Interview with an Innovator

Pastaio's Stevie Parle: ‘The people we're cooking for want in-your-face flavours’

The chef-owner of the pasta joint talks about expanding the Pastaio brand, his approach to menu development and why he'll never compromise on quality.

20 December 2019
chefsitalianpastaprovenancerestaurants

Parle on paper – CV

  • Began his career as a chef at River Cafe working with Ruth Rogers
  • Opened his first restaurant, Dock Kitchen, in 2009 at the age of 24
  • Formed Stevie Parle Restaurants with business partner Liam Nelson in 2014

Stevie Parle has opened six restaurants in 10 years, but it is the forthcoming opening of his seventh – Pastaio at Westfield London – which is making him unexpectedly excited.

Each of the six restaurants Parle has opened before – Dock Kitchen (closed in 2017), Craft London, Rotorino (closed in 2018), Palatino, Sardine and Pastaio Ganton Street – were one-offs, so duplicating one of them marks new territory for the chef-restaurateur.

“Doing the same one of something is great, because I can make it better,” he explains. “I can design the same kitchen better which I've never done before. It's fun actually and I hadn't realised how much.”

Pastaio is far removed from Dock Kitchen, the pop-up-to-permanent restaurant Parle opened in a canalside warehouse in Ladbroke Grove in 2009.

The restaurant, which started as a series of pop-ups in British designer Tom Dixon’s showroom, had no concept; it was somewhere a 24-year-old Parle could trial and showcase his eclectic cooking. Nevertheless, its success put the young chef on the culinary map.

“I'd really just cook what I wanted and people were really into it. Back then, there wasn't that much to write about in the food world, because there was less happening. We got a few great reviews and that was it really.”

Today, Parle takes a more planned and considered approach to his restaurants, but, as he reveals, he is also tenacious and never afraid to tweak or improve existing concepts if he believes they need it.

Burrata, Pastaio olive oil, chilli and oregano

Most of my restaurants have happened by accident. Dock Kitchen was the first. I'd done this series of pop-ups and they really took off when I moved into the space where Tom Dixon was building his showroom. It was only going to be temporary. Tom had some interns who helped build the restaurant, my sister came to work for me and we just did it for a week. It was hectic and could have been better, but it was fun and worked, so we stayed until Christmas. It operated as a cafe in the daytime, then I did these dinners three times a week. It just grew. Then Tom moved downstairs and opened his shop and I turned the first floor into a restaurant.

I did want to re-open Dock Kitchen, but it wouldn't have worked just anywhere. You couldn't move it to Soho or put it in a smaller space without a terrace. All the spaces I saw didn't seem right and it didn't have a reason to be any more. It was a moment that lasted a few years, but now everything has moved on.

I'm really enjoying how accessible Pastaio is. It's so different to conventional restaurants. It's cheap, but extremely high quality, fresh and handmade – and I'm loving that about it. We charge £6 for a plate of pasta and people don't expect it to be so good for that price. It's cheaper than Wetherspoons.

Pastaio isn't an Italian restaurant. We're not about traditional, elegant Italian cooking. The people we're cooking for want in-your-face flavours and are the kind of people who will eat with us one day and at Patty & Bun the next. I wanted to make sure that everything is fun and that the restaurants feel intense, colourful, loud and buzzy, and the food has to stand up to that, so the main aim is to produce strong, simple flavours. Even our tomato sauce is reduced and reduced again to make it strong and delicious.

People love pasta because it's so comforting and nice. I know London food people will come and visit because they know about the restaurant and me, but what's more satisfying is seeing people who don't know anything about it come in. I'm enjoying seeing big families of tourists come in for a plate of pasta because it's convenient, doesn't look too expensive and they know their kids will eat it. They have it, love it and the bill isn't a shock, so they come back the next day.

The carbonara we make at Pastaio Ganton Street is a big seller. People love it. We use hand-cut guanciale (cured pig cheek) instead of pancetta – we use kilos and kilos of it so the poor chefs have a lot to cut – eggs, parmesan and pepper. I keep chickens, which scratch around wherever they want, so I'm obsessed with finding eggs that have the same quality as those from the chickens in my garden. They have to have lovely deep yolks, which helps to make it rich and delicious.

Pastaio has a really agile, seasonal menu. I always think it's weird when people say they're launching their autumn menu on a certain date, because the weather changes each year, so does the produce. You can't just say 'it's autumn now.' We change our menu a little bit at a time. This year, for some reason the figs went on into November. They were so good so we kept them on, but you'd never be able to take advantage of that if you wrote an autumn menu to launch on 15th October.

Quality of produce is so important. We use hand-peeled San Marzano tomatoes, preserved in their own juices and stored in big jars. They are amazing and so different to a tin of tomatoes you'd find in a supermarket. The beef we use for the ragu is rare breed from the moors of Yorkshire. Nobody buys beef like that for this type of restaurant, but we can make it work.

Red prawns, chilli, tomato, spaghetti

I really want to open a Pastaio outside London. I'm from Birmingham, so I've looked up there to see if it could work.

A lot of the menu development is done by me. I write all the menus and then the rest is more collaborative. We're working on some new ice creams for Pastaio Westfield and I really want to do gnudi (ricotta rolled in semolina). Our ricotta is made in Acton and is delivered the day it's made, but gnudi can be unpredictable, so I'm trying to get it to work consistently. We've also got new equipment at Westfield that we haven't got at Ganton Street. There's a fryer, so we're going to make zucchini fritti. We're just working on the sauces to go with that.

Being able to change a menu within a minute's notice is really important to me. I want to make sure we can do that, even with two Pastaio or more.

We'll be surrounded by chains like Wagamama at Westfield London. I've never thought of them as competition before. I love Wagamama, but people go there and know what their dish is, so to be up against that familiarity and brand recognition is extraordinary. One of the things we're doing to counter it is put a pasta room surrounded by glass at the front of the restaurant where you'll see people making pasta, so customers understand that this isn't some centrally produced mega-brand that's been made in a shipping container or some factory somewhere; it's fresh food being made in front of you.

I always pick up new things when travelling, but sometimes from our suppliers too. I've been running restaurants for 10 years and we have amazing relationships with all our suppliers and growers, so if there's something new that they tell us about we try and incorporate it where we can.

We're relaunching the restaurant level at Craft London in Greenwich. When we opened, we wanted to make it a destination restaurant, which we did quite successfully, but development of the area means there are now people living around there, so I want to make sure it's part of the community. I like to change stuff and am constantly asking if something's right. If it's not, then I change it.

We're just going to make sure we grow sustainably. We don't have big private equity money behind us needing a three-year return on investment. We are just trying to be sensible and not make the mistakes other groups that have grown before us have made and never compromising on the quality. I'm not aiming to open 150 Pastaios. My philosophy is, if it makes sense and it works, then we'll do it.

Food innovation is happening more outside London today. There are some unbelievable things happening in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire and Cornwall. Maybe it's because it's cheaper – it's hard to open a restaurant in London unless you've got a million pounds – but also I think it's because chefs want to get out of the city and get a bit closer to the land.

Making sure that people are well-looked-after, inspired and trained is the most important thing to me. It's important to get people on a journey and create long-term careers for them so they have progression and are paid enough for it to make sense. 

One day, maybe when I've grown up, I'll open a hotel, with land and that kind of thing. That's a long way off.

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