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May 22 2017

From London to Basque Country with Chef José Pizarro

José Pizarro has spent the last eighteen years delighting the palates of diners in the United Kingdom and spreading the word about Spain's excellent products and cuisine. With four restaurants, three books and more on the way, this chef from Extremadura continues to play an invaluable role in fomenting people's love for Spanish gastronomy in both Spain and abroad


I was at a book presentation last week in Madrid when I received a frantic text message from an American friend who is living in London. It was a photograph of a wine menu, packed with an incredible list of reds, whites and rosado wines from Spain. "Which one should I choose?" she asked, "quick!". "Wait one second," I replied, "I'll ask the chef". She was of course dining at José, Spanish chef José Pizarro's tapas bar in London, while I was in Spain watching the same chef talk about the Spanish-language release of his new cookbook. Coincidence? Yes. But also just one more example of the chef's almost ubiquitous presence in the world of Spanish gastronomy and his particular influence on the culinary scene in the United Kingdom since his arrival in London eighteen years ago.

While nearly two decades dedicated to one's craft might seem like a lifetime to some, in the case of Spanish chef José Pizarro, everything points to the fact that he is just getting started. With four hit restaurants in the British capital, this extremeño has turned his sights to teaching people about regional Spanish cuisine through a new series of cookbooks. The first of these, Basque, was published in English last year by Hardie Grant in the UK to great success. Recently launched in Spanish from 5 Tintas publishing house under the name Euskadi, I heard about José Pizarro's journey from the chef himself at last week's book party, held at his close friend Diego Guerrero's Madrid laboratory Dspot.

It is easy to see this series of regional cookbooks – which will continue with Catalonia and then Pizarro's native Extremadura – as a natural extension of what this popular chef has been doing all along, introducing people to Spanish gastronomy through its products, traditions, recipes and cuisine. When he arrived in the UK nearly twenty years ago, "people didn't know what olive oil or Ibérico ham was. I used to go through one ham a year. This year I hope to go through seven hundred." Pizarro has an ongoing collaboration with famed Spanish ham company Cinco Jotas and, as he talks, I am sliding a hand-carved slice of this company's incredible Spanish Ibérico ham from PDO Jabugo onto my tongue. Its velvety texture melts into nutty, buttery goodness that can only be described as heaven. When the waiter comes around with another tray, I resist the urge to kiss him. Seven hundred hams a year is almost two a day. No wonder British diners love him.

When the first of these books, Basque, was published in English in the spring of 2016, it was a runaway hit. Although this is in fact Pizarro's third cookbook, it is the first in the regional gastronomy series and, despite his love for his native Extremadura, he chose to begin in Basque Country, "a region that I consider my second home and where I always go when I need a break from crazy London". The book is divided into the main sections of Meat, Fish, Vegetables and Dessert, and features eighty recipes (painfully narrowed down from one hundred and twenty), which are inspired by traditional Basque dishes and ingredients, "cooked in my style". This colorful and attractive book invites both novice and skilled chefs to try their hand at different dishes, which are carefully explained with step by step instructions. There is also a section of simple Basque menus and prep tips, although my friend would have been disappointed by the lack of wine pairings (she ended up ordering a white wine from DO Priorat and said it was scrumptious).

Whether it is through his cookbooks, the cuisine at his different London restaurants (José Tapas Bar, Pizarro Restaurant, José Pizarro Broadgate and the new Little José "street food" establishment in Canary Wharf), his frequent presence on British television programs, his many culinary accolades, or his bubbly personality that pulls people in and makes them want to love his country and its cuisine as much as he does, José Pizarro has provided an invaluable service to Spanish gastronomy over his years living in London. As his good friend, two Michelin star Spanish chef Diego Guerrero puts it, "We [chefs] don't give him enough credit [for all that he's done] as an authentic ambassador for Spain and our craft. I value, appreciate, admire and respect his work as an ambassador for our country."

And while he promises to keep one foot in London in the foreseeable future, Pizarro has a 'five-year plan' to open a bed and breakfast in Extremadura. Eighteen years is a long time to be away, especially for someone who, in his own words, is "as Spanish as a tortilla".

I was at a book presentation last week in Madrid when I received a frantic text message from an American friend who is living in London. It was a photograph of a wine menu, packed with an incredible list of reds, whites and rosado wines from Spain Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
From London to Basque Country
From London to Basque Country
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