Interview with Chef José Pizarro

Cat Byers |
Jose in the kitchen

We talk to the lovely José Pizarro about Spanish gastronomy, the importance of passion, and his almost-career as a Dental Technician...

I first heard of Spanish chef José  Pizarro during a brief stint at Stella Magazine last year when he was featured in the Soul Food column, speaking passionately about his mother's baby-goat stew. I was just starting out in journalism, and felt constantly overwhelmed and unqualified. The thought of ever meeting this chef, let alone interviewing him, seemed laughable. Nine months later, everything had changed. I met José at an event for The Good Life Embassy, held at his restaurant Pizarro in Bermondsey.  He was as passionate and zealous as he had seemed in that column, gushing about the brilliant of Spanish olive oil as he prepared delicious dishes for us with Diego Guerrero and making an effort to chat to everyone. Originally from Extremadura in Spain, José Pizarro came to London in 1998 to work at Eyre Brothers. After periods at Gaudi and Brindisa, he opened his first restaurant José  in 2011, followed by Pizarro a year later. Located just yards from each other in Bermondsey, they've both won plenty of praise and awards in the last few years for their fantastic food. A few weeks after the event, I was offered the chance to chat with José about his cooking and his career. After a quick moan about the terrible summer weather, we got onto the subject of Spanish food, the restaurant scene in London, and of course, olive oil. Tell me about how you became a chef? I've read that you were a dental technician, which seems like quite a funny transition to make... It is indeed! I was training as a dental technician at university, and saw the opportunity to do a cookery course as I was waiting for my job to start. I took the course, finished it, and never looked back! Did you cook much when you were growing up? My mother and grandmother were great cooks. My father was never in the kitchen – he couldn't even fry an egg! As is traditional in a village, I helped my father more, but I was always interested in the garden and the ingredients. Would you say that this focus on simple, high quality ingredients is the backbone of your cooking now? Yes, and because I've been lucky enough to learn the best techniques, I can improve old recipes with these modern skills. I learnt from the best chefs. I keep things traditional and focus on the ingredients – while the cooking might be a little more elaborate, the ingredients are still the most important thing. I focus on quality, while adding creativity. What is your favourite thing to make? I love making everything! Although I do really struggle with desserts. I find it so hard to be spontaneous, as you have to measure everything and be exact. I love cooking with olive oil, but I'm no good at cooking with butter as I never have – we cook everything with olive oil in Spain as the quality is so amazing. I really just love to cook, to see what there is at the market and make something fresh. What are your favourite markets in London? I live in Bermondsey, so Borough Market and Maltby Street Market are the closest to me and the ones I visit most often. I love Borough for the range of products available, although it is getting a bit touristy now of course. There are so many great local markets all over London. My favourite one in the world is La Boqueria [in Barcelona]. In the last few years, Londoners seem to be embracing food markets much more. Definitely. For me, my favourite thing to do is to wake up in the morning, visit Borough or Maltby Street with some friends, do some shopping, have a coffee and some breakfast then go home and cook! [caption id="attachment_4151" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Pizarro Restaurant in Bermondsey Pizarro Restaurant in Bermondsey[/caption] Where do you like to eat out in London? Apart from your own restaurants, of course! I absolutely love Cafe Murano – it's at the top of my list. I love Angela [Hartnett, director of Cafe Murano], her cooking and style in Murano is amazing. I can't wait to go back! Apart from that, there are so many amazing places that it's hard to choose. It's like asking me my favourite drink – I don't have a favourite, I love them all! Perhaps easier to ask what is your favourite ‘right now', as there are always new places opening. In London, we are so lucky to have so much diversity in restaurants – we have everything and anything, and so much of it is very authentic, with food from all different countries available. It's very accessible too, as you don't have to go somewhere very expensive for a good meal. There are plenty of simple places with very good food. You don't have to sell your house  to go out for a nice meal! What advice would you give to people who want to become chefs? I think passion is the most important thing above all. You do it because you love it, you love people and you love hard work. You need to have no commitments so you can dedicate yourself to it fully. When you cook for the love of it, it's the best thing in the world. You are looking after people, feeding people, making people happy – that's what it's really about. For me, my restaurant is like my living room, and my kitchen is like my kitchen at home. The ambiance, the food, everything needs to feel like you are at home. When the people sit there, have a great time, thank you and tell you they had an amazing meal – it makes the 14 or 16 hours in the kitchen worth it. At the end of the day, you've made them happy and they've come away with a good memory. Completely. Sometimes mistakes happen, of course – we are all human – but we just try to minimise those as much as possible! How did you get involved with the Good Life Embassy? I've actually always been a big fan of and promoted Spanish olive oil, as I personally believe it is the best olive oil in the world. It wins the most awards, and although lots of people are making good oil now, Spanish olive oil is still the best. I believe in the product and I believe in the producers, so when they called and asked if I wanted to be involved it seemed completely natural for me. I already promoted it all the time - why not make it official?! [caption id="attachment_4152" align="aligncenter" width="613"]José Pizarro and Diego Guerrero at the Good Life Embassy Launch, London José Pizarro and Diego Guerrero at the Good Life Embassy Launch, London[/caption] You have to be passionate about what you endorse.  Exactly – you can't be an ambassador for something you don't believe in. The flavours of Spanish olive oil are just amazing. If you ever get the chance to go to an olive oil harvest, you must. I'm so pleased that people are starting to learn about Spanish olive oil and Spain! I feel that in general the quality of Spanish products and food is starting to be noticed – until now it has been a bit hidden, compared to other countries, but it's so nice for me to see it starting to get recognised. Do you think Spanish food might previously have been eclipsed by Italian food? Yes, I think so. There is nothing wrong with Italian food – like I said, I love Cafe Murano – but it's important to me that people understand Spanish food and our culture. Food is our main thing, it's central to our lives.  Now we have 12 million people visiting Spain every year, people who are starting to visit the small villages and hidden places too, rather than just the cities and tourist areas. They try amazing, authentic food and they want to recreate that at home – or eat it again at José or Pizarro! Whats next for you? Plenty! 2014 has been a great year for me so far, and I think 2015 will be even better. I have a new book coming out soon – I always say ‘no more, it's too much work', then I end up writing another one! It's also time for a tapas book, I think. I'm already working on it, but it probably won't be ready for about two years.  Hopefully I will open another restaurant next year too, as I think it's time for me to move out of Bermondsey and try somewhere new. I always have to be busy, doing something, whether it's a book or a new restaurant. There are so many people working for me who have been there a long time, and who naturally want to grow. If I don't give them the chance to grow with me, then they will go somewhere else! It's very important to me to give them the opportunities they need. I have such an amazing team behind me right now – I'm so happy with all of them. We trust each other, and understand each other. Without that, without a good team, you have nothing.
Pizarro, 194 Bermondsey St, London SE1
José104 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3UB
Yauatcha City, Broadgate Circle
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