I was in the fortunate position recently of being able to interview one of my favourite chefs and cookery writers, Stevie Parle. The feature, for a business magazine, was about Stevie’s business model and the gamble he’s taking in opening his new restaurant, Rotorino.
There was a lot of foodie stuff discussed that it wasn’t appropriate to include in the piece, then I went to eat at Rotorino with a friend, so I thought I’d share both experiences with you here. Not warmed-up leftovers, hopefully, but an insight into the background of a young but already very successful chef and his food.
For anyone who hasn’t already heard of him, Stevie Parle worked in some of London’s top restaurants before opening the Dock Kitchen and Rotorino, he writes a recipe column for the Daily Telegraph on Saturdays, he’s made TV programmes and written recipe books. Did I mention he’s still only 29?
But he’s been working in the food industry since he was a teenager. “I’ve cooked since I was really, really young,” he says. “I’ve always loved to cook. My parents were good cooks and we always went on great holidays, so I grew up going to France and the coast in Ireland and sometimes a bit further to America or Asia. For me it was always about the food, I found it so exciting.”
He found school extremely boring so at the youthful age of 16 he did a three-month course at Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School, based around an organic farm and garden in the west of Ireland, which he says gave him his starting point. “It gives you a great perspective on food: getting up very early to pick the vegetables, milking the cows, feeding the chickens. And I’m from Birmingham, you know, I didn’t grow up with that sort of stuff!”
Then at 17, with a considerable amount of chutzpah, he presented himself at the iconic River Cafe in west London, run by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Grey, and asked for a job.
“I saw Rose and she said: ‘Oh, well, you’re not very experienced are you?’ And I said: ‘No, I’m not very experienced.’ She said ‘come for a week’, so I came for a week, then she said ‘stay for a month’ so I stayed, then she said ‘stay ’til Christmas’, then she said ‘stay ’til the summer’, and eventually I was there for three years and built a long and strong friendship with Rose. She said afterwards: ‘Oh, I always knew you’d be good.’ But she didn’t, she called me Simon for the first three months!”
The River Cafe set the benchmark for the sort of food Stevie wanted to cook and the sort of restaurant he wanted to run.
“The River Cafe is just the most brilliant place to learn to cook. You learn in a really full way. If you go into a lot of more Michelin restaurants, you don’t actually learn how to cook, you learn how to run a section. You never make a whole plate of food even, you don’t connect with produce.
“This was 12 years ago when restaurants in London were still pretty much either the River Cafe: that sort of overgrown domestic type of kitchen, not an Escoffier brigade set-up, everything was cooked to order and fresh and the produce was seasonal; or it was very smart restaurants with table cloths and really mean chefs in the kitchen. I hate that shouty, abusive chef thing. You have to create an environment of stress somehow, because of the time pressures, so it has to be pacey but you don’t have to be abusive.”
Between stints of travelling around Asia and the US, he worked at two more very well-reviewed restaurants, Moro and Petersham Nurseries, when Rose Grey telephoned him. “She said: ‘I’ve got cancer, one of my chefs has had a heart attack, please come and work for me for a few months.’ And I said ‘of course.’ I’d have done anything for Rose.”
In between working full-out at the River Cafe, Stevie wrote his first cookery book then started doing pop-ups, which led to him opening his first tiny 20-cover restaurant at Portobello Dock, above the furniture showroom of designer Tom Dixon. That expanded into the current Dock Kitchen, which attracts the wealthy Notting Hill crowd.
Rotorino, on the other hand, is in London’s Haggerston area, where it sits near the end of a fairly shabby row of shops in a neighbourhood that mixes council estates with middle-class villas and new canal-side apartments. Stevie has, accordingly, come up with a democratically-priced menu. You can have a plate of pasta and a glass of wine for under a tenner or go the whole hog and splash out on a four-course meal.
The food is light, fresh, mainly Italian in inspiration and when I went for dinner one Friday night the place was packed with a mostly 30-something crowd. It’s created quite a buzz locally because there’s nothing else like it in the immediate area.
Between us we tried grilled squid, asparagus, the pea gnudi (like gnocchi, very light, made from ricotta and so good that friends have been messaging me raving about them), a Middle White pork chop that was delicious and perfectly cooked but so big I couldn’t finish it, and meatballs my friend is still enthusing about. We finished by sharing a very good almond and sour cherry ice cream.
It’s all very seasonal, the charcuterie is locally sourced, the menu changes regularly, the mostly Italian wine list is good and it’s reasonably priced for a London restaurant. I hope Rotorino is a success, partly because I liked the food and partly, to be honest, because I’ve taken a real shine to Stevie Parle.
When I interviewed him it was a couple of hours before Rotorino’s opening night. He sat amongst piles of cardboard boxes and tables stacked with glassware while workmen hammered and drilled all around us, and exhibited no impatience at having to talk to a journalist when he must have been longing to get back in the kitchen. He was thoughtful, quietly-spoken and modest about his achievements, a far cry from the sort of shouty cheffery he deplores.
He says he still misses his mentor Rose Grey, whose cancer finally claimed her life. “She was extraordinary. I still hear her voice in my head when I’m cooking and in a funny way I know what she would say about things. I don’t know what she’d think about this restaurant – I think she’d like it.”
She wouldn’t be alone.