This is a short film explaining what my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate is about and how I started running pop-up kitchens at Beer Rebellion, a quirky bar in Sydenham, south-east London..
On my recent trip to San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, I met a legend of Spanish gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, regarded as one of the world’s top chefs. I called unannounced to present him with a copy of my new book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.
He’s seventy-four and he’s still cooking in the kitchen at his restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 1989, a time when Spanish cuisine was still struggling to make a name for itself. He has been at the forefront of what has been called the new Spanish cuisine, taking traditional ingredients and dishes and adapting them.
His daughter Elena, an equally talented chef, works in the kitchen with him, overseeing a team of 30, which includes 10 interns from various parts of the world.
I wanted to know if Juan Mari was still as passionate about cooking as when he began his career.
“Yes! When I can’t sleep I sometimes think up new recipes,” he said.
He has a laboratory at the restaurant, which has over 1,000 plastic containers, each with a different ingredient. It’s here that Juan Mari, Elena, and their team
Come up with ideas such as sardine and strawberry, squid with banana, and chistorra with beer and mango.
They might sound odd combinations, but having tried all of them I can say that they were absolutely delicious.
Elena has received many offers to do TV shows, but she isn’t interested in them.
“I don’t want to be on TV,” she said. “I don’t like it. I prefer to be cooking in the kitchen.”
She also receives many invitations to attend conferences. In the next few weeks she is off to New York, Istanbul, and Milan.
What struck me about the Arzak restaurant is that it is a family business with a deep sense of tradition and views the team as part of the family. In one of the wine rooms is part of a tree and a bottle of wine dating back to 1897 when his grandparents opened the restaurant. Several of the kitchen staff have worked there over 30 years. Two remarkable chefs and a remarkable restaurant.
Spanish chef Alberto Crisco tells me he believes learning to cook can prevent prisoners reoffending. That’s why he set up The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton and in three other prisons.
What has been your proudest moment at The Clink and why?
My proudest moment was the day we opened in 2009. It was the culmination of four years planning and overcoming many hurdles. The look on the prisoners’ faces when they arrived for work was inspiring. They were so proud to be training in The Clink.
The Clink is such a brilliant idea. Why do you think it has not been taken up by more prisons?
The Clink currently operates in four prisons with two more in the pipeline as well as a gardening project and Clink Events which caters for clients in and around the M25. Clink Events also offers ex-offenders and homeless young people from the Centrepoint charity the opportunity to work and train with The Clink.
Typically, how many prisoners would be working in a kitchen at any one time?
We train 30 prisoners at any one time in the restaurants. This is split between the kitchen (professional cookery diploma) and the restaurant (food service diploma).
Who provides the training and how?
The Clink is a registered training centre with City & Guilds and we employ professional staff who are accredited assessors to deliver the training.
What are some of the challenges of running a kitchen in prison?
All tools, including knives, must be accountable at all times and must be locked away when not in use. If a tool goes missing then a full search is carried out by security until it is found. Prisoners that you have trained to a high standard being transferred without warning can be very frustrating. At the end of the day you are working in a prison first and a kitchen second.
What led you to The Clink?
I wanted to combine high quality training in a real work environment, break down barriers that existed with the employment of ex-offenders and also change the public perception of rehabilitating prisoners. To open a training restaurant that employers and the public could dine in made perfect sense to me.
How does a kitchen at The Clink compare to those at some of the restaurants you’ve cooked in?
A kitchen in The Clink is no different to any other I have worked in. Hard graft, teamwork and dedication are all essential.
How Spanish cuisine features on the menu at The Clink?
Our menus are typically modern British but with influences from around the world. All our menus feature seasonal and local produce. We don’t have any Spanish dishes on the current menu but ajo blanco (a chilled soup made with almonds) has featured previously and we make our own membrillo (quince jelly) that we sell by the jar and serve with the cheese board. We always have a homemade pasta dish on the menu as a result of my Italian heritage. The prisoners are all classically trained so making fresh pasta, bread and stocks is second nature.
What food do you recall from your childhood?
My fondest memories of my mother’s home cooking has to be homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and served with tomato, basil and lots of Parmesan. Beef olives are also braised slowly in the pasta sauce as this gives the sauce a very rich flavour. Serve the hot beef olives with green salad and crusty fresh bread.
When did you first think of becoming a chef?
When I was still at school I used to work weekends for my uncle as he was head chef for Trusthouse Forte at Heathrow Airport. I went to catering college when I left school and have never looked back.
Have you any idea how many of your students at The Clink have gone on to work in catering and hospitality after prison?
We have placed approximately 200 into jobs that we have arranged and aim to release 1,000 graduates into employment each year by the end of 2020, providing we hit our target of having 10 prisoner training schemes in operation – we’re currently at six.
To book a table at The Clink Restaurant please visit theclinkcharity.org.
If you want to make your wine really stand out from the crowd, then you need to come up with an eye-catching label. Last week I attended the Wines from Spain 2016 trade fair at Tobacco Dock, where bottles Wine from hundreds of bodegas in Spain were on display.
