Table Talk: José Pizarro

Spanish chef José Pizarro was born and raised in Extremadura. After studying dentistry, he swapped peering into mouths for feeding them, undertaking a cookery course in Seville and never looking back. He has been based in London for the last 21 years and currently runs three Spanish restaurants in the capital – tapas bar José and the more formal Pizarro on Bermondsey Street, and José Pizarro in Broadgate Circle, along with Surrey gastropub The Swan Inn in Esher.

Describe to me your earliest food memory….

My earliest food memories are of the sights and smells of my mum cooking in the kitchen in Extremadura. There’s nothing better when you’re a kid than waking up to the smell of freshly cooked churros wafting up from the kitchen when you’re still in bed, or drinking a glass of milk freshly squeezed from a cow.

I was very lucky to grow up in Extremadura and spend my childhood there. We kept animals and grew a lot of vegetables. I remember running playing with the pigs and picking olives in the winter with my father when it was freezing cold. It’s great if children are able to grow up knowing where food comes from.

Did you always dream of becoming a chef or did you fall into it?

My mum didn’t have time to teach me to cook, but I learnt a bit from my grandmother on my father’s side. I was tiny, so they are just vague memories now. I knew the smell of a good tomato and things like that. I ended up studying dentistry but wasn’t a very good student.

I always wanted to do a cookery course and ended up doing one in Seville and never looked back. I knew once I started cooking that I could never go back to looking into people’s mouths again. I spent five years cooking in Spain and have been based in the UK for the last 21 years.

What is the dish that you have created that you’re most proud of?

I’m particularly proud of introducing the UK to medium-rare Ibérico pork tenderloin marinated with paprika, garlic, black pepper and thyme. People thought I was crazy when I first suggested the idea. I worked for David Eyre (founder of The Eagle in Farringdon) at the time and he was very sceptical at first, but I ended up putting it on the menu and it was a success. I’ve been cooking with acorn-fed Ibérico pork ever since, and have even served it as a tartare. I like simple dishes that make a hero of one ingredient.

What is your ultimate food and wine match and why?

A glass of fino en rama Sherry and a plate of jamon Ibérico is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Claudia Roden is Pizarro’s culinary hero

What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever had in your life?

I’m lucky enough to have had so many memorable meals. One that sticks out in the mind was dinner at D’Berto, a seafood restaurant in Galicia, which serves very simple seafood with excellent local Albariño wines. I was there on holiday with my partner Peter and it was heaven. The beauty of Spanish food is that it’s geared around sharing.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten while on your travels?

I ate snake in Hong Kong once, which was quite interesting. It tasted like chicken. In my village we occasionally ate fox, which has a similar texture to lamb. It’s very tender and has quite a mild flavour, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

In my village they hang the meat for a few days and cook it with a lot of spices. During the days of Franco people didn’t have a lot to eat in small Spanish villages.

Who is your culinary hero and why?

Cookbook writer Claudia Roden – I love her so much. I’ve been reading her cookbooks for years. She’s the most incredible person. I have a fond memory of sitting in her garden with Peter drinking wine and having dinner with her. She cooked for us and it was so lovely listening to her stories. I learnt so much.

I met her at the Hay Festival a long time ago. She published a Spanish cookbook the same year as me. She called me up to say our books were coming out at the same time and offered to promote them together, which was really kind.

What’s the biggest blunder you’ve made while on the job?

Using new knives on the first day of my restaurant opening. David Eyre gave me a set and I cut myself badly with them. In Spain they recommend putting salt and paprika on the cut, which I did and ended up having to go to hospital. I think the nurses at St. Thomas’s are still laughing about it.

What is your favourite season for food?

The moment when spring ends and summer begins, as the ingredients you get to work with are stunning and summertime brings back happy memories of holidays. I love autumn too though, and eating pumpkin soup with chorizo by the fire. All the seasons have their charm and bring you different flavours.

What single ingredient do you rely on most in the kitchen?

Olive oil. I’ve tried them from all over the world but always end up coming back to Spain. I particularly love extra virgin olive oil made with the morisca variety, which grows in Exremadura – the Moors brought it to Spain. It has a very intense and peppery flavour. I make my own olive oil with a friend and sell it in my restaurants.

What is the best bottle of wine you’ve ever drunk?

When I was a teenager someone gave my sister a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico, which I ended up drinking with some friends without telling her. I knew nothing about wine at the time and had no idea how expensive it was. She wasn’t very happy with me when she found out but luckily we’re still talking to each other. 

And finally…. If you had to only eat one country’s cuisine for the rest of your life, what would it be?

It would have to be Spanish as it’s the cuisine I know and love the best. I love experimenting with different cuisines but always come back to Spain.

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