“I haven’t opened restaurants to make money and run”: José Pizarro on 25 years of cooking in the UK

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Spanish chef Jose Pizarro on 25 years of cooking in the UK

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When the Spanish chef moved to these shores in 1999, the food of his country was underrepresented. A quarter of a century on and he’s done much to change that.

There is a parallel universe where José Pizarro is not a chef but a dental technician, where the tools of his trade are the plaque remover and teeth mould rather than the jamon carver and saucepan. OK, there probably isn’t, but things could have been very different for the Spanish chef, who recently commemorated 25 years of living and working in the UK, had he taken up his position at a Seville tooth laboratory.

Pizarro, who describes himself back then as ‘not being a good student’ and struggling with attention and dyslexia, had trained to be a dental technician after his father threatened to put him to work on the family farm if he didn’t stop partying and get a job (his words, not mine). The job in Seville was his, but the only issue was that the laboratory wasn’t opening for another five months, and it was during this period that he undertook a culinary course and caught the cooking bug.

The dental profession’s loss has undoubtedly been the UK’s culinary scene’s gain. Since coming to the UK Pizarro has blazed a trail for Spanish food, doing for Jamón ibérico, the prized ham made from Iberico pigs fed on a diet of acorns, what Francesco Mazzei did for nduja when he popularised the Calabria spreadable sausage by putting it on Pizza Express pizzas a decade and a half ago. He has since been described as the godfather of Spanish cuisine in the UK. If such a title might sound like it’s over-egging the Spanish omelette, then think again – in March Pizarro was awarded the Cross of the order of Isabella the Catholic​, one of Spain’s highest honours no less, for his work in popularising Spanish food in the UK.

Pizarro received the Cross of the order of Isabella the Catholic this year

Pizarro and I meet at his eponymous Bermondsey restaurant to discuss his 25 years of working in England over a glass or two of sherry and some Spanish food but in typically ebullient style he immediately launches into talking about the future. He tells me about his latest venture Lolo that he is opening on Bermondsey Street​ later this year, his third restaurant in the vicinity that is a shortened version of his middle name of Manuel (in keeping with his predilection of naming restaurants after himself). Lolo, he says, will be an all-day restaurant that will include a breakfast offer, unusual for the chef, designed to complement his other two Bermondsey restaurants – tapas bar José, which opened in May 2011, and Pizarro that launched 200 metres up the road seven months later.

“It’s 120sq m. I’ve got the lease, now what do I do with it?,” he says, plucking a glossy slither of Jamon from a plate. “It is a lot bigger than José, and everyone said ‘amazing, you can do José but bigger’ but I’m not doing that. José is my little baby and always will be.”

What exactly Lolo will be seems very much still in the development stage. The site doesn’t have extraction, meaning the offer will be more limited than at some of Pizarro’s other restaurants, but he is unperturbed, pointing out that his restaurant at The Royal Academy of Arts also doesn’t have extraction (which is why it doesn’t serve croquettes).

“You go around Bermondsey Street and what do you need? A good breakfast offer. It has to be Spanish, because that is my whole brain, but there may be a touch of Italian too. I’m still thinking about it. What I don’t want is to kill two businesses on the street that are doing well.”

The two Bermondsey restaurants are not the only in the group that are doing well. Over the past 13 years Pizarro has built a small restaurant empire that has spread beyond London, first to Esher and then more recently to Abu Dhabi. His clutch of restaurants also includes José Pizarro in Broadgate Circle, which celebrates its decade this year, José Pizarro at The Swan in Esher, which has just turned five, José Pizarro and Poster Bar by José at The Royal Academy of Arts and José by Pizarro Abu Dhabi. Apart from a pop-up called Little José at Giant Robot in Canary Wharf, everything that he has opened remains so.

The interior of José, Pizarro's debut restaurant

Celebrating a quarter of a century

Pizarro might have reached the quarter century milestone cooking in the UK, but his career as a chef goes further back. Having completed his cooking course, he went to work in a traditional Spanish grill restaurant before he was taken under the wing by Julio Reoyo at Michelin-starred restaurant El Chapin de la Reina in Madrid. Pizarro describes his time there as formative, experimenting with foams and more avant-garde techniques, but says it also gave him the urge to expand his culinary horizons.

“Everyone was trying to put different techniques and flavours into their tasting menus,” he recalls. “I wanted to learn about international cuisines but in Madrid there were not a lot of international restaurants at the time, maybe three good Italians and a couple of Chinese places. Someone told me that if I wanted to learn about food from other countries London was the place to go. I was 28 and wanted to have some fun so it was the time to go.”

