Multi-talent has many reasons to celebrate
While the gastronomic world became ever more technical – think molecular cuisine – José Pizarro must have been among the first who started focusing on produce and simpler preparations. A chef who likes business and art, and whose energy seems inexhaustible, he now has six tapas bars and restaurants across the British capital, all with their own identity. With his sixth cookbook in the making, this year he celebrates not only his 50th birthday, but also the tenth anniversary of his first restaurant in London’s trendy Bermondsey Street. Who is JP*? As a ‘Spanish ambassador’ to London, he is second to none.
Bermondsey is a happening hood in southeast London not far from the Tower Bridge. Hip bars, cool little boutiques, trendy coffeeshops, stylish restaurants and natural wine and organic food stores line the streets. Modern apartment buildings blend in well with renovated old warehouses, while in the middle of it the illustrious art gallery White Cube has its striking base. This is the area where JP started his Spanish gastro empire back in 2011. His first two ventures, José Tapas, and restaurant Pizarro are located within 100 meters of each other on Bermondsey Street, the area’s main drag.
Pre-Covid the customers at José, the tapas bar, would rub shoulders with each other while they washed down their slices of jamón ibérico with a glass of manzanilla or txakoli. Although most people now try to avoid rubbing shoulders, the buzz is definitely back. Down the street at Pizarro’s it seems even busier. In the open kitchen Spanish chefs loudly announce orders, the same way a market vendor sells his fish or vegetables at Barcelona’s famous Mercado de la Boqueria. Tables are standing close to each other, all of them occupied. Chatter and laughter bounces off the brick walls, the tiled bar and the wood-clad ceiling. It isn’t difficult to imagine yourself being in Spain.
José tapas bar, Bermondsey
This is exactly what JP envisioned – recreate a little bit of Spain in Europe’s most international city. Although Pizarro calls himself a citizen of the world, he is a Spaniard at heart, and now, after having lived in the British capital for 23 years, a Londoner too. He loves Southern France, but he could never see himself living anywhere else than in London or Spain. Madrid or Barcelona? “I used to prefer Barcelona, but now I feel that both cities have a lot to offer.”
Born and raised on a farm in a tiny village in Extremadura, life was good and bad for him. Growing up outdoors with fresh produce his father grew and his mother prepared, may have laid the foundation for his future professional life as a celebrated chef. But as a gay young man in the eighties in rural, post-Franco Spain, it was suffocating too. When the opportunity arose to move to London, after having gathered experience in top restaurants in Madrid, he grabbed it. While cooking for a couple of well-known restaurants in London, his love for honest, fresh and good produce became more and more apparent, eventually leading him to become an importer, something he still spends a lot of his time doing. Just over a decade ago, he felt it was time to open his own tapas bar to show London what real Spanish food was.
This year JP celebrates both his 50th birthday, and being in business for ten years with what is now a chain of six tapas bars and restaurants. In London’s CBD, he also runs José Pizarro Broadgate, where city workers come for a beer and a bite after work. A gastropub in Esher in Surrey, just outside London was his fourth venture. Always overflowing with people, he likens the public house (or pub) to the Spanish tapas bar. And loves it.
The two latest additions to his little Spanish empire that openend earlier this year are Poster Bar by José and José Pizarro (main photo), both at the Royal Academy, just off Piccadilly Circus in the bustling heart of London. This is not a random location – Pizarro is an art lover and collector. So, having the chance to open up in the renowed Royal Academy was a dream come true. Poster Bar, inspired by and decorated with the bright-coloured posters that used to advertise the next bullfight in one of the many Spanish arenas, is a low-key tapas and coffee bar, while the atmosphere at José Pizarro, located in the stately Senate Room, is more “like a casino” or entertainment room, as JP says. Grander (high coffered ceiling, panelled walls), more restrained (civilised conversations rather than boisterous laughs), and a little more chique. Here, true to its location, pieces of art decorate the walls. José Pizarro, who is good friends with Tracy Emin, Norman Ackroyd and other artists, will curate the next exhibition himself.
The common denominator of all these places is the use of fresh, quality products, often but not necessarily from Spain. Lobster from Galicia, shrimp from Andalucia, his own label olive oil and, of course, his beloved jamón ibérico. “It hurts when people call it Parma ham,” he says. “Or when people take pimiento for something Hungarian.” There is not the slightest trace of awkward nationalism; he just genuinely loves his native country. And it shines through in all dishes. Perhaps the best case in point: pan con tomate – a litmus test of simplicity and quality. Even an extra dose of garlic can’t save the dish if the bread isn’t crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, the sun-drenched tomatoes aren’t intensely flavourful and the olive oil isn’t first class. Likewise, the tostada de sobrasada, queso e miel is only as good as its constituting parts: spicy ground pork and soft nutty Mahon cheese, on toasted bread with a sprinkling of sweet honey to balance out the spice. Both tapas pass the test with flying colours. But also the boquerones en vinagre (anchovis) excel in simplicity, freshness and delicacy.
