"I was one of those kids that set fire to stuff—and now I burn shit every day. I've become a professional pyromaniac."
Sporting that rare lumberjack-casual look (bobble hat, hi-vis jacket, and Grizzly Adams beard) London Log Company's Mark Parr may not be your typical fire starter, but "Lord Logs," as he's otherwise known, is certainly blazing a trail.
Credited with changing the face of London's restaurant scene by pretty much every chef of the moment—from Kitty Fisher's' Tomos Parry to Lee Tiernan of Black Axe Mangal—Parr's toned down brand of pyromania is fire craft, specialist charcoal, and flavour-packing woods.
I'm shadowing Parr as he delivers his goods to the capital's foodie elite, starting from the company's Deptford depot.
Huge cages of wood fill the railway arch enclosure, knots and gravy-coloured striations snarling back at me as we prowl around the cages. Beech, oak, silver birch: it's all here. Five hundred tonnes of the stuff at any one time, Parr explains—the entire depot stacked out with a week's worth of wood for London restaurants.
Parr himself is a mini-hurricane of enthusiasm and modesty. You'd never know that he was the the grill consultant to last summer's hottest restaurant ticket The Chiltern Firehouse, or helped turn Meatopia into one of London's most respected food festivals. The London Log Co.'s client list is literally a who's-who of British chefs: Jamie Oliver, Nathan Outlaw, Tom Adams, Nuno Mendes, Richard Turner, as well as the aforementioned Parry and Tiernan. Even Parr admits that sometimes he'll look at the names and go: "That's pretty fucking cool."
But when I ask him upfront about the success of the company: "It's that patience of watching a tree grow," he says, sage-like. "We just let it happen."
It has not been without it's fair amount of brawn, brains, and balls, however. On the road to our first drop off of charcoal, Parr tells me his story.
Coming from a background in textiles and design, he left art school at 19 and disappeared into the woods for two years to trim trees, hanging off branches like Tarzan. A decade in the design business followed—including a stint alongside Cath Kidston before she became the Queen of Kitsch—then a move to South London that sparked the return to wood.
"We were broke and we had no heating, so I got in touch with a tree surgeon friend. He filled my front lawn with wood and I started splitting wood again ready for the winter," Parr says. "People were fascinated by it."
Soon enough, the entire street was buying logs from him for their wood burners. One advert in the paper later and Parr was the firewood supplier for Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.
"At that time, I was cooking outside a lot—experimenting with fire craft—and I used to throw these parties where I'd cooked two lambs on a spit over silver birch or sweet chestnut," he explains. "Lee was one of the chefs I knew, and he said to me about putting that into the restaurant industry—and that was the spark."
Parr's principle was simple: wood isn't just a fuel, it's an ingredient as well.
Parr believes that trees have a terroir in the same way that wine does. The soil, the climate, the seasons—they all influence the character of wood and how that wood's aroma or smoke flavours food.
Alder wood for instance has a gold smoke and imparts sweet vanilla ice cream notes, due to its natural sugars or polysaccharides. Beech on the other hand burns with an intense floral flavour, lending itself to more robust meats such as goat or pork. English oak, with its thick smoke giving a subtle, buttery flavour is, of course, traditionally used to smoke salmon.
"Salmon and oak," Parr says, beaming. "That's the ingredient."
Although it's not quite as easy as all that. The Log Company's wood has to be seasoned in order for it to impart the best flavour into food—and that's where Parr comes in.
"If that oak smoke wasn't clean and pure and had the right elements to it—which only happens when you cure and season the wood—if that isn't right, then the next part of the product isn't right," he explains. "So we take care of our oak. We replant it and we take care of its provenance, because it's in our vested interest to do so. It's our crop."
A crop sourced from his harvesting partner, a landowner of historic woodlands.
We get out of Parr's "Black Russian hitman, tinted window VW Van" to deliver a few boxes of charcoal to Nuno Mendes' Portuguese restaurant Taberna do Mercado. Parr buys us lunch: a pork bifana, yeast mayo, and fennel sandwich cooked on an outside grill provided by Lord Logs himself.
In between mouthfuls of succulent pork licked with a sweet aroma, I ask the restaurant's sous chef Bruno Caseiro what they're cooking over today.
"Charcoal and wood," Caseiro says. "Charcoal because it's compressed and gets very high temperature so it's good for a quick seal, caramelising outside the meat, and then pear tree wood to give the pork the smokiness of pear that has a very nice aroma to it. So, charcoal for the power and the wood for aroma."
To be fair, Parr's charcoal isn't just any charcoal. It's a special compact kind, offering the equivalent of 18 kilos of fuel packed into a 10-kilo bar. The result is a longer lasting and more consistent heat. As Parr says, it's just like "having the gas on," except you're cooking over charcoal and wood with the latter offering the core of the fuel and the wood the flavour.
Back in the van and we head over to Climpson's Arch coffee roastery to deliver some Valencia orange wood—huge blocks of tree in a thick carrier bag. We have to take a handle each and we waddle it to the kitchen.
Next, we drop into nearby pub The Marksman and I find out about Parr's second influence: his made-to-order grills. It seems it's not just the flavour of wood that Parr has bought to London, it's a new kind of cooking ethos too.
Before Parr came along, if a chef wanted to cook over coals or charcoal, they'd have to chose a certain type of grill already on the market. But after a stint perfecting his model, he developed what he calls the "clean grill system."
"Because everything else was just so shitty and produced so much ash and waste and dust," he says. "I just went, 'Look, let's have a clean grill system. Let's be systematic.'"
As we sip coffee at The Marksman's glistening bar, I ask head chef Jon Rotheram what he likes about Parr's grill.
"The first time I saw one of his grills, I liked how clean and tidy it was," he says. "You don't want to be burning too much fuel and he convinced me to take on this charcoal grill that I wouldn't have to keep feeding. We designed it to spec and it's just a lovely way of cooking. It just makes sense."
That's the end of our road trip, but about a week later I meet Parr in Pitt Cue Co. for a follow-up. It's the day the restaurant is closing its Soho doors before moving to a new site later this month. As Parr says, this is the place that revolutionised the eating industry in London, where fine dining died and London created it's own food identity literally from the ashes of a food truck in the summer of 2011.
He tells me London Log Co. did a special wood blend for Pitt Cue and just like that, I see Parr's mark on another restaurant—another group of customers chomping away next to the man who's played such a huge part in their culinary pleasure.
"It's just nice to be part of something," he says, picking up the cheque and getting up to pay.
Lord knows he's played a bigger role than that.