30 July 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with José Pizarro


jose pizarro2 - jose_pizarro2.jpgSpanish chef José Pizarro, formerly of Tapas Brindisa, is about to open his first solo venture – a laid-back tapas and sherry bar on Bermondsey Street called José. With preparations underway for a mid-May launch, he talked to Square Meal about his project, and revealed a bit about himself along the way: from his love of the simple things in life, such as roast dinners and his mum's tomato soup, to the roadside snack that really turns his stomach.

How are the preparations for the restaurant going?

It’s all going well – the kitchen has come from Spain. Everything is happening and I’m very happy with how it’s going. It’s good to be busy. I’ve hired staff who I’ve known for years but never worked with – our manager used to work at Yauatcha and Pizza East, while our head chef was formerly at El Faro, and I loved his cooking style.

London has seen a fair few ham and sherry bars open recently. Why do you think the two things – and Spanish food in general – are so trendy at the moment?

I think there was a misunderstanding in this country with regards to sherry. It’s totally underrated, and until recently, people just associated it with their grandma. But nobody had tried real sherry – it’s exquisite, and there’s an incredible variety. I think there’s a sherry for every taste, from dry manzanilla to sweet Pedro Ximénez.

As for Spanish food in general, tourism in Spain was limited to a few areas that aren’t known for their cuisine, but now, tourists are more adventurous and visit other places, such as Madrid, San Sebastián and inland areas – they go for the food and culture now, not just the sunshine.

What sets your ham and sherry bar apart from the others?

In sherry bars in Jeréz, the food tends to be limited to plates of ham and cheese. I’m going to incorporate more cooked dishes into my menu. José will be a hybrid of a typical sherry bar and the tapas places you find in the La Bocquería market in Barcelona. It will offer simple cooking, depending on what’s in the market that day.

Will you have any signature dishes?

We have thought of some dishes that could become house dishes. But the main focus will be on ham, and simple, grilled dishes – such as sardines a la plancha, ibérico pork, things like that.

If you hadn’t have been a chef, what would you have been?

I trained as a dental technician at university – I was the person who made the tools and apparatus the dentist needed. I enjoyed my studies, did really well at university and got a really good job at the end of it. But I’d always loved cooking and wanted to learn more, so while I was waiting for my job to start, I decided to take cookery lessons.

19 years later, and I haven’t thought about teeth since! I would have been happy as a dental technician, but I love my job as a chef – I love working with my hands and talking to people. Every day I have more passion for my job.

What’s your favourite kitchen tool?

A chopping knife. And olive oil – I can’t work without olive oil. I grew up with it and it’s in my blood.

What’s your idea of food heaven and food hell?

My mother’s cooking makes me happy. She worked when we were growing up, so she always cooked simple but great dishes, made with love, like tomato soup.

As for food hell, I would never, ever eat one of those sausages that they sell on the street in London – eugh! Just thinking about them makes me feel sick – the smell of the onions and the oil is disgusting.

What was your impression of English food before you came here?

Everyone told me how horrible the food in England was. But it’s like anywhere – you have to know where to go. In Spain we say ‘lo bueno bien hecho es muy bueno’ – good food done well is very good. Fish and chips are delicious if they’re well made.

I love roast dinners – getting together with friends over a meal like that is the best. And the great thing about London is that you have food from all over the world here.

What do you miss most about Spain?

My family, of course, and my friends, are the things I miss most. And I miss siestas and the sun. One thing that I have noticed about people in London is that you might walk past the same person every day on the way to work, but no one ever greets each other. In my town, everyone says hello to each other in the street – it doesn’t cost anything.

But the good thing is that in London I have everything on my doorstep – and I can get to Spain quickly if I need to. For me, London is my house; Spain is my home.

What was your biggest kitchen disaster?

I’ve never had a professional disaster, but when I started learning to cook I made a chocolate cake with my sister-in-law, using a food processor, and we ended up with more chocolate outside the cake than inside it – it went all over the kitchen.

And last time I went on Saturday Kitchen, I got eggshells in my omelette during the omelette challenge, and James Martin, who judges the omelettes, spent the rest of the show with eggshell stuck between his teeth.

Interview by Nicky Evans, News and Online Editor, April 2011.
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