JOY is quite a striking name, how did you come up with it?
It’s funny, isn’t it. Some people smirk a little bit when they hear that it’s called JOY, which is fine; I do too. But the whole point of the project is to try and do something positive. And as restaurateurs, whenever way you want to spin it, we’re in the business of bringing joy to people. So I also thought it was quite apt.
How did the idea for JOY come about?
It was all as a result of the lockdown. I had been thinking about potentially creating an al fresco dining space, after the Government suggested outdoor restaurants may be allowed to open before indoor hospitality. The last few months have been incredibly difficult for lots of people, not least the hospitality industry, and I had this vision of creating a crisp, organic space that would feel unique and distinctive, and make up for some of the things people haven’t been able to do this year. I knew this site had remained empty since Dock Kitchen [one of Parle's previous restaurants, which occupied the space between 2009 and 2017] closed, so I approached the landlord. And then, soon after, I found myself faced with the prospect of having to create an entire restaurant and kitchen space in a matter of days. It wasn’t like my old site was still here and all we had to do is clean it and open the doors. Everything had been stripped out, so we had to build it all afresh. And somehow we managed to pull it together in about two weeks. We’re working with The Goods Shed [a Canterbury-based farm to fork restaurant and shop], which is great as we’ve been able to give them their own stall here, as well as have them supply the restaurant. And we’ve created this outdoor restaurant garden filled with all hundreds of beautiful dahlias that were originally destined to go on display at this year’s Hampton Court Flower Show, before it was cancelled as a result of the pandemic.
It sounds like a very community-minded space. Is that the case?
Definitely, yes. People had their first taste of food insecurity during lockdown, and it was scary. They were worried about not being able to find enough food to feed themselves and their family. Seeing and hearing this happen to so many over the last few months has made me stop and think more about the importance of my role in feeding people, as a chef and a restaurateur. And it’s encouraged me to engage more directly with the community, to make sure we can also supply food to those who are vulnerable. And that’s why we’ve added the option for diners to add a fruit and veg box to their bill, which we can then distribute to local food banks and charities on the diner’s behalf.
Would it be fair to say this project re-energised you in the midst of the lockdown?
I wouldn’t really say I lost any energy. Lockdown was a real challenge, particularly at the beginning. I suddenly had this new job I didn’t want, where I was basically trying to save my business; trying to keep jobs; and trying to negotiate these complex, last minute directives from the Government. And throughout I just kept pushing and pushing. It was awful at times, and immensely stressful, but there were also opportunities to be found in it. I don’t think I could have got this site for JOY on a temporary basis six months ago, for example.
You’ve also had to close a restaurant as a result of Covid with Sardine. How did that make you feel?
It was heart breaking, but definitely the right thing to do. We didn’t want to see it die a slow death, which I think was inevitable. If we had reopened, we would have struggled on a few months, and it would have been awful as it was such a small space. I’m very sad for Alex [Jackson, Sardine’s chef-patron]; it was ultimately his baby. He’s an incredible chef, and I have no doubt he’ll come back strong; his cooking represents real quality and care, and London has a real appetite for that. Sardine’s closure is reflective of how the restaurant industry has been decimated by this, though. I hate hearing people say it’s only the bad restaurants or the huge chain restaurants that have closed, because it’s nonsense. We’re going to lose so many great small, independent restaurants too, because they just won’t have enough money in the bank to sustain them through the crisis. And that’s a tragedy.
What’s the status of your other businesses?
It’s a strange time. Right now I’m thinking about what might be next for me; in a year’s time I don’t know what I will still have. Six months ago I had a few amazing restaurant business, but now I’m not sure if I’ve still got those. My restaurants seem to be in bad Covid locations at the moment. Take Craft, for example, a place that relies heavily on the footfall around the O2, which at the moment is non-existent. I think I will reopen that site at some point, but I don’t know when.
How about Pastaio?
Pastaio is an amazing business, and I think it can weather the storm. We’re fortunate enough to have landlords who recognise the value of it. Just before the pandemic hit we’d given our notice to exit Market Halls, as the site wasn’t really working for us, which leaves us with the restaurants in Soho and Westfield. They’re two very different sites. At the moment the Carnaby Street restaurant is closed twice a week because the customers just aren’t there. Before the lockdown we could turnover 500 covers a night in that space, now we’re doing about 200. In Westfield, though, it’s different. I had worried that it would be a place people would want to avoid after the restrictions were lifted, as it has a lot of people concentrated in one place. But because families can drive there by car, and it has a place in their minds as being clean and well-managed, more people seem comfortable visiting and footfall there is quite good. I still have lots of plans for Pastaio. It’s a cheap, affordable option to so many people, and I love that; it feeds into that idea of getting good food to more people. My previous restaurants were more high end, whereas here you can have a plate of delicious, freshly made pasta for £6. Pastaio is still going to grow. We’re exploring potential opportunities for expansion, we’re just doing it with a depleted bank balance.
There’s lots of talk at the moment of the benefits of operating a restaurant in the suburbs in comparison to the centre of the city. Does that ring true in your mind?
Absolutely, you can see if from the diners visiting JOY. People don’t want to travel on the tube or away from home as much right now. They’re staying within their local communities. Sadly, I didn’t have any sites in those locations and I’d decided a while ago that I didn’t want to be in them anymore, as they relied on Friday night and weekend trade. Instead, I went into the city, to Soho, Westfield and the O2, places that right now people are less inclined to visit. Neighbourhoods are really important places to people at the moment, but who knows how long these changes will last. It seems unimaginable that Soho won’t return to good form, but if tourism is down for a long period of time, and office workers continue to work from home, maybe it won’t return to what it was before. And I also think people have realised how much they used to spend in restaurants, and maybe don’t want to go back to those habits. Not that long ago there wasn’t much of a restaurant culture in this country, and it’s not inconceivable that we return to a world like that. But I hope that isn’t the case. Hospitality is full of smart, inventive and creative people, and we can make it work.
To read BigHospitality's feature on the opening of JOY, click here.