Harden’s Insider: ¡Salud! José celebrates a milestone (and he’s not easing off)

Harden’s caught up with José Pizarro as he celebrated 25 years in London. The chef has been a key figure in the development of Spanish cuisine in Britain, and now runs a small empire that stretches as far as the Middle East with an outpost in Abu Dhabi. But his true territory remains London, where he has one foot in the heart of the cultural establishment at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly – where he has two venues – and the other in once-shabby Bermondsey Street, where he will have three venues with the imminent opening of Lolo.

As he looks back on his arrival here in 1999, José makes it clear that his initial plans went horribly wrong from the very beginning – but in the best possible way. “I came here as a chef wanting to learn different cuisines,” he says, “so it’s ironic that it ended up the other way round.”

He still maintains that the gastronomic diversity he came in search of makes “London the best capital in the world for eating“, but his own contribution has been to give rather than to take from it.

The problem was that he couldn’t get a job in most London kitchens because he didn’t speak a word of English (a quarter of a century on, his English retains a fabulously Hispanic pronunciation). So he had to compromise, and ended up working in the Iberian kitchen at Eyre Brothers in Shoreditch.  

He realised pretty quickly that the British had very little understanding of Spanish gastronomy – “a culture that goes back thousands of years” – or its various cuisines. Nor did they appreciate the amazing quality of ingredients such as jamón ibérico, paprika, olive oil and Manchego cheese. “People would say, ‘this is the best Parma ham ever’ – but it’s not, it’s a different product, and that was difficult for me.”

So he turned himself into a self-appointed and unfunded ambassador for Spanish cuisine. “I was giving away so much Spanish ham and products to try, from my own pocket. I was really trying to promote it,” he says. He remains active in discovering and promoting high-quality Spanish products. “There’s always something important to teach myself and get other people to know about – now I want to bring bluefin tuna here” he says of his current favourite (confusingly called atún rojo, or red tuna in Spanish). 

This year, the Spanish government recognised these efforts, investing José with the Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, the Spanish equivalent of a knighthood. “It was a very sweet thing to do from the king and government – I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “My mum is going to be 90 in a few months, so it was a lovely moment for her. And to work hard for something like this was a very proud moment in my life.

It is another source of pride that his proselytising work on behalf of Spanish gastronomy has not been in vain. There are now amazing Spanish restaurants not just in London but throughout Britain, he says – many of them run by British chefs. A true internationalist, José brushes aside the idea that only Spanish chefs can cook authentic Spanish food. “British chefs are in love with Spain, and if you love a culture, you honour it,” he says.

And not just chefs, he adds: British people have really taken the idea of tapas to heart – to the extent that you can find restaurants serving “English tapas”, that is, small plates of food to share with friends while chatting over a drink. “The word ‘tapas’ has entered the English language,” he says. “It’s an attitude to eating out, or even at home, where people will say ‘let’s bring some tapas to the table.” Being less formal and smaller-scale than a traditional dinner, tapas means we can meet up to break bread together more often than before, whether in a bar or at home – so it has effected real social change. 

It took José a dozen years in London to realise his dream of opening his own restaurant, having made his name as executive chef at Spanish food importers Brindisa. He opened his tapas bar José in Bermondsey Street exactly 13 years ago, in May 2011. Now a thriving foodie hub – partly thanks to his presence – Bermondsey was still a rundown neck of the woods in southeast London at the time. 

“It’s not that long ago, but in those days people didn’t want to go to Bermondsey Street,” José says. “There were no people around on Saturday and it was empty on Sunday. Now there are more and more people, and more restaurants are opening all the time.

But he refuses to take credit for predicting the area’s boom. “It was a matter of luck,” he insists. “I was living around the corner, I didn’t have much money and it was cheap, so I saw the opportunity. The young people who lived in the area didn’t want to cook and were going into central London to eat. All these things together made it work.”

So how does he see the future – both for himself and for the hospitality industry? “I always push myself to do more things and improve,” he says, upbeat as ever. “I work very hard but I enjoy every day of my life (some more than others, of course). When I came here 20 years ago, it was 20 hours a day, absolutely crazy! Now we’re very lucky that young chefs don’t have to do that.

But you do need to enjoy what you do. And always remember, it is not about being the best. We’re cooking to make people happy: to restore people. I plan to carry on until I am 85, when the team will take the business over.

As for the wider industry, at a time when people worry about everything from the staffing issues around Brexit to the cost-of-living crisis, José has one piece of advice that should be taken up by careers officers and hospitality recruiters across the country: “People will always want to eat out, and you can’t run a restaurant on AI.

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