop-up restaurants before the term had been invented (the first landlords he approached called them ‘kitchen squats’) in 2009 he opened his first experimental restaurant with the designer Tom Dixon in a converted warehouse overlooking the Grand Union Canal in Ladbroke Grove.
The Dock Kitchen ran for eight years, and was followed by a series of start-ups: Palatino in Clerkenwell (which earned him that accolade from Gentleman’s Journal), CRAFT in Greenwich, the two Pastaios, Rotorino in Dalston and JOY – the restaurant and shop which he and Dixon opened in July last year in the very same spot that Dock Kitchen had occupied.
At the time of writing, only the Soho branch of Pastaio and JOY are open. Some, like Rotorino, came to the end of their lease; others have fallen victim to the pandemic. But in Parle’s relatively short career, he’s opened more acclaimed restaurants than many chefs twice his age.
Whatever the future brings, and whatever the shape the gastronomic landscape of London will be, you get the impression he knows what he’s doing. And if it all fails, he’ll turn his hand to horticulture. As he says in his Life Lessons below: “Given the chance, I think I could create some pretty special gardens.”
What was your childhood ambition?
I wanted to be a farmer I think. I’m getting quite close to that now – it’s important for me to be involved in the production of food. We have chickens and bees and dogs, and we’ve had pigs; I don’t know if I would do it myself but I’d like to have a farm for the restaurants. We collaborate with growers very closely, so it’s similar to having your own farm.
What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?
That I was living in a time of almost unprecedented peace and prosperity, where things were getting better for a lot of people – and how unusual that is. I’d have taken more notice and got more done.
What exercise do you do?
I have three boys and two dogs that make sure I keep running. I have a rowing machine that gets a bit of use, too.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I get bored with things too quickly.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
Every year I buy loads of white truffles for our annual truffle dinners. That means slightly scary bills as they’re £3,000-£5,000 a kilo.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Well, I’ve been stuck in [the UK] with its terrible weather for what feels like decades, so as soon as we can travel, I’m moving to Fiji. Seriously, though: I live in a nature reserve in Kent and I work in London, which is one of the great cities of the world. I feel very connected to both places.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
My job as a restaurateur/chef is incredibly varied. I’m studying start-up business models one minute then I could be designing a new space or creating a new menu. I feel pretty lucky. But I’d love to do something more visual. Gardening is similar to cooking in a way and I’ve recently considered becoming a gardener: I like designing things with nature as the starting point. Given the chance, I think I could create some pretty special gardens.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
A very, very comfortable bed.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Like most people in hospitality, some of my plans have been pushed back or destroyed by Covid but I’m still very focused on bringing my fresh-pasta restaurant Pastaio [Parle’s pasta restaurants] to more people nationally.
If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
There are some environmental regulations that probably need to be enacted by a person of that description. But I really really wouldn’t want it to be me.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
I’m lucky and have met most of my food heroes but I didn’t get to meet Anthony Bourdain [the celebrated chef, and author of the seminal memoir Kitchen Confidential, died in 2018], so I’d invite him. We could talk about his brilliant and engaging book about how insane chefs have made it more difficult to modernise our industry, and how he was one of the great TV personalities of our time. He and I have visited some of the same places, and eaten the same ridiculous things: we could chat about deep-fried tarantula in Cambodia or live octopus in Korea.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I really don’t feel guilt much – especially not the things I eat.
Who do you most admire?
My wife Nicky. She’s a hero – a smart, kind, creative, beautiful, brilliant hero.
What’s your secret talent?
I can sing. My brother is an opera singer and he once said I had a good-enough voice to be one also. I told him he wasn’t a good-enough cook to do what I do, though. I also don’t really like opera that much.
When were you happiest?
2019. I had great businesses, a good work-life balance, no big problems and I was more relaxed than I usually am with good mental health and feeling physically fit.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I swear a lot but try not to these days.
What’s your greatest regret?
Je ne regrette rien.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
I haven’t had one of those nights for a while. If I’m feeling nostalgic I like to listen to early-acoustic Bob Dylan (my favourite album is The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) – I grew up listening to him.
What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?
I lived in Japan for a couple of years and I like to wear a lot of Issey Miyake pleats. I also have some clothes from Dior which belonged to my grandpa, who was quite dashing. I feel a lot of love for them.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The River Café. I started my professional life there when I was 17, so going back means not only a brilliant meal, but seeing some of my best friends and reliving my fondest memories. It’s amazing, and a testament to the restaurant, that more than 15 years later there are still so many of my former colleagues still working there.
What time do you go to bed?
Late. Usually 12.30am or 1am. I like the night, although I have young children so I get up early – not the best combination.