Interview: Nick Parkinson, Royal Oak Paley Street (October 2019)

Posted on: October 16th, 2019 by Simon Carter

[Above: Restaurateur and front of house leader at The Royal Oak at Paley Street Nick Parkinson.]

As a young teen, Nick’s first weekend job to earn some pocket money was bottling up at The Crown at Bray.  It was very local to where Nick was brought up and Bobby King owned the pub.  Nick would collect the empty soda syphons and split bottles that had been discarded and crate them up, Schweppes would collect them and give a credit for the returns.  For the next few years, right up until leaving school, Nick had grown up working around that pub.  The experience was such a positive one that it led him to pursuing a career in the hospitality industry.  Indeed, Nick had enjoyed a glimpse of the chef world in the kitchen at The Crown so went straight in at the deep end by applying for a chef apprenticeship at The Savoy Hotel in London.

Nick spent the next four years in the incredibly tough environment of the kitchens at The Savoy.  In total, Nick spent around seven years working as a chef but a couple of moments swayed his attention away from the engine room of a restaurant and toward the front of house.  First of all, he realized that to be a great chef took something really different, some special spark of flair in creativity.  He felt that while he was a good chef, he perhaps didn’t have the natural attributes of a couple of his contemporaries. At the same time, he would see the food going out from the kitchen and wonder what happened to it in the dining room.  Nick started chatting to his first inspirational career figure, the indefatigable host Angelo Maresca, who for twenty years was the legendary Maitr’ d’ of The Savoy Grill.  This relationship opened a new pair of eyes for Nick, who was able to see the stage, the theatre, the formal suits and the sommeliers as they worked the floor.

This stayed with Nick when he went on his travels, landing in Australia where he was to spend thirteen years building a life and career in the hotel industry.  One funny story from quite early in his Australian hotel career came when Nick was Room Service Manager. The rule in the hotel was that should anything be handed into lost property and not claimed within three months, the item became his to keep.  On one occasion Nick was called to lost property after an elapsed three months, he had no idea what he would be collecting, the item turned out to be a prosthetic leg.  Hard to imagine how the person could forget something so fundamental, a memory that stays with Nick and still brings a wry smile. 

Overall, the front of house of the hotel world felt like a much better fit, however as Nick climbed the career ladder to be F&B Director at The Intercontinental in Sydney, he was to realize that perhaps he had once again become too distant from the customer.  A form of epiphany happened one day in the lobby of the hotel: Nick was sharing the lift down to reception with Lady Fairfax (of Fairfax newspapers) but at the time didn’t know who she was, so when the lift reached the ground floor and the doors opened, he saw an old lady needing help with her luggage.  The conversation went something like this,

Nick: May I help you with your Luggage?

Lady Fairfax: Oh Yes, thank you, that’s very kind!

Nick: Are you checking out, today?

Lady Fairfax: Yes I am.

Nick: Have you enjoyed your stay?

Lady Fairfax: Yes, very much so…

Nick: How long have you been staying with us?

Lady Fairfax: Two years…..

Nick neither knew that any guest had a two years permanent suite at the hotel nor that Lady Fairfax was in residence.  He realized he had been buried in administration for too long and had renewed determination to get back to the purest form of customer facing roles. 

Nick felt that it was time to ‘come home’ and at the same time his father was looking at buying the Belgian Arms pub in the local village of Holyport.  Nick fondly remembers the day in 2001, sitting on a banquette in the front section of The Royal Oak at Paley Street and having the vision of what the space could become.  His father was sitting next to him and Nick remembers hearing the words “are you mad,” which was fair comment to Nick, as at the time the run down walls were painted Salmon pink.  The paint colour and state of the property were apparently the result of a dispute between the former licensee and his sublet.  With some tender loving care and a family passion for the trade, the pub was to become not only a popular food destination for locals but through various recognition systems, nationally renowned.

Nick’s philosophy of hospitality is to keep it simple, he aims to provide a warm welcome that will allow the guest to leave happier than when they arrived.  A number of factors help in this pursuit – a cosy atmosphere, quality food, a 600 bin wine list, an eye-catching display of art and a virtually ever-present host.  In today’s competitive world, customers look for social experiences that tick all these boxes and it is perhaps the people at the front who differentiate the better places. A significant natural skill is the ability to enable the guests to renew acquaintances with a host who remembers details of conversations as if they’d never been away.  Indeed, Nick has made many long-term friends as the face of The Royal Oak. 

“As well as forming these friendships at The Royal Oak, it’s been a real pleasure to see people from diverse backgrounds form lasting friendships of their own under this roof,” Nick’s observation is perhaps one of the beauties of what is left of the pub culture that is unique to Britain. 

As a restaurateur, Nick sees the most pleasurable part of his responsibilities as being the host, the front of house, orchestrating the service and working directly with customers.  Occasionally the service may go wrong but that’s the challenge of the role and to Nick the odd bump in the road is far outweighed by the enjoyment of engaging with new people every day.  Nick would suggest that the hardest part of being the restaurateur is all the operations that are involved in running your own business, the day-to-day tasks that take up a lot of time and can be a constant nagging stress.  It is actually the delivering of happy satisfaction to customers that drives the excitement and motivation going forward.

Nick had the pleasure of hosting President Macron of France and Prime Minister Theresa May at The Royal Oak, however the crowning glory of service (so to speak) was perhaps when Nick had the opportunity to serve Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh.  In April 2017, it was the 65th anniversary of The Grenadier Guards serving The Queen and they wanted to mark the occasion by taking her out for lunch and making a presentation. It was a Monday and while Nick had been given plenty of notice that a ‘VIP’ was visiting it was only two days before that he was notified that it would be Her Majesty.  Both occasions went well and fit in with the overall achievements of the pub over the eighteen years under his stewardship. 

Nick is proud of the long association the pub has with the ‘Top 50 Gastropubs,’ which has been a constant since the inception of those awards, it has featured on ‘Top 100’ restaurant lists, scored 6/10 in the Good Food Guide, held three AA Rosettes for nine years, a Bib Gourmands for two years and a Michelin star for eight years.   Significant coverage across the broadsheets over the years has all helped the establishment of a small national institution.  Of course there are ups and downs with such accolades but Nick maintains the mantra of quality first in all that he does and that serves the restaurant in good stead going forward.

In terms of legacy, there have been plenty of staff who have come through the doors and gone on to Michelin related success in their own right, be it as blossoming chefs or front of house managers.  There is always a sense of ‘one team’ at The Royal Oak, no egos allowed in dining room or kitchen and a harmonious philosophy of service to please the customer.  This ethos epitomizes all that is The Royal Oak and is a credit to all the teams front and back, past and present and those that will follow in the future.