Confit leek with Catalina Reserva anchovy
Nonetheless, JP’s cuisine is more than just standard Spanish fare from the best ingredients. As his website says, his tapas have a twist. Almegas con mojo rojo (clams in spicy sauce), for instance, is an uncommon combination in Spain, but chez Pizarro it is not just a matching pair, it is absolutely delightful, not in the least because of its ‘secret’ ingredient cumin. Not soaking up the mojo (sauce) with chunks of fresh crusty bread – it happens, JP says with undisguised incomprehension -, is self-inflicted deprivation and an insult to the chefs. Similarly, pink peppercorns elevate the romesco sauce (served with cod) to the next level. As JP himself and many of his chefs have worked in starred restaurants, their technique and treatment of the ingredients also help to give almost all dishes just that little extra.
Now employing approximately 125 people, one could wonder if JP is still a chef or an enterpreneur. His answer is unequivocal “chef”, but one that enjoys the business side of running multiple restaurants. “I run on adrenaline,” he admits. However, what really sets him apart is that in everything he does, it is the people that matter. Chefs who inspire him, do so not only because of their food, but at least as much for who they are. Claudia Roden, Yotam Ottolenghi – great gastronomers, but primarily friends. One of his favourite artists, Angela de la Cruz, doesn’t only make fantastic works of art, but is first of all a wonderful person. A very local restaurant in the backwaters of northwerstern Andalucia (not far from Extremadura) that we both happen to love, isn’t just great because it serves very tasty and truly regional dishes – “the tomate soup!”, JP raves –, but first and foremost because the owners are a lovely couple and great hosts. It characterises the person – he likes to be among people, takes every chance to celebrate with friends (when time allows) and wants his guests, whether in his bars and restaurants, or in a private setting, to have a good time. And how could one have a better time than with good food and wine – Spanish, obviously!
Other than chef, importer and art collector, JP is also a writer of cookbooks. In the spring of 2022 his sixth will see the light of day. It will be dedicated to his 88-year-old mother. All recipes are hers; JP is just saving them for posterity – with a twist. “My mum should receive the royalties,” JP says, laughing. And then more seriously: “It is going to be my most personal cookbook so far.” He travels to Spain once or twice per month and tries to include a visit to his mother as often as his busy agenda allows him to. “Just a dinner or a breakfast together, there is nothing more important than that.”
* José Pizarro uses the acronym JP to sign his text messages; I use it in this article to distinguish the person from the bars and restaurants that carry his name.
Jamón ibérico, jamón serrano and prosciutto
What these three have in common is that they are dry-cured hams. The difference lies in the breed of pig, the living conditions and the food the pigs eat, and the time of curing. Although jamón ibérico is produced in other regions as well, the vast dehesa of Extremadura (a semi-open cultural landscape of oak forests and fields) is its heartland. Here the black Iberian pigs roam around and feed on bellota or acorns, which, according to José Pizarro, give the jamón its nutty flavour. Covering many miles searching for food, the pigs train their muscles, which further improves the quality of the meat. The best qualities of jamón ibérico typically have a slightly longer period of curing than serrano ham and prosciutto. Jamón serrano is made of white pigs or non-ibérico pigs. Prosciutto di Parma can be made of pigs raised elsewhere, but given the special air qualities, the ham must me produced in a delimited area near the city of Parma.
Some of José Pizarro’s favourite restaurants (currently):
45 Jermyn Street – Classics with a twist, inspired by the seasons, in an exquisite dining room.
45 Jermyn Street
St. James’s, London
Bob Bob Ricard – Classic British and Russian menu in glamorous all-booth dining room.
1 Upper James Street
Gymkhana – Inspired by the elite clubs of India where members of high society socialise, eat, drink, and play sport. Classic and contemporary Indian dishes.
42 Albemarle Street
Restaurante Arrieros – Contemporary, rustic ambiance with flavourful dishes that root deeply in the dehesa of northwestern Andalucia.
Calle Arrieros 2
Linares de la Sierra (Aracena), Spain
José Pizarro’s favourite artists:
– Tracey Emin
– Norman Ackroyd
– Eddie Peake and Celia Hempton
– Angela de la Cruz
– Harland Miller
A version of this article (in Norwegian) has been published in Apéritif (issue 1 2022)