Jesse Dunford Wood, Parlour, Kensal Green

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2014

Jesse Dunford Wood is chef-patron at Parlour in Kensal Green where he cooks modern British food with a touch of humour, a splash of theatricality and oodles of deliciousness. His career has seen him work for some of the best chefs around including Michael Caines, Mark Best, Charlie Trotter and Rowley Leigh. He then headed up the kitchens at The National Dining Rooms and the Mall Tavern before finally taking control of his own operation at Parlour.   How did you first get into cooking? I went to art college and I literally didn’t know how to survive in the meal department. I had to force myself to learn to cook something edible and I ended up quite enjoying it. Then I started to host these outrageous dinner parties and I started to think, wouldn’t that be a wonderful job to have an outrageous dinner party every night?   Where would you say you learned to be a chef?Battenburg-Lauren Mclean It was back around 98, 99; I heard about this guy called Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. He’d just got his second star. I said to my chef at The Atrium in Edinburgh, Alan Matheison, that I wanted to work there and he said he’d give him a call. I went there the next day. He asked me to cook him a dish which made me completely s**t myself. I cooked him lunch which he kind of ripped apart but he offered me a job. I stayed there for three years and that gave me a great foundation in everything I do. We learnt bread making, croissant making, all kinds of pastry; we did all the butchery, all the fish prep, proper classic sauces; and I learnt my way around the kitchen under him. He was in the kitchen full time and always on a section, which was very inspiring to see.   Before you branched out on your own, you worked in some iconic kitchens; how did they influence you? I went to Australia and ended up working with Mark Best. He’d opened a small restaurant with just him in the kitchen and his wife out front. It started very small but of course is now known globally. I went there specifically to see the kind of operation I could open myself because I knew I wouldn’t have any money and I would have to build it up slowly. I learnt from him that you can start simply and build something up if you have a vision. When I left Mark Best I went to Charlie Trotter’s. Charlie Trotter had been at the top of his game for over twenty years, always innovating; the guy invented the kitchen table; he popularised tasting menus; he popularised high end vegetarian food; and the guy knew how to put on a show like I’ve never seen. The last big influence was Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place. He’d been there for 25 years and had been an iconic British chef since the eighties. You could go there for foie gras, grouse and snipe or you could go there for a simple fish pie.before. He knew all the tricks and it was amazing to work in that environment. I love that showmanship and it’s something I’ve tried to bring into my own cooking. I really emphasise that we’re actors and we’re performing; we have to put on a show and wow these people, and the audience has to have a great time. If they do, they’ll come back and if they don’t, they won’t.   Now you have your own place, Parlour; what are you trying to do with that? I like lovely food but I like reality and I don’t like people being too fake or dishonest with who they are or what they do. We’re open from ten o’clock every day; we do great breakfasts; we do casual lunch; we do everyday dishes and we also do special dishes. I love the fact that people go to restaurants for very different reasons. One person might be going out to impress a hot date, another might just have been to a funeral and someone else is going for a business meeting, so that’s what we try to do at Parlour; we do British pub classics like chicken Kiev and cow pie but we also do a bit of snipe or red mullet or sea bass or pork with black pudding and quince; we do the everyday but we also do the special occasions as well. I once had a review of my food that said, “British food, now available in colour”. I love the fact that British food is famously grey, stodgy and boring but it is possible to make it fun, colourful and delicious; it just takes a little bit of thought and skill. As you mentioned before, theatre is a big part of what you do; how does that manifest in the restaurant? We have a toasted marshmallow wagon wheel on the menu which we toast at the table. It gets brought to the table and the waiter brings a massive professional welder’s blowtorch with them and burnishes the marshmallows in front of the customer. We do a DIY malted chocolate mousse where you have ten different sprinkles like chocolate salami, coffee jelly, popping candy and others arranged around a special plate, then the waiter comes with a whipped cream canister and shoots the chocolate mousse into the middle. Then of course there’s the kitchen table where we just go mental. It’s very interactive. We have music; we have smoke machines; we have headphones, not tiny ones but the big ones that fit over your ears. Kitchen tables are usually in big fancy restaurants and have long tasting menus with big prices and expensive wines and it’s all quite serious. Here the chefs serve exclusively – all the drinks and food, and there’s a story behind each dish and we tell that story to the customer. Somebody made hummus the other day and they messed it up and put chestnuts in it instead of chickpeas – so there’s a new dish – chestnut hummus! We have a dish inspired by KFC and McDonald’s which we call ‘McTucky’s popcorn chicken nuggets’ which people love. It’s interactive throughout but the crescendo is the pudding. The guests finish their main course; they get given headphones in silence, then the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey starts, then Noel Coward might come on, then we dress the table and some other music might come on like Pulp Fiction and we’ll go wild dressing the table itself with mousses, purées, chocolate, blow torches, gas canisters, jellies and all the rest of it. It’s quite an experience! Do you think there needs to be more humour in top end dining? We love great food and I love fine dining but I don’t love the pomp and the seriousness behind it. There’s so much fun to be had – that’s what it’s all about. My whole point in doing this whole crazy job was having an ongoing money-making dinner party and that’s what I try and emphasise. Why not go wild? I don’t have anyone to answer to; I can do whatever I want!  Jesse's recipe for Wagon Wheel Cookies Jesse's recipe for Chestnut Hummus

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th March 2014

Jesse Dunford Wood, Parlour, Kensal Green