Chef Focus

The Parlour: why an ex-fancy restaurant chef prefers pubs

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Parlour chef-patron Jesse Dunford Wood operates a pub that's 'accessible to all'
Parlour chef-patron Jesse Dunford Wood operates a pub that's 'accessible to all'

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Jesse Dunford Wood has created an environment where everyone is welcome. Nicholas Robinson reports

A lifetime of working in fancy restaurants, which aren’t accessible to the masses, fuelled Jesse Dunford Wood, head chef at the Parlour, with the desire to break with high-end eateries and launch his own venue where everyone from a city banker to a dustman would feel welcome.

Yet, the Kensal Green, west London, pub he’s headed for the past two and-a-half years, wasn’t, he admits, the kind of place he thought he’d end up running.

“I had been working in fancy restaurants all over the world for 15 years and that gave me skills and taught me discipline and organisation,” explains Wood. “But I always had this desire to open my own restaurant that was open to all people, because fancy restaurants are quite exclusive.

Why a pub?

"I had been working in fancy restaurants all over the world for 15 years and that gave me skills and taught me discipline and organisation ... Twenty years ago, if you wanted nice food, you had to go to a nice restaurant. But if you wanted simpler surroundings, you had to almost have s**t food.”

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted nice food, you had to go to a nice restaurant. But if you wanted simpler surroundings, you had to almost have s**t food.”

Following training for more than a decade in restaurants in Chicago, Australia, Edinburgh and London, Wood took a year off in 2008 and prepared to open his own restaurant. He found funding and a site and was “just about to sign my life away and spend a lot of someone else’s money and handcuff myself to a 20-year lease”.

However, the 2008 financial crisis struck and the money dried up, preventing Wood from going ahead with his venture.

Afterwards, he met “a group of guys” who were opening a pub in Notting Hill, west London, and was persuaded to go in on the venture. But Wood had hardly ever stepped in a pub and was dubious about cooking there. Yet, while working in Notting Hill’s Mall Tavern, Wood found that a pub would be the perfect place for him to realise his ambition of opening an inclusive restaurant.

“Admittedly, at first I thought I was this high and mighty chef, cooking in a pub and I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with that,” he says. “But, the nice thing about it was that my granny could come and my nephew, who was two at the time, could come. The city bankers would sit in the same room as dustmen and that was lovely. In the restaurants I’ve worked in, you would never have got the granny, the banker and the dustman all sitting eating together.”

Go their separate ways

Wood and his then business partners bought a second site, the Parlour, shortly after. However, it was later decided the team would go their separate ways, which left Wood as the Parlour’s tenant.

Under his leadership, the Parlour entered the Top 50 Gastropubs list at number 50 for the first time this year, a listing, he says, that has benefited the business. “To be well regarded and voted by your industry brethren, that’s a beautiful thing. People react to it and the regulars then think it’s the best place in the world.”

Although Wood hadn’t envisaged running a pub, and perhaps he still isn’t cooking the sort of food he would cook in a restaurant, Wood says he has got what he wants. The Parlour offers the diversity the head chef craved in order to be inclusive of as many diners as possible.

The 180-seater pub (60 of which are in the garden) opens for breakfast at 10am six days a week. “It’s another stream of revenue for us. I don’t love serving breakfast, but I love the ‘everydayness’ it brings to the pub.”

Cow Pie - Lauren McClean
The Parlour's 'famous' cow pie

Customers walk in the door to a stack of newspapers, they can make their own toast and order the most expensive breakfast in the area for £13.50, he says.

“When we first started to do breakfast we opened at 8am and we didn’t really get many customers, so we moved it back to 10am. We do a handful of breakfast covers each morning through the week, but at the weekend, we do about 150 covers on Saturday and 250 on Sunday.”

Lunchtime is more consistent, and Wood and the team typically do 40 covers a day during the week and more than twice as many at the weekends. Dinner covers rise throughout the week from anywhere between 17 to 74 on Tuesday to Thursday and up to 100 on Friday to Sunday, he says. The Parlour is closed on Mondays.

But how do Wood and his 18 staff, including seven chefs, respond to the fluctuations in covers throughout the week?

“People talk about flexing up and I think that’s a good term for describing what we do in these situations. You can’t do dinner for 14 people on a Tuesday and make it the best food we’ve ever done and then serve a lower quality version to more people when we’re busier,” he says.

‘If we go too pernickety and fancy-pants’

“The food and drink offer allows us to be consistent. If we go too pernickety and fancy-pants, the wheels will come off and everything will start to get a bit s**t when it starts to get busy.”

And the food offer is, while well-executed, simpler than the head chef would have cooked in his fancy restaurants. For instance, the staples of cow pie and chicken Kiev are far from what you’d expect of a high-end restaurant, but their simplicity makes them better than if they were over thought.

Wood may have solved the problem of delivering consistent quality for an erratic cover demand, but his desire to entice diners from all parts of the community brings about another issue. More traditional food-serving pubs may have deterred families from eating there at any time of the day because they have a very ‘pubby’ feel, but Wood’s unique set-up, he says, combats this.

PMA_Top 50 Gastropubs_Parlour_chef Jesse Dunford Wood_making pork pies_CREDIT Joe Lord
Chef-patron Jesse Dunford Wood in the kitchen

“We get lots of screaming kids in here, which is great, because their parents wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable with that in a traditional pub environment. I’m not proud enough about my food to mind that it gets chaotic in that way.

“To be able to do this, though, you have to get the food, the building, the feel and the decor to work together. A lot of people think food is the most important thing, but it isn’t. If you’ve got a snooty waiter or it’s too cold or the music’s too loud, that’s not good.

“I’ve stepped out of the kitchen to make sure the style is appropriate to what I wanted to achieve. Sometimes food tastes amazing, but you might not be able to relate to your surroundings. It’s all got to connect.”

Because of Wood’s unique business needs, the Parlour doesn’t resemble a traditional boozer on the inside, despite its pubby exterior.

“But that’s the beauty of pubs, they offer the chance to be diverse,” he adds. “I just love people. Is that weird? And I’ve succeeded in opening a place that, I think, is accessible to all kinds of people.”

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