I was stopped in my tracks by the Spanish Story stand. This Madrid company has produced a series of wonderful labels, each in a vibrant colour and featuring an image of a bull, an octopus, or something else associated with Spain.
If you want to get your wine noticed, then you need to come up with an eye-catching label. When I attended the 2016 Wines from Spain trade fair last week at Tobacco Dock, I was stopped in my tracks by the Spanish Story stand. This Madrid company has created some of the best and most colourful wine labels I’ve come across. It uses the same design in a different and vibrant colour for each of its wines. What adds to this are the images, such as a shrimp, a bull, and an octopus.
Madrid chef Omar Allibhoy putting passion on a plate at his Shoreditch tapas bar
One of the hardest things when you are writing a book is to come up with a catchy title. You can spend weeks, or even months, playing around with words, trying to find the right ones. After much doodling on A4 pads and going for long walks, I now have a title for my new book: Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.
The book is scheduled for publication in June.
Many restaurants close down within their first year of opening. The reason for this is that the person with the bright idea hasn’t done their homework. “Yes, a great idea!” friends will say when the budding restaurateur reveals his or her idea.. Sadly many do fail.
One that hasn’t failed is Barrica, a wonderful tapas bar in Goodge Street. It hasn’t failed because owner Tim Luther really did do his homework before opening it in 2009. He spent weeks wandering around, popping in and out of bars and restaurants around Charlotte Street and counting the customers. Given the number of media companies located in the area, he felt confident that a traditional tapas bar would work. Tapas is casual dining and it’s about sharing. It’s also ideal if you are in a hurry.
“You can find information on an area on the web, but there’s no substitute to seeing it for yourself, going in the restaurants to see how busy they are, what they serve, what they charge, and what the footfall is,” he told me.
Tim is one of a number of talented and imaginative individuals who have brought to London an authentic experience of Spanish food. If you are thinking of opening a restaurant, then you would be foolish not to follow his example and burn some shoe leather. It could make all the difference between success and failure.
To be awarded a Michelin star is the dream of many chefs. So it’s remarkable when this happens to someone who set out in his career intending to be an engineer.
This is what I discovered when I met Segi Sanz, head chef at Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, the oddly names restaurant located inside The Halkin Hotel in Belgravia. He didn’t take up cooking professionally until he was twenty-five, after having completed a degree in engineering in Barcelona. Cooking was really what he wanted to do all along, he told me, but engineering had seemed a safer option.
Having worked with the legendary Ferran Adria in Seville, his opportunity to move to The Halkin came about after he spent time in the kitchen with the Arzak’s at their Michelin three-star restaurant in San Sebastian.
The restaurant received a Michelin star in 2014, just months after opening and on the back of some very mixed reviews from food critics who were unimpressed by its modern and experimental take on Basque cuisine. The only other Spanish restaurant in London with a Michelin star is Barrafina.
Sergi, a modest and unassuming chef, is now aiming for a second star.
The tapas battle continues in London with at least a dozen new Spanish restaurants and bars opening this year.
La Tasca opened its seventh restaurant, in Covent Garden, and Iberica its fourth, at the bottom of the Zig Zag building in Victoria. Hot on their heels is Camino, which opened its fourth venue, near the Tate Modern in Bankside. Elsewhere Jose Pizzaro has branched out from Bermondsey Street into The City, at Broadgate Circle, and Barrafina has pitched up in Drury Lane in theatreland.
Away from the crowds, down in south-east London, tapas has come to Peckham for the first time with the opening of Miss Tapas, tucked away among the African food shops in Choumert Road.
There are those who think the number Spanish restaurants in London might eventually overtake the number of Italian restaurants. This is still some way off, but if things continue the way they have been doing in the last few years, it might well happen.
If you want to taste the best seafood and fish Spain has to offer, then head to the indoor Atarazanas market in the centre of Malaga on the Costa del Sol. Just by one of the entrances is a small bar where you can eat incredible octopus in a delicious sauce, fried baby calamari, pieces of hake in batter, grilled tuna that is so meaty it could be steak, grilled prawns with a touch of pimenton, marinated anchovies, and much more.
It was no wonder that the everyone standing around the bar looked so happy. The food was sensational, as was the ice cold beer. It’s a good job I don’t live in Malaga, because I’d be there every day.
Borough Market here in London is lauded as a temple of gastronomy, but the Atarazanas knocks spots off it. On each occasion this year when I’ve eaten something from one of the stalls at Borough Market, I’ve come away hugely disappointed and with a feeling that I’ve been ripped off. The prices seem to increase by the month. The Atarazanas market is an authentic market, where locals go to buy their fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables. It’s not a touristy place. It’s an intregal part of Spanish culinary life.
Greg Watts is the author of award-winning Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London and a cook who runs pop-up kitchens in south-east London.
He has also written books about or with artists, popes, former gangsters, trade unionists, and undertakers. His 2015 memoir The Long Road Out of Town tells the story of how he escaped a small Midlands town and discovered his vocation to be a writer.
During his career in journalism he has written for numerous publications, including The Times, London’s Evening Standard, and British Journalism Review. He has also worked in TV and radio.