As a Spanish chef living in London, you’d expect Nieves Barragán Mohacho to have strong feelings on Brexit. But like many Londoners, she’s hoping the whole thing goes away. “I don’t want to think too much about Brexit,” she says. “I have enough problems.”
Problems is not a word that spring to mind when one thinks of Nieves. Her first solo restaurant, Sabor, has been opening Londoners’ eyes and palates to the variety of Spanish regional cuisine since launching in spring 2018. Her previous job, as executive chef of Barrafina, proved that tapas could be a Michelin-starred art form. What’s more, with offers to open restaurants in New York and Dubai, it might seem that Nieves’ main problem is what to do next.
Nieves grew up in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country. Her mother was at home caring for Nieves’ grandmother and by way of entertaining her daughter would give her simple jobs in the kitchen such as shelling beans. By the time she was seven, Nieves was preparing meals herself and when she left school she took jobs in restaurants in Bilbao – only to find that the food wasn’t so different to what she was making at home. “The restaurants in Bilbao all did the same thing,” she says. “I was having fun cooking, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a chef.”
Sabor's traditional Galician tortilla
All that changed in 1998 when Nieves was 20. A friend from Bilbao moved to London to be with her boyfriend, who worked at Simply Nico, the more casual restaurant of three Michelin-starred chef Nico Ladenis, and suggested that Nieves came to work there too.
“I came to London to work in this French restaurant and I thought, wow – this is a different sphere,” Nieves says. “I learnt how to treat food and I started to use ingredients that I’d never seen in Bilbao. My mum phoned to ask me when I was going to return to Spain and I said no, no, no – I love it in London, I’m learning.”
She left Simply Nico to become a sous chef at Gaudi, the Clerkenwell restaurant where her melding of Nico’s French technique with the Basque cooking she’d learnt from her mother fitted the modern Spanish ethos.
But it was her next job that set her on her way to chef stardom. Sam and Eddie Hart, two half-Spanish brothers who were the sons of hoteliers, opened Fino in Fitzrovia in 2003. It was a game-changing restaurant for London and Nieves was the sous chef.
“Fino served tapas, but it was also a proper restaurant,” she says by way of explanation for why Fino caused such a splash. “I started to introduce ingredients like sucking pig and black rice that were new to Londoners. Fino was when people started to know me, and to understand that Spanish cuisine is not only tapas.”
Nieves (centre) with the team at the launch of Barrafina Adelaide Street
The Harts’ follow-up, Barrafina, was modelled on the classic tapas counters of Barcelona and was even more of a success. As executive chef of both Barrafina and Fino, Nieves was centre stage – literally so, thanks to the open kitchen. “Opening Barrafina was scary,” she says. “I’d never worked so close to customers. But I love it. I can hear what they’re saying, they can ask me questions and I start to get to know them. In an open kitchen, a chef understands what’s happening in the room and if something is going wrong. I can’t imagine working behind the scenes anymore.”
Nieves also thinks that open kitchens have made restaurant culture less macho and encouraged more women to become chefs. “When I came to London, I was the only girl in the kitchen. People thought of a kitchen as somewhere small and sweaty downstairs. It’s very hard working in a kitchen, it’s very physical. But open kitchens have changed things. You can see that it’s more relaxed and friendlier and I think that has been a key factor in developing more women as chefs.”
The open kitchen at The Counter at Sabor
Nieves stayed with the Hart brothers for 14 years, winning a Michelin star for the original Soho Barrafina in 2013 and opening two more Barrafinas, on Adelaide Street and Drury Lane, each with an individual menu. “That was very important to me. I didn’t want to make a chain. There is so much diversity to Spanish cooking and so much to show people.”
Ultimately, though, opening Barrafinas was not Nieves’ long-term ambition. “Leaving Barrafina was very hard, it was like my first baby. But they wanted to get bigger and as a chef I wanted to open my own restaurant.”
Together with Barrafina’s group general manager, José Etura, Nieves approached JKS Restaurants, the Sethi siblings’ company which provided financial backing for restaurants including Bao and Lyle’s, to back Sabor.
José – who Nieves describes as describes as “my brother, my family, my almost everything” – is now operations director of Sabor, while JKS give Nieves the freedom to show off Spanish cooking in all its regional diversity.
“People asked me if I was going to open a Basque restaurant but I love the south of Spain, I love Galicia, I love Majorca – Sabor is like a full journey through Spain. There’s a lot of colour on the plate.”
The restaurant features a downstairs counter, where tweaked tapas classics appear alongside dishes completely new to London palates. Upstairs, meanwhile, is the bookable El Asador, where Spanish regional feasts might include well-cured Galician rib of beef and the Segovian suckling pig served up whole from the Castilian wood oven.
And while Nieves tries to source as much as she can from the UK – fish and seafood especially – some things have to be Spanish. “The suckling pig I can only get from Spain. And the octopus, because it has the double sucker and better texture and flavour.” The commitment to authenticity paid off: six months after opening, Sabor was awarded a Michelin star in the 2019 edition of the guide.
Sabor's boiled Galician octopus with paprika
With Sabor firmly established as one of London’s best restaurants, is she tempted to open more? “No,” she says firmly. “Sabor is unique. This is my dream. But I do want to open something else in London – something smaller.”
But back to Brexit. Would a no-deal departure make her leave the UK? “I’ll stay in London. When I land at Heathrow, I’m home. Within five minutes of Sabor you have the best Thai, the best Chinese food – London is the whole food world. I love eating out and I’ve met the most amazing people here. Every day I see something new.”
She’s too modest to say that thanks to her, London has the world’s best Spanish restaurants, too. But you can be sure that when you see something new on London's Spanish food scene, Nieves Barragán Mohacho will have played a part in it.
Nieve’s perfect match
The dish: Gazpacho with crab meat
The Champagne: Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2012
The garnish on top of the gazpacho is the same ingredients that go into the gazpacho, plus a little bit of parsley oil. The Ayala Champagne reminded me of flowers, so I wanted to match it to something a little bit acidic like the gazpacho, plus the Champagne goes really well with the crab.
Nieve’s quick bites
Favourite cooking gadget?
A plancha. It cooks everything evenly.
Favourite London restaurants?
I love Kiln. It’s not pad Thai – it’s proper rustic food.
Favourite foodie destination?
Galicia. I love seafood.
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Simple. Honest. Passion.
How do you relax?
I go for dinner and the cinema, but I also need to be fit, so I go to the gym and I cycle.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I would be a sports person. I used to play tennis when I was young. You need to commit to play tennis.
Click here to read the first of our 2019 Female Chef Series interviews, with Anna Haugh of Myrtle
Portrait photos: Laurie Fletcher