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How José Pizarro convinced Londoners there's more to Spain than package holidays

Chorizno? Chorizyes!  (Supplied)
Chorizno? Chorizyes! (Supplied)

At the Spanish Embassy in London, the chef José Pizarro looked visibly emotional as he was awarded one of Spain’s highest honours, the Royal Order of Isabel la Catolica. It was a frenetic Wednesday in March: cava flowed and jamón ibérico was plucked from trays, and fellow chefs and restaurateurs, friends and dignitaries heard about how, over the last 25 years, Pizarro changed the game.

When Pizarro first came to London, in 1998, the culinary landscape was tangibly different. “When I arrived, maybe you could buy chorizo in specialist shops,” he remembers. “But it wasn’t really known. Nowadays, it’s always on the menu. It’s everywhere.”

Pizarro, now in his Fifties, was brought up in rural Extremadura, a southern, landlocked region bordering Portugal. He trained in Madrid, at the Michelin-starred El Chapin de la Reina under chef Julia Reoyo, before he moved to the UK.

“It was a crazy, crazy time,” he happily recalls. “I was young, ready to learn. To have fun. I didn’t exactly have a plan.”

 (José)
(José)

It wasn’t easy at first. Pizarro says he found it “difficult” people didn’t realise the complexities of Spain’s bounty and were unaware of the country’s rich produce.

“Nobody knew and we weren’t afforded the same respect as France or Italy. They might have heard of paella and sangria, but perhaps they didn’t truly understand it. Spain was just seen as a cheap holiday.”

First came a job at a Spanish restaurant called Gaudi — a “real party place, we had a very good time” — before a sous and then later head chef role at Eyre Brothers in Shoreditch, a “memorable” venture by David Eyre, who alongside Mike Belben had opened the Eagle in Clerkenwell, often cited as Britain’s first gastropub.

From there, Pizarro moved to Monika Linton’s then infant brand Brindisa, now a behemoth of a Spanish restaurant group and deli. He helped launch multiple sites which soon attracted lengthy queues. Diners, the chef says, were “eager to try new things”. If they could get a table.

“We served medium-rare pork and it took a while to win over people. People thought we were crazy. Then it became the most popular thing. It was ibérico and back then it was easy, because we were probably the only restaurant doing it.

“And the black rice. Customers were shocked and amazed by the use of squid ink. But London embraced it, loved it. We were always very busy.”

So began Pizarro’s quarter of a century championing Spanish produce, celebrating its intricacies in restaurants, on television and in cookbooks. Early on, few had tried melting tortillas; croquetas had yet to become synonymous with London dining.

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

Today, you can’t move for croquetas, fine jamon ibérico, buttery anchovies and plates of seductive pan con tomate.

“Now people see Spain is a cool, vibrant, amazing country made up of so many regions. Basque cooking is different to Galician, Astorian; restaurants in London have evolved to reflect that. Spain is like 17 countries in one.”

Pizarro says such success is measured by appetite. London has long yearned for simplicity and flavour and appreciated benchmark ingredients. Spain, which excels at “simple” food “using the most wonderful produce,” stood and still stands to benefit.

“Patatas bravas was an early winner,” Pizarro says. “It’s just potatoes, but you must use the best garlic, only top quality oil. These dishes were a way into exploring a new cuisine. Chefs were making tortillas, but they weren’t oozing with the rich eggs.

“A tortilla is like a soufflé — you’re not going to think the dish is any good unless the chef knows the real techniques and history. Spain: easy cooking, hard to do well.”

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

As desires shifted, rumbled, Londoners wanted more. Armed with higher expectations and a taste of what Spanish cooking really was, it was only natural that Pizarro wanted to ride the wave he had helped to swell.

In 2011 came José in Bermondsey, where he would let guests try the expensive anchovies, cooked pork hot on the plancha and poured sherry, generously, to assuage any pre-held belief that it was the preserve of old grandmothers.

“People were receptive — things had changed a lot by then, but I was very scared. Thankfully, it did well,” he remembers.

“We served sherry, and people didn’t think it was cool back then. Now it’s ubiquitous. And albariño, now talked about so much. It’s clean, crisp and affordable, something that was new and exciting to many.

“You know, some questioned the prices, so I let them try the anchovies, or the ibérico pork, the tuna, and they got it. It’s about value — food like this makes sense. Mostly, it’s just great fun.”

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

Pizarro says he has learned a lot from Britain in turn, about the seasonality of food here. As his one restaurant became two, three, now four — one is in a pub, the Swan Inn in Esher, Surrey — his impact became apparent, while the city rubbed off on him.

“Borough Market was buzzing. It was very different 20, even 10 years ago. I learned so much from the UK. The farmers are amazing, the suppliers, the chefs, the industry. There’s a reason I’m here.

“I would go to the pub with farmers to have a drink and I was really welcomed. It was an entirely different culture for me when I arrived, and talking to someone from outside London about asparagus was something new for me.

“I’m happy to have helped promote Spanish food. And I think London is special.”

Firmly cemented as one of the city’s tastemakers, Pizarro says he hopes to see more Spanish restaurants open, whether more affordable or higher-end, and to see regional cooking placed even further under the microscope. There is, he explains, more to learn and understand, from both sides.

“I have my loyal customers and I love that Spanish food is so adored here today,” Pizarro gleams. “I’d love to see more people come and open businesses. That’s what London is all about.”