Honest talk

Honest talk

I first heard of Stevie Parle when a friend of mine who worked in Dalston told me about a new restaurant they’d been to not far from their office. It was called Rotorino, and its home-style Italian fare was bringing more and more people to this then reasonably un-frequented part of east London.

I’ve since had a fond affection with the place, not only because it’s a bloody brilliant restaurant, but because I went on to discover that it had opened in April 2014, the very same month that we launched Casual Dining Magazine. While so many will view ‘casual dining’ as nothing but the large, brand-heavy estates recognised all over the country, it’s important to remember the independent outlets that are enriching our high streets with lovingly-crafted, bespoke, everyday dining occasions. There are thousands of operators out there who make up the casual dining industry in their own unique way and, right now, Stevie Parle is arguably one of the most important London restaurateurs showing others how it’s done.

The dozens of emails, missed calls and text messages that went into securing a conversation with the man of the hour is testament to just how busy he currently is. “Busy yes, but, more importantly, very disorganised, which makes it harder,” he says when we eventually spoke last month. “I’m pulled every which way at the moment.”

This is because he is currently overseeing five very popular restaurants in the capital. The ending of a lease led to the closure of his debut site Dock Kitchen at the end of last year, leaving Parle with his largely Italian-influenced estate of Rotorino (Dalston), Craft (Greenwich), Sardine (Islington), Palatino (Clerkenwell), and Pastaio (Soho). If the latter rings a bell, it’s because its salivating selection of pasta featured in our February issue. If I could, I’d head out right now and review it all over again – it was beautiful.

“Pastaio is going really well,” he says. “I’m really enjoying being in that part of town. For me, it’s a different kind of restaurant – it’s cheaper, faster, and I’m really enjoying it. It is an expensive site, but it is very busy. It’s efficient. You can do good numbers – we’re doing a Saturday of 500-600 people out of 70 covers, and we’ve focused that kitchen to make it very smart when producing its handmade fresh pasta. Whereas with Rotorino, having 160 for dinner is really busy – there’s a higher spend. It has been amazing to learn how to run a completely different kind of restaurant.”

From chef to restaurateur

Parle trained as a chef in Ireland before working in some of the most respected kitchens in the UK. His back-of-house time at The River Cafe and Moro, no doubt, shaped the operational capabilities needed for his first steps into solo operations, which came in the form of (hugely popular) pop-ups and, eventually, his debut effort Dock Kitchen. Is it really that simple, though? Can any successful chef realistically go from overseeing a pass to a passing CEO?

“As a junior chef, when you start out, if you’re good at cleaning then you get on quite well,” he says. “If you have a good attitude, you get better, then eventually you start managing other people. Then, if you get to head chef level, then you’re essentially running a kitchen as if it’s a small business. You learn Excel, how to cost everything, etc. The traditional route is quite difficult, but now I’m across everything and I absolutely love it. That’s what’s great about restaurants – it’s all the elements, there are so many businesses all rolled into one. Marketing, finance, food, everything – I love it.”

Despite being across everything, there is only one place you’ll find Parle when a new site is opening, and that is behind the pass. His obsession with getting the food absolutely precise and pristine throughout a restaurant’s infancy means that he doesn’t leave that particular kitchen until he is 100% satisfied that the operation is seamless. You’d think that this would be a little easier when tackling Pastaio, a restaurant based around straightforward pasta dishes, but apparently not.

“Pastaio was a hard opening compared to Palatino, for example, which was in my comfort zone,” he says. “Pastaio was a new thing – trying to achieve something special in a small space with high volume, it took a while to get going. We took it slowly and built the numbers up, but loads of things went wrong in that opening – there was a fire upstairs, the drains were blocked, there were new tech systems, screens in the kitchen I’d never used before. It took a while.”

While that list of hiccups would have no doubt affected Parle if he were still solely working as a chef, as the owner/operator of the restaurant in question, every single consideration of site operations has the power to directly implicate him. His time spent running kitchens as “small businesses” went some way in preparing him for the trials and tests of overseeing a whole company, with similarities appearing through much more than an Excel spreadsheet.

“The best and worst thing about being a restaurateur is people,” says Parle. “It’s the most rewarding thing when people who work with you are fantastic and dedicated, and then they leave and do their own thing – that’s amazing. But it can go wrong – someone might steal something, or someone might leave on bad terms. I take that really personally. I guess I always will.”

The truth of the matter

In February’s issue, I wrote about Parle being flagged as one of the only honest operators in the London eating out market. This wasn’t referencing how everyone else runs their companies – it’s the way in which he talks about the industry and the challenges that everyone is currently facing as restaurateurs. It’s an exaggeration, of course – not every operator out there is lying about just how rosy the restaurant market is. The point to take away is that Parle, and a select few, are doing their best to bring operational issues and contests to the fore, not just talking about how much their turnover has increased this year.

“It’s normal to make everything sound great even though it’s really hard,” he says. “It’s important to be honest about the challenges in our industry at the moment and the difficulties in running multiple restaurants. It’s important people understand that it’s hard and that the London restaurant scene is a privilege that we have to look after. The most incredible restaurant scene has developed here, and I feel like it’s on the brink in some ways. We’re lucky, as we do well, but there are other great restaurants that aren’t doing so well right now. It’s a shame.”

The honesty label was given to Parle by Jonathan Downey, who founded Street Feast and its parent company London Union. Parle works with Downey through Rotorino, as well as being an investor in the ever-growing London Union business. By the time this issue hits desks, London Union will have opened Public, it’s latest street food market in Woolwich. The business has also put in offers on two new east London sites, which it hopes to have up and running by this summer. It’s fast becoming the go-to operator for independent street food traders to work with, offering a high footfall foundation for talented chefs from which to start their own foodservice companies. But should those traders stop there? With an ever-competitive high street chewing up and spitting out many individuals trying their luck in bricks and mortar for the first time, should someone be telling these street specialists that a permanent site isn’t always the way to go?

“I look at it and think all the restaurants want to have a street food outlet and all the street food outlets want to have a restaurant,” says Parle, with an ironic chuckle. “Some of those street food places are fantastic businesses as they are – they shouldn’t move into clunky, traditional models with huge overheads and ridiculous rents. They’re doing well, and doing that on the street is a very different skill.”

Parle isn’t the stereotypical restaurateur found in the pages of Casual Dining Magazine – if the term ‘casual dining’ is open to definition, some would hesitate when including his restaurants as examples, instead leaning towards to larger, one-brand businesses. Last month saw many national newspapers offering their take on the so-called demise of the casual dining industry, mainly because when Jamie Oliver is in trouble, everyone takes note. As we’ve seen, Parle isn’t afraid to talk frankly about the struggles that all high street restaurants are facing, but he is also quick to list the success stories of the sector, something the mainstream media could perhaps occasionally do themselves.

“Look at the post-2009 brands like Honest, Patty & Bun, Pizza Pilgrims – businesses like that which are incredibly good. Honest is at more than 15 sites now, and they’re doing an incredible job. There’s a difference between those brands and the ‘old guard’ – it’s not about being cool or having great graphic designers or appealing to millennials; they’re just better. The product is really good, and those older places… they just weren’t. Once you’re that big, trying to improve the quality is really difficult. If you start out with one and you’re looking to improve your quality, I guess it’s easier. It is always sad when restaurants close, though. People forget that it’s not just the director of that business who is out of pocket; it’s all the related suppliers, staff and everyone else. It is always sad.

“For me, right now, I’m focusing on what I’m doing. I might do another Pastaio, but I’m not planning world domination. I’m just trying to do what I’m doing as best as I can.”