Together with his brother Jonray, Peter Sanchez-Iglesias transformed his parents’ local Italian into one of the most cutting-edge restaurants in the country. Now the proud winner of 2018’s SquareMeal Best UK Restaurant award, Pete talks tasting menus, his plans for the future – and how Bristol could rival Copenhagen as a foodie hotspot.
“Pardon my language,” says Peter Sanchez-Iglesias (pictured) with a twinkle in his eye, “but in Bristol we have a ‘don’t give a fuck’ kind of attitude – we do what we want.”
Pete’s restaurant Casamia, which has just won SquareMeal’s Best UK Restaurant award for 2018, proves his point. Opening hours are restricted to dinner Wednesday to Saturday, and lunch on Friday and Saturday. When Pete moved Casamia to slick, ultra-urban new premises on Bristol’s historic waterfront in 2016, he reduced the number of tables. And it’s less than a year since the restaurant introduced a pre-paid ticketing system for a tasting menu-only offering which clocks in at around £110 for the food alone.
It’s the sort of business model that would raise eyebrows even in London’s most affluent postcodes. But Casamia has proved that there’s a huge appetite for cutting-edge cooking from ambitious young chefs who want to put their home city on the national culinary map.
I think Bristol is one of the best cities in the world – it has so much diversity and creativity
And not just national. “Bristol is trying to push the boundaries of the dining scene,” Pete says. “We have a lot of talented chefs here and hopefully, over time, the city will become a gastronomic powerhouse. I know it’s a big ask, but Bristol could be like Copenhagen, in the way its reputation rises in the food world. I think Bristol is one of the best cities in the world – it has so much diversity and creativity. I feel honoured that Casamia is at the frontline where we can showcase what Bristol is about, and what the city is trying to do.”
Pete’s parents, Paco and Sue, opened their Italian restaurant Casamia in the suburb of Westbury-on-Trym in 1999. Pete and his older brother Jonray grew up helping out in the restaurant and Pete took over in the kitchen when the head chef left. The brothers opened their own restaurant, the short-lived Fratelli in Cheltenham, in 2004, but returned to Bristol in 2006 to take over Casamia – and take it in a very different direction. Out went the trattoria classics, in came complex combinations inspired by the seasons and based on the best ingredients available.
Jonray died of skin cancer in 2015, but the family business is still called Sanchez Brothers and there’s a photo of Jonray and Peter in matching chef whites (and quiffs) on the homepage of the company’s website. When the brothers were planning the move from Westbury to the former Bristol General Hospital on the harbour, which was being converted into luxury flats, they agreed that Casamia should be complemented by two more casual restaurants to reflect their family’s food heritage: Pi Shop pizzeria, and Paco Tapas, named in honour of their dad, who grew up in Seville.
Paco works front of house at Casamia while Pete’s mum Sue is behind the scenes running the business’ admin and accounts. The idea of a high-end restaurant being a family business has a strong tradition in Europe – one thinks of father and daughter Juan-Mari and Elena Arzak in Spain, or third-generation, three-Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic in France. Pete admits that working with his family has given him the kind of workplace support that not everyone is so lucky to have.
Families are there to pick each other up when one of them is feeling down, so to have that support within a business catapults it to another level
“Families are there to pick each other up when one of them is feeling down, so to have that support within a business catapults it to another level. We all approached the restaurant with the perspective that we’re going to work hard and we’re going to stay together to create this unique little bubble. It can be argumentative at times but we’ve always known that none of us were ever going to step away from it.”
Casamia won a Michelin star in 2009 and appeared on Ramsay’s Best Restaurant on TV in 2010 (it won), while Pete represented the South West in 2013’s Great British Menu. Along the way, Casamia’s own menu moved to a tasting-menu only format – a decision which Peter says took the restaurant into a different league.
“I always relate things back to the name of Casamia, which means ‘my house’, so if you came to my house, what kind of experience would I give you? You’d eat the same thing as everyone else, and you’d all enjoy it together. Of course, if somebody has a gluten intolerance or they don’t like shellfish, we’ll change it, but essentially, we are creating that home environment within the restaurant, so it was only natural to move to having one menu. It was a massive step for us and we got a lot of stick for it but it was the best thing we ever did.”
The move to new premises also made things more intimate. “At the old Casamia, we had 14 tables, and here we’ve moved down to nine. Usually when you open a new restaurant you go bigger, but my aim is always to make things even more personal.” The seasonally inspired dishes are served, often by the chefs, in an elegant room that blurs the boundaries between kitchen and customers, and where stunning attention to detail is apparent at every stage of a deeply impressive dining experience.
My aim is always to make things [in the restaurant] even more personal
Pete’s ambition is for things to get more personal still, with plans to reduce the number of tables even further, and to have chefs executing dishes at the table so diners can see the technique that goes into the cooking.
Other hopes for the future include bringing Paco Tapas to the capital – “I’m not going to lie, I really want to open a Paco Tapas in London” – but Casamia is staying in Bristol. “We’ve always thought outside the box and questioned everything, down to the last little detail, to be able to make the restaurant into the dining experience we want it to be. This SquareMeal award shows that what we’re doing could be even more incredible in the future, and it should encourage everybody to believe that you can have a number-one restaurant based in Bristol.”
Casamia is number one, but there are 99 more restaurants on our list of the UK’s top 100 places to eat. See them all here.
Portrait images by Dominika Scheibinger