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..
“Croquetas de jamon ready for table three!” I barked in my best Spanish pronunciation, sliding a dish to to my wife. “Padron peppers in two minutes.”
It was eight thirty on a Saturday night at Beer Rebellion, a small bar in Sydenham, specialising in craft beers brewed down the road in Penge. And I was running my first pop-up kitchen, providing nine tapas dishes under the name of Passion on a Plate.
When I had got up early that morning to make four tortillas before heading to a Crystal Palace bakery to collect five loaves of sour dough bread, I had been filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. Would the electric cooker at Beer Rebellion work okay? I had tested it the week before and discovered that some rings took a while to heat up? How would I cope if I had to prepare or cooking several dishes at once? Would the customers like what I served? Yet despite these worries, I was raring to go.
And an hour and a half into the service, I was loving every minute of cooking for paying customers. Standing there in the kitchen, wearing a chef’s jacket and white apron and hat, I was feeling like a proper cook. I was even becoming incredibly bossy with my wife. “No! The customers only need a small slice of quince with the cheese.” I had watched too many episodes of Hell’s Kitchen.
This pop-up might never have happened had I not attended several cooking classes at Leith’s. They not only gave me some knowledge and techniques, but, just as importantly, they boosted my confidence and helped to demystify the process of cooking.
The class that was perhaps most valuable to me was the one taught by the charismatic Omar Allibhoy, who came to London from Madrid to persuade more of us to eat tapas. I bought his book, Tapas Revolution, afterwards, and I had used some of his recipes for my menu at Beer Rebellion.
I later interviewed Omar for my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London. And, looking back, it was meeting him, and other inspiring Spanish chefs and owners of Spanish restaurants, that led me to answer the post from Beer Rebellion on my local community forum: “Want to run a pop-up kitchen? Come and speak to us.”
So I did. The manager, a laid back Kiwi, wasn’t concerned that I had never run a pop-up kitchen and he said tapas would go down well with the customers.
Once I had fixed a date, I then had to decide on a menu. I knew I was plunging into the deep end. Cooking at home is one thing; cooking in a bar is something else. But I felt this was a challenge I was ready for.
Recognising my lack of experience, I sought advice from Raffaele, the owner of Trattoria Raffaele, the fantastic Italian restaurant in my local high street, and Jorge, a chef at Barrica, a top West End tapas bar. “Keep the menu simple and short,” they both urged. So I decided to include five cold dishes and four hot.
I would make the tortilla, jamon croquetas, and sauce for the patas bravas in advance. This would mean that on the night I would only be cooking padron peppers and potatoes from scratch. I felt this was achievable.
Running your first pop-up kitchen requires military planning. You have to price your dishes; work out portion sizes; find good suppliers for your ingredients; think about what kitchen equipment (in my case a deep fat fryer, slow cooker, and toaster), crockery and cutlery you will need and how big the fridge is to store dishes made in advance.
As well as this, you have to work out how you are going to use the space in the kitchen to arrange your ingredients and plate up. You also have to design a menu, provide a spike for the tickets the orders are written on, have a good supply of tea towels, and bring a bottle of hand wash.
Adding special touches to the evening can help create an atmosphere. My wife bought red and yellow carnations for each table and placed them in the set of small glass jars I had spotted in a charity shop. She also bought some sunflower plants, which we arranged on the ledge of the kitchen, wooden boards to serve the iberico ham, and red and yellow napkins.
In the three weeks leading up to the pop-up, I practiced cooking the dishes. My attempts at creating a good alioli were disappointing. When the mixture kept splitting, my wife suggested I buy a ready made one. But this would have seemed like cheating, So I continued experimenting and, eventually, I got there (thanks to a Jamie Oliver recipe on You Tube).
I felt such a sense of achievement when I slumped down with my wife at the end of the evening at Beer Rebellion. We had served 49 dishes, and all had returned empty. I was still on a high the next day.
And now we are going to run a weekly tapas night in the bar.
