Star Chef Stevie Parle landed in Milan during Design Week for a special project with designer Tom Dixon. Here is what he told Swide.
Stevie Parle is one of the most talked-about chefs right now. He went to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland when he was sixteen and has been cooking professionally ever since. He has worked in some of London’s top kitchens, including The River Café, Moro and Petersham Nurseries, as well as some of the world’s hippest restaurants such as The Spotted Pig in New York and Salt in Tokyo. He is also the owner of The Dock Kitchen in London (Portobello Docks, 344/342 Ladbroke Grove, Kensal Road W10 5BU).
He has a weekly food column in The Telegraph newspaper and has published two cookbooks. He was named Young Chef of the Year by the Observer Food Monthly in 2010 and one of the top 10 young chefs in Europe by the Wall Street Journal.
I had the chance to chat with him during Milan Design Week. On the occasion, the Science Museum of Milan was in fact home of Most Exhibition, Tom Dixon designer’s project that included the temporary restaurant opened with Stevie Parle in the Cenacolo room.
Looking even younger than he is (only 27 years old), Parle greets me at the entrance of the stunning space where the temporary restaurant is. He is tall and kind, and you can see from the sparkle in his eyes he is very happy. We sit at the long table, not yet set for dinner, and we start to chat, with him attentive, yet always looking around to check if anyone needs him. I like that: he seems very energetic, very curious, and not afraid to talk the “behind the scenes” life of a chef.
You participated with Tom Dixon to the Design Week in 2011 and you are back this year with a new stunning project: can you tell me about it? How was it born and what has changed from last year’s collaboration?
This project is in collaboration with Dixon. We really liked the experience last year but it was very tiring, too so I wasn’t 100% convinced but Tom really wanted to do it. I was already in Milan for a famous food congress Identità Golose, and so I thought the locations were worth a check: when Tom showed me the space I thought “I have to do it”.
What I had in mind food-wise was something very simple, almost the food you would serve in a monastery, all about sharing and simple pleasures. Everything is very stripped down, humble.
I am also very pleased of our sponsor, Nokia: they are presenting a new phone, Lumia 800, and our guests have one each to use while they are here. They can look at the menu, leaving comments regarding the night.
Stevie Parle's pop-up restaurant in Milan, in the Cenacolo Room of the Science Museum
You started your "temporary" restaurant experience by creating the Movable Kitchen, secret supper parties in London. Can you tell me how the project was born?
2007/8 in London were very difficult years financially, and people wanted to experience food in a different way, so I wanted something different, too. It was really rewarding but it was very hard to change location every time.”
Do you think pop-ups are changing the dining experience? How?
You learn a lot from pop ups: they are low budget and if you want to survive you need to make it great by creating vibes, by being cool. It is an overall experience, rather than a design food one. For me it's about collaborators, involving other people and building things together. Having a deadline helps, too: you tighten everything up. With pop-ups, what you see is what you get, no pretentious stuff: if you like it, good, if not, I don't mind.
Another view of The Cenacolo room in Milan
Why did you open The Dock Kitchen? What do you want to give to people through your cuisine?
I knew the space before Tom suggested that I join in. I already wanted it. And then I met Tom and he said “it's too big for me, I want some life in it”. You know, if you own a furniture shop what you are creating is for eating on and sitting on, it needs life. It was supposed to stay open only for some days, then they became months, then we couldn’t stop.
The Dock Kitchen's view in London
When did you understand you wanted to be a chef?
I wanted to be a farmer, actually... I didn't like school, I found it boring to be honest. At 16 I realised it was an option. There was a time in which being a chef turned into a job that people wanted to do. (he laughs). It's a difficult job but it was growing and it looked cooler than before."
You have already written two books and you write regularly for The Telegraph: do you find any similarity with cooking? Did you decide to do it in order to communicate about your job or was it something that came up naturally?
There are a lot of similarities to cooking. When you are cooking you have to think of who is eating the things you will cook. You are doing it to give pleasure to someone else, not to yourself. I really enjoy writing and teaching people how to cook, that’s why I tend to employ people with no experience, so that they learn from me from scratch. My kitchen is quite funny, my team comes from all walks of life (one has a philosophy degree, one had a totally different job). It's an interesting crowd.
What's your philosophy food-wise?
I like food that is simple and almost homely, that makes you feel comfortable, real food. I am less about food that looks very beautiful...cooking to me is about finding the right ingredients. They are local but the taste I give them is global. It's about travelling and how I can take those foreign ingredients and make them feel my own. I like to keep everything fresh and honest.
The Dock Kitchen in London
Fresh and honest is pretty much the description of Italian cuisine. What do you like about our cuisine?
I love the confidence. In Italy you eat two ingredients on a plate at the most, when you are eating well in Italy. It is a quite unapologetic food. It’s like saying to whoever you are cooking for: “You know it's good food and we don't need anything else.” It has become my philosophy too, I adopted it. When I plan a dish I think "let's see what we are not going to put in this plate, what we can take away a bit so you can see just the ingredients."
Do you have any future project that's keeping you busy right now, restaurant aside?
Maybe I will open a temporary restaurant in Lebanon. Beirut it's such a great city, hopefully it's going to happen. And I have no rush to open another place in London but at some point I would like to open something smaller.
Can you tell me the most curious story about a dish you created? Something with a particular ingredient or history…
Well, the way we cook in the Dock kitchen is that we take something you would not get in this kind of environment, you know, kind of a glamorous one, and then we make it familiar to whoever is there at our tables. Sometimes I look over the room and I see a fashionable lady, elegant and proper, eating lentils and I think “Wow! She is eating lentils.” It always surprises me how ‘democratic’ food is.
How do you create your menu?
It changes a lot. I have two menus, one runs for two weeks (it features dishes you would not be able to have normally in a restaurant, local, traditional dishes of other countries), one has the highlights of everything, 6 starters, 6 main courses and that changes constantly, depending on what's available day to day. You have to be very flexible if you work with local, small producers and farmers: it's a challenge but it keeps it fresh.
The Dock Kitchen setting
You are a ‘Celebrity Chef’ now: when do you think was your lucky break?
No, no! (he smiles). "Celebrity Chef" makes me think about a book that hasn't been hard work...this is not what I did. I wrote mine! Seriously, there hasn’t been really a moment in which I thought " I have made it". I like things to move so fast...I have been waiting around for a project and I felt annoyed to have to wait…I am thinking forward, always."
Leaving aside the basic ingredients, is there another ingredient that people should have in their kitchens?
Middle Eastern ingredients for sure, they are so easy to use. Sumak: a red powder from a wild berry spice. You can sprinkle it on things, it's acidic, like lemon, and it makes everything fresh and vibrant.
What is the ingredient that you are never without?
That one. And fresh herbs.
What was your family like? Does your love for food come from them?
I travelled a lot with my parents and travelling for them was always about having good food, too. They also cooked a lot.
How do you deal with your job and having a family?
It's hard! I am getting better at it, but it's hard. You need to understand that there are going to be people who can do things just as well as you, you have to understand you have to delegate. My son is 18 months old. It's a great age and they change so fast. I don’t want to miss it.
Interview by Elisa della Barba