Stevie Parle is a young chef in London, with a lot of ambition, a busy restaurant, two cookbooks with a third on the way and a recent TV show, Spice Trip, in the can for Britain’s Channel 4. We dropped by recently in the middle of London’s Design Week to spice trip at his Dock Kitchen at the Portobello Dock, out near Kensal Rise — a fashionable neighborhood just beyond Notting Hill, with a touch of the pioneer spirit about it.
Not even 30, and after stints in the kitchens at River Café, Moro, Petersham Nurseries and New York’s Spotted Pig, and running pop-up project the Moveable Kitchen, Parle opened Dock Kitchen in 2009. (He’s been cooking professionally since the age of 16.)
The first thing we notice is a kitchen staff constantly in motion: plating deep fried sage leaves and Cornish red hens, smacking gorgeous mackerel down on a charcoal grill, rolling out dough for fresh lavash to be baked in their own tandoor oven. And then there are the chicken livers. As we wait for Parle to arrive we grabbed a “snack” of his gamey livers sautéed in Lebanese seven spice, pomegranate molasses, lots of butter and kissed with some Greek yogurt, with a piece of that fresh lavash to mop up the juices. It is eye-rollingly good.
I see from your menu, and the flavors coming out of the kitchen, and you’re obviously the “spice guy.”
I suppose I am.
How did you fall in love with exotic spices, Middle Eastern flavors in particular.
Travel, really. I traveled when I was young, traveled when I was cooking. Definitely travel.
Well, then when did you get the cooking bug?
I started cooking when I was 16.
And before that?
Before that too, but I started cooking professionally when I was 16.
What were you making pre-16?
I was cooking when I was two probably with my parents, and my dad has just started cooking with my son, and I was thinking, “Oh yeah, we used to do that.” We used to make cakes.
Did you like to cook for the family when you were little?
Yeah, and my parents were quite adventurous, they weren’t your average home cooks. They’d cook with Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey books, that would be what they were cooking.
The spice was in your life early on…
And I’m from Birmingham, and there’s a huge Indian population there.
Why is Indian food so much better in England than almost anywhere else in the world, besides India?
I don’t know why that is. It’s not everywhere; we have terrible Indian food all over the place.
Of course, but I mean in general, I think the quality is so much better. Even some of the best Indian restaurants in New York don’t hold a candle to some of the better High Street curry houses.
It’s true, Indian food in America is quite bad, isn’t it? I wonder why that is. It must just be that there is a really really big Indian population here, and also they’re a very strong community, so they’ve kept a lot of their ingredients, a lot of their values, a lot of the way they like to cook.
In terms of your professional cooking life, who would you call your biggest influences?
Definitely working at River Café was the biggest. Just, Rose [Gray] was amazing and we got on really really well, and she just has a confidence and a beautiful way of cooking that you never get in anyone else.
What do you think you took away from her?
Being bold, and not being afraid of simplicity. You see sometimes that over-worked food, very fancy cooking, is apologetic in a way. It’s like, “I really hope you like it because I’ve done this clever thing and this clever thing…” But actually, just so you know this is great, just eat it and don’t worry about it. That’s the kind of thing.
So you worked with April Bloomfield?
Yes! I worked with April at River Café and then I worked with her for awhile at Spotted Pig.
Where in the world did you go for the show?
God, we went to India, Kerala, Cambodia, Zanzibar, Mexico, Grenada and…Turkey. In two months.
Mexico? That’s an interesting choice in your flavor profile.
I love Mexico! Mexican food is fantastic.
Since we’re in the middle of the London Design Festival, how would describe your design aesthetic? Your place is very funky.
We work closely with a designer called Tom Dixon. He’s downstairs. He designs the restaurant, which means it can change a lot which is really nice. My cooking and his design are quite similar in that his is about ingredients, in a funny way? If you look at his stuff, it’s like, this is about copper, this is about marble, this is about stone, this is about casting. And I sort of cook in very similar ways. Like, “I love these tomatoes, what should we do with them?” So we’ve got that integrity, a kind of truth to the product that we both share that means it sits quite well, I think.
I think I accidentally ordered one of your signature dishes, so that brings me to what are your signature dishes?
There are only two that don’t come off the menu. The chicken livers…
I had that, and ohmygosh, they were so good. Not your bubbe’s chicken livers.
It doesn’t come off the menu because we get complaints if it does. And the other is the biryani, that one as well, we’d just get in big trouble if we changed it.
What dishes are you currently excited about that might have the potential to go the distance…
To be honest, I don’t want things to stay on the menu. I’d really love to take both of those off the menu, I’d just get in really big trouble. So actually, hopefully nothing. I like to keep the menu quite small, so if there were four things that can’t come off, then (laughs)…
Of your contemporaries, young restaurateurs and chefs, who are you excited about?
There’s so much happening. I like more of some of the street food that is happening at the moment, than maybe what is the trends in restaurants. I’m not that interested in trends. We’re all looking towards the Scandinavians, who I love, and I love Rene [Redzepi] and I think Noma is a fantastic restaurant, but I just don’t like it when people copy stuff, do you know what I mean? I love, I love this, like there’s this store called Yum Bun that make these fantastic Taiwanese pork buns. More of that kind of stuff.
Do you miss the unpredictable pop-up life?
Yeah, I do. I really do. We do it occasionally. We did one in Italy this spring. It was really fun. We might do one in Lebanon in the autumn. I miss it, but also, it’s immensely hard work, you don’t make any money, they’re really good fun, but it’s not sustainable really. I’ve yet to meet anybody who’s made it work. The way we do the international ones is with sponsors, and that’s good, it’s actually really nice to work with people and collaborate.
So what’s next for you?
A little bit of a rest? I’m having another baby in November, so I need to have a quiet winter, and then get a few things set up in time for spring.
Any more restaurants on the horizon?
I might. There are a couple of smaller things I’m thinking of doing. But it’s quite early days. I don’t want another restaurant as big as this one, not that this is that big. I like to be here quite a lot. The way I know how to run a restaurant is by really being there. Maybe down the line a bit.
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