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.
It’s wonderful when you discover a fantastic restaurant, the kind of place where you just know you will be going back to. In this case, I’m talking about El Pirata in Mayfair.
It might be in one of the most expensive and exclusive areas of London, but El Pirata is very reasonably priced. In fact, it a value menu of the day, consisting of two tapas, bread and alioli, and a drink, for just £10.25. A bargain.
We didn’t opt for this, however. Instead we ordered for the extensive list of tapas dishes: crumbly morcilla, monk fish, meat balls, pork in a lovely sauce, and fried marinated fish. All were excellent. I actually ordered the monk fish by mistake, because I didn’t have my glasses and misread the menu, thinking it said deep fried pork. When I told the waiter this he immediately offered to change the dish. “It’s not a problem, sir.” In the end I decided to stick with the monk fish. We ended our meal by sharing a creme Catalan, which my wife said was the best she had tasted.
As was the service. I was impressed that when we arrived the waiter who greeted us asked for our names. And the friendly service continued throughout the meal.
Opened in 1994, El Pirata has got it right: good food, reasonable prices, friendly service, and a warm atmosphere. And the decor, all black and white with wooden beams on the ceiling, suggesting the inside of a pirate ship (with the addition of Picasso prints on the walls), works.
I’ll be returning soon.
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.
There have been so many Spanish restaurants and tapas bars opening in London in the last few years, that it’s easy to forget those that have been around for a long time, when Spanish food wasn’t so popular. One such place is El Molino, situated near the tram stop between Beckenham and Penge. It’s what you might call an old fashioned restaurant. Lots of dark wood, football shirts hanging above the bar, and posters of bull fighting competitions on the walls.
The restaurant was opened in 1991 by Cessar, specialising in the food from his homeland of Galicia in north-west Spain. Since then, he’s built up a loyal group of customers who enjoy both the food and the friendly welcome they always receive.
But now Cessar has decided to return home and in the next few weeks the restaurant will have a new owner, Amia, a young British guy with Iranian roots. He told me he wants to retain the best of what Cessar created during his twenty-four years, but he will make some small changes.
I’m delighted the restaurant is to continue, as there are very few places where you can eat Spanish food in this part of south-east London. And I wish Amia well in his new venture.
When it comes to food, London has to be one of the most innovative cities in the world. And Jennifer Yong is a great illustration of this.
She quit a career in finance to open Jenius Social, located on the ground floor of a modern development of flats off the Holloway Road in Islington. It runs cookery classes, master classes in subjects such as game, fish, cheese, or baking, corporate team building events, and supper clubs.
I took a brilliant class in making tapas with Andrew Clements, one of the success stories of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Andrew has also worked in Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant in Padstow and at a five star hotel in Barcelona.
Jennifer, who was born in Singapore, but grew up in Australia, moving to London 10 years ago, is passionate about food and how it can connect people. “I like meeting new people. In London it’s a bit difficult to meet people: you do it at work, or through friends of friends, on line or at a bar. Here we group people so they can socialise and talk through food. It’s not dating it’s just a chance to meet interesting people you’d have never met,” she said.
Jenius Social is a fantastic idea and somewhere where you can learn about cooking without paying the kind of hefty fees many cookery schools in London charge.
I’ve just embarked on a major project, taking a journey through London to meet the people involved in bringing us the food from Spain so many of us have grown to love. The aim of the book is to explore why Spanish food is becoming popular, explain what it is, and show how to cook it. I’ll admit, there are harder jobs.
Yesterday I met the enterprising Blanca, owner of Miss Tapas, a tapas bar, in Peckham, south-east London. She has tried to recreate the kind of typical neighbourhood tapas bar you find in Seville, where she grew up.
I spent a very pleasant evening there and enjoyed some amazing dishes, including croquettes with morcilla and tortilla and alioli. The staff were very friendly, interested in the food, and the atmosphere relaxed. I think she has succeeded.