It was a terrifying sight. A wild-eyed Jesse Dunford Wood with a machete and a bottle of champagne. I didn't quite know where to put myself. Part of me wanted to hide but the other half wanted to see just how macabre the evening was going to turn out.
Welcome to Parlour, where anything can happen and quite often does.
The machete moment came half an hour into the evening. It actually lives on the pass but I hadn't really noticed it until Jesse picked it up and headed for the chefs table which is a few yards away. Eight bemused diners, including Jesse's PE teacher from his old school, were just getting comfortable.
In a flash of theatre, with an upward flick of the giant blade, the cork was out of the champagne bottle and glasses were being filled. Apparently, it's a technique from the Napoleonic wars called subrage and was popular with cavalry officers. I thought it perfectly summed up Jesse Dunford Wood. It was mad but brilliant and his guests loved it.
"I love the kitchen table," he told me as he replaced the machete to its resting place. "I really learnt all about it in Chicago at Charlie Trotter. That's really where the whole concept was born. Trotter was eccentric and it showed in his food and the way he served it."
I was at Parlour for the evening, primarily in the kitchen dressed as a chef in case I needed to do something, but chiefly to just take in the show and see what lessons I could learn. The problem of being a commis is that you are stuck in the same position for months on end until you can start to climb the ladder.
The trouble with me is that I'm impatient and I wanted to see new things. One of the things I was looking forward to was trying some of Jesse's food. It's really important, I believe, that commis chefs learn to eat as much as learn to cook.
"I would describe our food as funky British,” Jesse had told me when I first met him back in the summer. “I wouldn’t call it traditional British food but it’s all very familiar to everyone. We have a cow pie on the menu, we have chicken kiev on the menu, even arctic roll. All of these things could be perceived as every day, but that’s where we have fun.”
Jesse has worked in some very impressive kitchens, including at Le Gavroche and Gidleigh Park, as well as having been a chef in America and Australia. He’s a regular on TV, and was the executive chef of The National Gallery Dining Rooms when it won the Time Out award for Best British Restaurant in 2007.
Jesse took over Parlour two years ago and has complete freedom to express himself on the plate. Unsurprisingly, he’s put his own unique stamp on proceedings.
“Our hummus, for example, is made with chestnuts instead of chickpeas, and it comes with a homemade rosemary pitta bread which we make ourselves.”
That had to be my first port of call. I had tried classic Levantine hummus at The Palomar only a week before, but this was a whole different beast. Supple yet dry, I first spread the hummus on the warm bread, finally filling my mouth with a soft, slightly sweet flavour.
Next up was the raw vegetable ravioli. This was a wonderfully colourful dish made of black radish, butternut squash, classic beetroot, swede, watermelon radish and sprouts, all encasing goat’s cheese mousse around the plate, with a sprinkling of alfalfa sprouts and assorted leaves and foliage in the centre. Really a whole spectrum of tastes, all subtle and comforting.
“It’s all an evolution of different dishes,” Jesse said when I asked him about the origin of the dish. “Latent originality really, latent creativity, from exploring other menus and dishes.”
The overriding message for those dining at the chef’s table at Parlour is pace yourself. It also says Jesse will give you too much food, and it’s true. Course after course came out of the kitchen, each and every one at the discretion of Jesse. He decides what you’re eating from his menu. Not that anyone complained, such is the quality of food coming out of the Parlour kitchen.
“Running a kitchen is like a lengthy exercise in problem solving,” Jesse told me as he got ready to produce dessert. “Things will go wrong, things will go right. It’s totally up to you how you manage each situation that comes up.”
He smiled and put on a pair of wireless headphones. There were ten, one for each stunned chef table-goer that evening, one for me, and one for Jesse. It was time for pudding.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ suddenly hit us all with a bang through the headphones and smoke billowed out of a hidden machine to the left of the table, which was empty but for a length of tin foil across it.
A minute or two later, it was time for a bit of Gene Wilder and the classic chocolate room song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And off he went - the wonderfully bonkers chef Jesse - squirting, throwing, piling, igniting and balancing all manner of chocolates, cakes, sweets and syrups all over the foiled table. A chocolate garden, unique every time, and the final triumphant cluster of fireworks before the curtain.
“Food is definitely an art,” Jesse told me. “But it’s a much more accessible art than painting, for instance. Everyone has their favourite food, whatever that may be.”