Grilled: José Pizarro

by Jess Carter

04 October 2017

We catch up with this internationally celebrated chef to talk to him about buying olive oil from a pharmacy, how now two Italian neighbourhoods will agree on a recipe, and how Brexit is shaping his menus...

About a year and a half ago, Spanish chef José’s award-winning book Basque was published, packed with recipes from this specific region of Spain. Next, he set his sights on Catalonia, and spent weeks travelling the area extensively to deepen his knowledge of its history, climate and ingredients, as well as – perhaps most importantly for this friendly Spaniard – meet the people.

Even with this volume having not yet been released at the time we speak, José’s already talking about the next one, telling me he’s decided on the region it’ll focus on. It seems this chef isn’t one to take a break willingly.

“It’s better to be busy than quiet, otherwise I’m in trouble!” he says. “I love it.”

Running four London restaurants, though, he’s back in the kitchen at the rst opportunity – when he’s not writing or touring, that is.

“It’s what I love. With my chefs, my family. We spend so much time together, we’re family. And the team behind it, they’re amazing.”

Writing the new book, though – Catalonia: Recipes from Barcelona and Beyond – took José out of his beloved restaurants to spend time in this autonomous community of Spain, travelling, researching and cooking with locals.

“I was there for quite a few weeks, I cannot complain. This is research; eating and drinking is research !” he jokes, making it clear that he can barely believe his luck to be able to do all this in the name of ‘work’. “It’s not just about authentic recipes,” he explains. “It’s about the cuisine, the style of cooking. The recipes are very simple but really great, and they reflect the style of the area.

“In Catalonia there are many in influences from Italy, from the peninsula, from the rest of Spain, and one thing I love about the cuisine of Catalonia is how they mix a lot seafood and sh with meat: sea and mountain, together. And that really works, I just love it.
For many, many years I’ve been cooking meatballs with cuttle sh, or chicken with langoustines. That is, I think, very important in Catalonian cooking. I love it. I love it!”

Both of those recipes of course appear in the book, alongside more examples of ‘sea and mountain’, like razor clams with jamón and cava vinaigrette, and arroz negro with cuttle sh and butifarra sausage.

It wasn’t all just ouncing around, eating and having a jolly ol’ time though, José says.

“Often, you go to one place, another place, another place; you shoot something and have to leave. It’s amazing but it’s quite sad at the same time that you can’t stay and enjoy it. It’s a lot of travelling, but it was a lovely, lovely, lovely time. I love people, and meeting the people is important.

“For me, it’s all about the people. I was travelling all over Catalonia meeting new people who were giving me recipes, and I got to cook with them in the kitchen, which is something very, very special.

“It means you get the stories behind the recipes. There are so many histories I learnt that I think I need to write another book about the histories! People are really fascinated about this; they take it very seriously.

“That’s the point; the history of the food, the love people put into the food, the ingredients of the area...”

Of course, the food you’ll find across the Med varies hugely from region to region – even just from village to village – depending on the climate, what ingredients are available, and what the people need.

“Always, I say, Spain is 17 countries in one. In the north of Spain they have to eat stews and warm things – you know, it’s cold – but if you go to the south it’s sunny and lighter. So it’s all related to the climate, and the climate makes the people. It’s as simple as that.

“And the regions make the food. Catalonia, they have money there, so of course it’s going to be different from somewhere where it’s more working, more land, where people need to work very hard to get the food.”

José came to the UK 18 years ago, and was faced with a very different culinary landscape to that which we have today. In less than two decades, he’s witnessed a complete turn-around when it comes to people’s knowledge and experience of Spanish food. “De nitely things have changed a lot. People now recognise

Spanish food. Now you can see a Basque restaurant, a Catalan restaurant – this is amazing. If you asked me 18 years ago whether we would now be in the position that we are, I would say, ‘It’s possible , but I’m really not sure’.”

“When I came, the customer was not ready for this cuisine, they didn’t know about the ingredients. Spain’s not just about paella, Rioja, things like that – they are just basic. There is a lot more behind it, and people – my customers – now do understand that. And I think the country is ready for even more.

“We’re so lucky with people wanting to try more things, new ingredients, new cooking techniques, new cuisines – and Spain is bringing them now to this country.”

Safe to say, this hasn’t always been the case, though...

“Fifteen years ago I went to do a cooking demo in Manchester. I was cooking with olive oil, and many people looked at me like I was crazy – because they thought olive oil is just to clean your ears with! And we are not talking 50 years ago, we are talking about 15, 16 years ago. Customers didn’t even want to try the food, because it was made with olive oil! When I tell that to people in Spain they don’t believe it, but, before, some people would go to the pharmacy to buy it here.”

It's not just olive oil that’s – thankfully – been assimilated into our British store cupboards, though; you can’t go into a deli, farm shop or supermarket without noticing all the Spanish ingredients which now line the shelves.

“We are lucky that we can get any ingredient that we want; we have everything possible. I can order food now from Spain before 12 here in the UK, and I have it tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning.”

How about 18 years ago, though; wasn’t it dif cult to try and create proper Spanish food without such easy availability?

“It was more challenging; you had to accommodate the availability around you in your menu. But I use a lot from here now, because I believe in the community: you have to support your community and your country, as your community supports you.

“But still I need to be using more, even more, produce from Britain. Because, you know, the pricing’s crazy at the moment – its crazy. The pound and the euro are almost the same. It’s challenging. It’s changing now to create your menu. In fact, I think it’s more challenging now than it was six or seven years ago.”

But it’s still far from difficult to recreate those authentic Mediterranean avours in these less exotic climes; José’s most important Spanish store cupboard staples are all pretty simple to get your mitts on, it turns out. “Always I’d say olive oil, and paprika, of course,” he says. “Then you have the saffron. That, for me, is the base of everything: good olive oil, good paprika... They use it to avour and to preserve, you know – think of chorizo. Oh, and the sherry vinegars, they’re important too...”

And if you’re lucky enough to be visiting Catalonia in the not-to-distant future? Don’t miss out on some of their best ingredients: “The gambas, the prawns, are stunning. And the anchovies, they are so, so beautiful, so meaty.”

But the thing that, for José, really makes Catalan food so distinctive and appealing? Can you guess?

“For me, meeting the people is important. I love people.”