Nightlife Survivor: Jake Parkinson-Smith Tells All

Jake Parkinson Smith at Raffles Nightclub

Imagine a Chelsea nightclub owner who could be a GQ model; that is Jake Parkinson-Smith. Quintessentially handsome, when he walks into Raffles – the private members club he part-owns – I find he is the epitome of suave, and he greets me like an old friend.

Dressed in an immaculate Gieves and Hawkes suit (and G&H shoes to match), with his golden hair slicked back and general good grooming, I actually think he looks out of place, sitting as we are on a dusty red leather banquette bench in the corner. He appears to belong in St Moritz, or wherever – somewhere bright, light and ritzy. And yet, here he is… in a windowless nightclub on a Wednesday afternoon, where he is most afternoons and of course, evenings. It’s an interesting paradox.

‘I just love everything about the night,’ he tells me. ‘The energy…’ he trails off.

A love of the night is clearly a prerequisite – that and an inordinately high tolerance for drunk people. Jake now doesn’t drink – ‘I didn’t have an ‘off-switch’, so I decided to call it a day’ – which must be useful. It takes a focused, concentrated mind to manage situations where £20,000 bar tabs are flying around…

You need to be totally in control because you never know what curveball you’re going to get thrown…there’ll be a drunk girl who decides to go batshit crazy because she’s lost her coat, or some gentleman who’s had too much to drink [and] gets a little bit overexcited.

‘It’s a Jekyll and Hyde situation. Someone can walk to the front door, and be a perfectly reasonable, lovely person. And within two hours, they turn into the biggest, nastiest monster you’ve ever met in your life. After about 3 o’clock, generally, I go home – when people start telling me the same story over and over again…’

Already it sounds exhausting. The guy must have the patience of a saint. ‘I think in this business, you have to love people – good and bad,’ he says. ‘You have to have a real tolerance. I’ve been doing it for 20 years so I’m very used to it. I’ve had every situation under the sun: from floods in kitchens, to fires, to mass brawls, to people behaving very badly, normal clients, celebrities… It’s not the right industry for someone who is stressed. [You need to] come into a situation, assess it, work it out, deal with it, talk. And if that doesn’t work, I have a team of 15 very large men that can deal with it… and women! When a girl goes crazy, you need another girl – otherwise it’s: ‘Don’t touch me’. When it’s woman to woman it’s slightly easier to deal with.’

Founded by restaurateur Peter Evans in 1967, Raffles’ early years saw Eric Clapton, Vivienne Westwood and The Rolling Stones pass through its doors; even The Queen dropped by in the Seventies. It has had many transformations over the years, the most recent refurbishment was in 2012, and is now a regular of the Made In Chelsea set, playing host to Cara Delevingne, Eddie Redmayne and once even Benicio Del Toro. Jake became a partner in May 2014, and with experience at The Savoy and the notorious Boujis under his belt, it seemed a good fit. ‘It was a situation where [I] could take [Raffles] from the first division to the premiership – and that’s what I’ve done.’

An only child, Jake was brought up in Trinidad and Tobago in the late Seventies, after his grandfather, beloved fashion photograph Norman Parkinson (whose archive Jake manages), moved there in the Sixties. He recalls an idyllic childhood. ‘People in Tobago don’t have very much, but by God, they are the happiest people alive, generally,’ he says. ‘Being born and raised in the Caribbean, you have an understanding for people. And I think that’s put me in very good stead.’

At 7 years old, he was shipped back to the UK, a white helmet-haired kid with a ‘Trinny’ accent that his grandmother couldn’t understand. He attended Pinewood school in Wiltshire and later, boarded at Milfield. When he came of age, he eschewed university and went straight into the hospitality industry, finding work as a manager trainee at The Savoy. ‘I did front of house, back of house, pot washing, room service… The Savoy is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year machine. I worked 18-hours-a-day, 6-days-a-week, and I got paid £600 a month. But I loved it; it’s kind of like the army, in a funny way.’

Jake Parkinson-SmithAt 22, he moved on to the Stork Rooms (now West End club, Cuckoo), set up by Marco Pierre White and Piers Adams. They ‘revolutionised’ the place, attracting the likes of Madonna, Guy Ritchie and George Michael. They even hosted Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday party. ‘It was all mad,’ Jake recalls, ‘and then it stopped… for reasons I can’t discuss.’ (Reportedly, the club ran into legal problems over leasing issues). ‘And then I went to Boujis…’

And so we arrive at the infamous South Kensington club – the haunt of Princes William and Harry, Kate Middleton back in the day, and a host of others to boot – where Jake spent a decade of his working life, transforming it into a premiere London hotspot for the rich.  ‘I don’t want to talk about Boujis,’ he says suddenly, putting an impenetrable full stop on our conversation (which is kind of like waving a red flag at a journalist).

Thankfully, he relented a little. ‘The amazing thing about Boujis was that all the clubs were in the West End and everybody said you can’t do a table service, high-end nightclub in Kensington and Chelsea – and I loved that. I love it when people say you can’t do something; it challenges you to make sure you can. It was perfect timing [to be a] pioneer – bringing amazing service and great music to an area when nobody thought you could do it.’

From there, a year-long stint at Mortons followed before Jake arrived at Raffles. ‘I walked in and I just felt: ‘Wow, I could really do something with this.’’ With its small DJ booth and purple/pink-hued bar, it still feels familiar (I was here years ago); small, dark, full of secrets.

‘There are five elements to an amazing nightclub,’ Jake says on the subject of success. ‘The service – [being] served within 2 or 3 minutes, whether you sit at a table or go to the bar. The staff are a key, [helping] you create an environment where everybody enjoys working [and] everyone’s happy. The music…. the atmosphere, and the people you have inside. And that’s the rough ingredients. Mix it all together and you have an amazing end result: people having a good time, enjoying themselves and remembering their experience.’

So who are these people? Of course he won’t say – ‘that’s the whole point of why they come’ – but most live within a two-mile radius. There are 5,000 members who all pay around £500 a year, which is pittance, really, considering the cash some of them have to blow.

‘People [have] spent £20,000 in a night,’ Jake says. ‘Most I’ve seen, probably about £50k.’ Was that in Raffles? ‘Maybe,’ he replies, with a grin. ‘There’s a lot of very expensive champagne. And when you start getting into the bigger bottles, the Jeroboams, the Methuselahs, the bills can rack up very quickly.’

Married and father to three girls – who he affectionately calls the ‘Parkinson pixies’ on Instagram – it seems that life is rosy for the club custodian. He was integral to his grandfather’s work appearing in the recent Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, he talks of Raffles’ expansion – another London venue and one in Marbella – and says he and his business associates are considering ventures in Abu Dhabi and Miami. A far cry from pot washing at The Savoy.

When I get up to leave he says I must return one night to see the place in action. I tell him, thank you but, in fact, I lost my dancing shoes the last time I visited…

But thinking about it now, if I ever hope to find them again, it’s probably a good place to start. ML