“For me, longevity is not being fashionable.
I want my restaurants to be here as long as I’m here"

So, at the turn of the century, Pizarro found himself in a flat share with four other guys on Holloway Road being turned down by restaurants because of his then inability to speak English (he has since remedied that). He eventually got a job at Spanish restaurant Gaudi on Clerkenwell Road, recalling a halcyon time of working Monday to Friday and then spending all weekend partying now the threat of working on his father’s farm had lost its teeth.

From there he went to work with David Eyre at his Shoreditch Portuguese/Mediterranean restaurant Eyre Brothers, coming full circle in terms of his cooking style. “David and Julio were the two people that changed the way I cook,” he says. “Julio took me from very traditional roast and grills and big plates to fine dining. I learnt a lot from my modern training, he taught me the techniques to be a better cook. David took me back to my roots and brought me completely back to what I loved cooking.”

From here Pizarro joined Monika Linton at Brindisa, the Spanish restaurant group and deli that was embarking on its bid to introduce Spanish cuisine and ingredients to Londoners. He eventually took a small share in the business after convincing the bank to loan him some money to buy a fictitious motorbike, before striking out on his own in 2011.

Things haven’t always been plain sailing. Early on in his new venture Pizarro fell out with his backers and ended up taking control of the business a few years after its inception. It is against this backdrop that he met investor Ken Sanker, who would become the third most influential person in his career.

“The person who saved me from not going back to Spain was Ken,” says Pizarro of the man he describes as his mentor in business. “Ken had backed people such as the Galvin Brothers and I met him for lunch and told him about the troubles I was having. I didn’t have anyone else to talk to and he said he’d help me. If I hadn’t have met Ken, there is a big possibility that none of the rest would have happened.”


More than a business mind

Sanker’s mentorship has no doubt proven invaluable, but there is more to Pizarro’s success than having become a sound businessman. Anyone who has met the chef and restaurateur can’t fail to be enamoured by his warmth and charm that is augmented by a touch of cheekiness and a devotion towards his mother that borders on saintly. On a press trip a few years back Pizarro took a group of journalists to his hometown, a rural village near Cáceres in Extremadura, where his force of nature mother Isabel – now 90 years old – cooked a memorable meal of Titanic proportions in the living room of the family home. Food and family run through his veins – whether that be his immediate family or his extended restaurant brood – and it is these attributes that have been as potent as being able to navigate a balance sheet.

Taking on The Swan in Esher, which had previously been operated by Claude Bosi, is one such example. Now celebrating its fifth birthday, Pizarro recalls the early days of becoming a publican as being tricky. When the locals heard a Spaniard was taking over their pub to serve Spanish food there were concerns, he remembers (“the locals own the pub”) but he swiftly won them round with his savoir faire, traditional Spanish barbecues on the garden terrace and group set menus while ensuring traditional Sunday roasts complete with Yorkshire puddings also featured. “We are good friends now,” he says of his locals.

José Pizarro Broadgate Circle also reaches a landmark this year, celebrating its 10th birthday. Now in double figures, Pizarro says he intends to adapt the restaurant offer to move with the times.
“The clientele has changed. When it opened it attracted people in their 40s and 50s, now they are more in their 30s, which is why I need to maybe tweak the menu a little bit. I want it to be a little bit more fun for a younger crowd and be more related to what is going on over there.

“Some people said to me, ‘it’s been 10 years, you’ve made your money so why not close it?’ I don’t want to do that, it’s a lovely site.”

Food and family run through Pizarro's veins –
whether that be his immediate family or
his extended restaurant brood 

His Abu Dhabi restaurant, which opened last year within the Hilton-owned Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers, saw Pizarro make his international move. “I wanted to diversify myself. I have good relationship with Hilton and have wanted to do something with them for a long time,” he says of the move. The cultural aspects of area were attractive, with the hotel close to art museums Guggenheim and Louvre, as was the relatively small size of the space. “It’s in the lobby and has 40 seats. It’s small and cosy and not bling bling – it’s not Dubai.”

Are there any more international venues on the cards? “I don’t want to run without seeing how everything works. I have no backers, so I don’t have to take on things in don’t want. If I see a good opportunity, I will go, but this year is mainly about consolidation.”

Would he ever consider opening in Spain? “I was tempted once, but I said no because at the time I couldn’t do my best. But it is a possibility,” he teases. “If I do proper jamon and good anchovies for a good price I will do well in Spain.”

For now, Pizarro is happy with his lot. Over the past 25 years he’s been at the forefront of a Spanish food revolution in this country, with regional Basque, Andalusian, Catalonian and Galician food much more prominent in the UK than when he came here (although he believes Spain’s culinary regions are still under-represented in the UK). It’s a legacy of which he’s rightfully proud.

“For me, longevity is not being fashionable. I want my restaurants to be here as long as I’m here and then hopefully my team will take them on.

“I haven’t opened restaurants to make money and run. I want to open and stay.”

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