Stevie Parle, Dock Kitchen, London

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th February 2014

Stevie Parle runs and owns Dock Kitchen, the much talked about restaurant on London’s Portobello Docks. He got into cooking from an early age after many eye-opening culinary experiences on his travels. After training at Darina Allen’s legendary Ballymaloe Cookery School he went on to work at the equally legendary River Café as well as Moro and Petersham Nurseries. After more culinary travels he set out on his own, first with his roving pop up, Moveable Kitchen, then Dock Kitchen. He has three books and a TV series, Spice Trip, to his name and was named The Observer Food Monthly’s young chef of the year 2010. 

How did travelling create the impetus to become a chef for you? The first place I travelled was South East Asia with my brother when I was 16. I remember just being hit by the intensity and the vibrancy of the food there. I remember eating a papaya salad and thinking, I’ve never eaten anything like this before and nor probably have most people in England - why are all the restaurants in the UK either curry houses or French and why can’t I have this at home? You could say that Dock Kitchen came out of that experience.  How did working at The River Café affect you and influence your career?  I was very lucky to get a job at the River Café so young and that informed the rest of my life pretty much. I formed a strong and lasting friendship with the late Rose Gray. When I cook anything I still hear her in my head and Ruthie as well actually although they’re both usually saying, “What are you doing; you’ve messed it up”! But yes, it was an incredibly important perspective on food of wanting to cook in a rustic way and with that simplicity.  The other thing I guess I learned from Rose and Ruthy was confidence. I think often young chefs or very ambitious chefs, like me, want to do food that’s trying too hard, and putting too many ingredients on the plate, and we’re almost apologising for the fact that somebody’s going to pay 20 or 50 quid for a dish, almost trying to compensate for that, whereas it takes much more confidence to keep things really simple and just say, this is just a bit of salmon but it’s the best bit of salmon you’re ever going to eat; I’ve grilled it and put a bit of salt on it and not much else.  It also taught me that I didn’t want to work in the sort of restaurant that was striving for three stars or the kind of restaurant where I was going to be pretty much abused. So many people say, “I really want to go and do my time in one of those big French kitchens.” And I think, “You know what, I could do without some arsehole shouting at me.”  How did Dock Kitchen come along?  It was a bit of an accident really. It was a place I knew already because a few years before there’d been talk of doing another River Café there. It was a massive space with a big terrace and I wanted to do a big barbecue thing on the terrace there one weekend. I called the landlords and they were like “no way”. But I’d heard that a famous furniture designer, Tom Dixon, had managed to sign a lease on the place so I got in touch with him. Amazingly there was a kitchen there already and we cleaned it up and turned it into a tiny designer restaurant. We were just going to do it for a week for the London Design Festival, but after the week, we thought, we’ve done so much work on this place, it’d be crazy not to keep it open, so we stayed till Christmas. Then after Christmas we said, look we’ve actually made a bit of money and everyone loves it so let’s carry on. In September we refurbished it and suddenly it was a grown up restaurant but it still had that feel of something that had grown organically. And we still run two menus, one of which is the thematic menu which comes from the early pop up days.  So it’s still got that pop up ethos?  Yes and it’s not driven solely by me anymore. I love collaborating so we try to set aside a bit of money each month and then the chefs mostly, but also the front of house, can say, well look, I want to go to Istanbul and do a street food tour and then come back and write a menu, and we’ll say, great, we’ll pay for that, that makes sense, then they come back and develop a menu with me.  Do accolades like Michelin bother you and do you think somewhere that operates like Dock Kitchen can attain the kind of consistency that Michelin look for?  I think chefs obsess about consistency sometimes to the detriment of creativity. The most consistent restaurant in the world is McDonald’s.  Obviously there’s a scale of consistency and we’re slightly more towards the random end but I’d like to think we’re consistently delicious, that’s the aim. We only have a couple of dishes that are always on the menu because customers complain if we take them off, all the rest change, but I’d like to think that all of them are consistent in that they taste good.  How was the filming of your TV series Spice Trip as an experience and what were the highlights?  For me the really great thing was meeting people. When you meet food producers, they’re often incredible people because there’s so much passion and dedication and work that goes into growing ingredients and when you meet them you always learn something new about the produce.  The other aspect I loved was showing the viewers and the readers these ingredients that we think we know about and yet nobody knows where it comes from, how it grows, what it looks like; nobody has met anyone who grows it, or knows the ways the locals use it or what a complicated culture there is around it. There are 150 different kinds of dried chilli alone in Mexico. Cloves have pink flowers, how many people know this in the UK?  Any more projects coming up in the future? I’ve just started writing my fourth book that hopefully I’ll finish by September. I’ve also got a new restaurant opening in March in Dalston.  And in the longer term future? Is it true that you want to set up a cookery school?  I think there’s a huge hole in culinary education in the UK. The cooking colleges are not up to scratch to be honest. The best programme, it seems, is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. The chefs that come out of that seem to have a broad and good experience. There’s an apprenticeship element to it and it’s not apprenticeships in the basements of hotels; it’s apprenticeships with good chefs, which is incredibly important. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I think something definitely needs doing by someone.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 20th February 2014

Stevie Parle, Dock Kitchen, London