21 Aug 2012

Stevie Parle

THE chef, cookery book author and columnist on his love of Liberty, a problem with farming subsidies, and the plastic furniture of the Virgin Canteen… 

What is your background?
I grew up in Solihull, hated school, slightly stopped going, and by 16, left. Cooking wasn’t on the syllabus. My parents, both doctors, were adventurous chefs. On leaving school, I worked for them, filing by day and cooking River Café inspired dishes for their friends at night (I’d been cooking since 12). With money raised, I ventured to Thailand, Indonesia and Laos. I’d never experienced such wonderful food and fast became fascinated by local dishes and their social associations.

What was your first professional experience?
My parents treated me to lunch at the River Café when I was 15. I remember sitting in the serene garden. There was nothing like it in Birmingham. Two years later, I enrolled at Ballymaloe cookery school. Principal, Darina Allen, a great force, recommended me to the River Café’s co-founder, Rose Gray who agreed to take me on for a week. But I stayed for summer, then Christmas! We became friends. I remember seeing the crocuses on Highbury Fields the day she died. We used to cook Indian food together in Southall.

At the time, I lived with Mexican food expert, Thomasina Miers, then borrowed money from my dad to buy dilapidated houseboats. I lived on one, a World War II landing craft, while rebuilding the other, a narrow boat. A few years later, while working with chef, April Bloomfield of New York’s Spotted Pig (between stints at Moro and Petersham Nurseries), I heard the landing craft sank!

Describe your cellar?
For the bulk of our list, we use Liberty. Our manager, Nick Trower, used to be their West London representative. We use half a dozen other suppliers including: Aubert & Mascoli (natural and biodynamic wines from France and Italy), Mille Gusti (Italy), Vinetrail (France), and Richards Walford (Burgundy, Bordeaux and South Africa).

The list is split into France, Italy, Rest of Europe and Rest of the World.  The average spend is £30-£40/bottle. It’s is a great price point to find really interesting wines from (generally) small family estates where terroir/regionality shines through in the glass.

How do you choose wine?
Nick and I taste together. Rather than attend portfolio tastings, which can be exhausting, where the weirdest rather than most food friendly wines show through, we taste in small batches with suppliers who know and understand the food I cook. Nick asks them to come in with a dozen options and we pick the highlights. I use lots of spices in my cooking, so we seek wines to complement these bold flavours while maintaining natural elegance

What are your favourite wines?
Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot from Martinborough, Domaine Pattes Loup Chablis, Colombia Vigna Nuova Sangiovese and Chianti Rufina from Selvapiana, which reminds me of Rose Gray. As much as the land, people are wine’s terroir. When you drink wines from Fattoria Selvapiana, it tastes like it comes more from a farm, while the Fontodi Brothers’ wines are as glamorous as them and their operation. It’s the same deal with cheesemakers.

Another favourite is Martin Codax’s Albariño from Galicia. Last month, a few of us went on a great little trip there. It was a real eye-opener to see a lush, green region of Spain with the most fantastic fresh fish and seafood. Peeling and eating bowls of percebes (barnacles) with crisp, citrusy fresh Albariño is hard to beat! It inspired a two week Galician menu at Dock Kitchen.

What territories would you like to explore next?
I'm looking forward to having Hatzidakis' mineral Assyrtiko Santorini white for our Cypriot menu. We’re also still on the lookout for a great Lebanese wine - too many samples have shown too much volatile acidity.
What about one off wines?

I took several bottles, including Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe ‘01, Smith Haut Lafitte ‘04 and Clos du Marquis ‘04 off Bruce Palling’s hands (food writer for the Wall Street Journal).

How important is sourcing?
I’m looking for a farm to work with and maybe work on. I recently visited one option near Dover run by a third generation farmer (aged 27). He had a huge field full of cows (South Devon x Charolais) and another of wheat – but, on the latter, he only makes £20/tonne profit. He pointed to a £250k combine harvester bought with money borrowed against his land. No wonder his brother works in the city! He implied that government subsidies are damaging the industry because they go against a culture of competition. Then again, consumers don’t want £5 milk...

On that note, I’m trying to get my hands on raw milk. When in Sweden visiting Magnus Nilsson’s 12-seat restaurant, Fäviken on a hunting estate, Nilsson clapped when annoucing the arrival of a four minute-old cheese, still warm, dressed with lavender.

You operated a well-known supper-club, The Moveable Feast...
Although it felt like more, we only did 12 supper-clubs, taking over a café, and even a swimming pool. We’d open to a fantastically mixed crowd, from fashion to food lovers, and older loveys. But they were huge jobs and made no money. Then I heard about the canal-side warehouse which would become Dock Kitchen, and wanted to do a supper club there.

What was Dock Kitchen before?
Virgin Studios’ canteen, with ugly ‘80s plastic furniture and salad servery. The Spice Girls recorded in the studio below. When we threw the server away, it was a moment of triumph! Dock Kitchen began as a week-long project with a limit of 25 covers a night, but pretty soon we realised it was popular and fun. It didn’t seem right to let it go. We opened with no money and no business plan,. I put £5k in the bank and we cooked. Now it’s a stylish space fitted out by Tom Dixon, whose shop is where the recording studio was.
How does it differ from a ‘traditional’ restaurant?

My food tends towards the bigger picture. We cook a lot of Sri Lankan, for example, which is less about regionality, but recipes cultivated in the family (potent but pretty food). We also offer sharing dishes like bollito misto, which pulls away from a restaurant’s traditional feel. Last week we cooked biryani in clay.

Tell me about writing?
My first book, My Kitchen: Real Food From Near and Far was published as part of Quadrille’s New Voices series (nominated for the André Simon Book Awards and the Guild of Food Writers’ Jeremy Round Award for Best First Book). I want write longer features than my 600 word column in The Telegraph, explaining the different ways to hang beef, how chocolate is made, and the history of spices.

What of the future?
Sometimes Dock Kitchen feels too posh. Following the tandoori tent we did at Harvest at Jimmy’s festival, I’d like to do an Indian food stall. I also like the idea of opening an Indian River Café one day...
Stevie Parle’s second book, Dock Kitchen Cookbook is out now.