Soul of Tapas Brindisa, Jose Pizarro, Talks to Us About his Road from Extremadura to London

Do not think for a minute that I have moved from New Jersey to London as this is my second interview in a row with a chef based in London. A third one is actually on the way.

It just happened, I love Spain, its food, culture and liked the idea of featuring a chef, Jose Pizarro who first came to prominence with a restaurant in Borough Market, Tapas Brindisa. 


Jose recently published his first book Seasonal Spanish Food (Kyle Books) in collaboration with Vicky Bennison.

Call it a love letter to his native country as much as it is a cookbook with 125 recipes you can try at home. Local flavors and wonderful scenery are vividly brought to life by photographer Emma Lee.


Here's what came out of my conversation with Jose.

Q: Jose, you come from the Extremadura region of Spain, would you describe it as mostly rural? Is it poorer than other regions of Spain? Dusty like the road with sheep herd on page 45?

 Yes it is.  It is mainly rural but there are a few cities such as Mérida, Cáceres. I grew up on a farm in a small village and there are plenty of them in Extremadura.  The dusty road you refer is like because our winters are very cold, our summers are very hot, and it creates this dust.  Our Springs and Autumns are sublime.

Q: Besides its Black Iberian Pigs and Jamon Iberico, what is Extramadura famous for?

 We have lots of things we are proud of, such as our Pimentón de la Vera (paprika), our Picota cherries, wonderful wines made from Tempranillo grapes, and the most delicious cheeses, such as Torta del Casar.

Q: Your book has a down to earth feel to it reflected by the 'spinach tortilla' on page 33 pictured on newspaper, was it how some food would be served in your youth?

 I need to correct you there!  That picture is in fact of my Potato Omelet – containing down to earth ingredients:  potatoes, olive oil, onions and eggs – and a bit of salt and pepper.

Q: Do you like that 'street food' aspect? Any favorites in that category?

 I don’t really think it’s street food – we don’t really have much of that in Spain. All of my food really reflects the importance of home cooked food in my country – bringing together wonderfully simple, local ingredients and creating an explosion of flavor.

Q: In the past decade or so, many Spanish chefs in the limelight have been experimental ones, would you describe yourself more as a traditionalist?

 Yes I would.  But I do think I bring a fresh dimension to traditional Spanish food.  Thanks to my training in progressive restaurants in Madrid I learned to combine modern twists on classics.

Q: Your book documents your love and deep knowledge of the foods of your home country, in your London dishes do you mix up things with ingredients from other countries?

 My dishes are completely Spanish. It’s who I am and it’s the food I love. Personally though, I love all sorts of food, such as Japanese and Lebanese.

Q: Are there Spanish products you cannot get in the UK and that you miss?

 Not really.  We’re very lucky in the UK that we have access to all types of Spanish ingredients – from oils to Jamón Iberico.  We import the highest quality products from Spain. Having said that, in my book if there is a recipe containing an unusual ingredient, I will always offer a substitute.


Q: Is Cheese part of your daily diet? Can you share some of your favorite cheeses and cheese makers from Extramadura?

 I love cheese!!! Particularly the cheese from my region.  My favorite is the Torta del Casar; it is a little bitter, it’s soft and creamy, with a bit of a punch. I love it. One my favorite things to do when I am at home is to sit outside and spread the Torta del Casa onto toasted bread, washed down with delicious wine.

 Q: I was intrigued by the Deep Fried Goat Cheese with Orange Blossom Honey (Page 25), is it a classic dish?

 Not really – it’s my modern twist on grilled cheese with honey.  I’m so glad you like it!  It’s one of my most popular dishes.

Q: You offer a couple of recipes with Mackerel and note it's a sustainable fish, does it tend to be considered as well as a poor man's fish?

 Not at all. It’s is plentiful and delicious and we should all be eating it. Grilling a fresh mackerel on the beach with friends is heaven for me.

Q: In 'Mushroom Hunting', you note that Catalans are crazy about it, any specific reason?

 I think it’s because there are so many weird and wonderful types of mushrooms in Catalunya.

Q: You offer a Castillian Garlic soup recipe (page 123) besides that one, which are your favorite soups? Does it depend mostly on the season?

 It all depends on the season.  For example in the summer we use the freshest tomatoes to make a Gazpacho.  In the winter, we use garlic because it’s so warming, and so abundant.  In Autumn, I love the flavors of the countryside you’ll find in my Mushroom and Chestnut soup.  And finally you’ve got to love a fresh pea soup in Spring – rich, green, vibrant.  Delicious!

Pumpkin soup

Q: Your book is titled 'Seasonal Spanish Food', in your restaurant cooking do you keep the same seasonal approach?

 Yes – it’s so important to me. You get better flavors and it means that the menu stays fresh and exciting.

Q: Paprika makes frequent apparitions in your book, is it your favorite spice, any others?

 It’s one of them – i love it. The other one is Saffron, from Castilla La Mancha.

Q: I have not had razor clams (we call them couteaux in France) in ages. Are they popular at the restaurant?

 Yes very. The flavor is stunning.  One of my most popular dishes is Razor Clams with Chorizo – a best seller!

Q: Paella needs rice and you call Calasparra DO Rice as your favorite for its flavor, what flavors?

 It’s not that its flavor is good but it’s more that it has the perfect texture to absorb all the flavors from the cooking.

Q: Your mother's treat when you visit is Pig Ears, is it sometimes on your menu?

 Sometimes! People seem to like it but it’s an acquired taste. I especially like to cook it for friends when they come over. 

Q: Morcilla (blood sausage) with mint oil reminded me of a Boudin Noir and Apple Dish I used to love, what do you feel mint oil adds to the dish?

 For me, mint oil really adds a freshness to the Morcilla. It lifts the flavour.

Q: Roast Duck with Quince sounds appealing, what do you like most about the combination?

I love the way the sweetness of the membrillo (quince paste) complements the richness of the duck.

Q: Can you share some of your favorite Spanish wines and which of your dishes you would pair them with?

  Start with a good Albariño, I would drink this with the Razors Clams or the Scallops. For red wine, my personal favorite is a Tempranillo, which goes really well with my Roast Shoulder of Lamb. Spain has some wonderful dessert wines too, such as PX (stands for Pedro Ximénez), which goes perfectly with my Turrón Mousse.  And you have to start off with a really cold glass of Manzanilla sherry, whilst nibbling some of my Gordal olives – big juicy green olives stuffed with fresh oranges.

Q: Is Tapas Brindisa location near Borough Market a plus in your quest to serve fresh seasonal food?

 Yes – it means that the people who come here to shop and eat are interested in quality, seasonal, local food. I often shop in the market for the restaurant to cook and serve. I love going to Borough Market, it reminds me of being little and going with my dad to pick vegetables from our garden.

Q: Is there a big difference between Tapas Brindisa and the other 2 restaurants both in the food offered and the type of crowd they attract?

 Yes very much so.  At Tapas Brindisa in Borough Market we have a foody, bustling crowd of people. In Soho, at Tierra Brindisa, it’s quieter and a bit more civilised. And at our South Kensington branch – Casa Brindisa – the crowd is often more genteel, looking for a more formal lunch or dinner. The menus are all different so that we keep things fresh.

Q: Is there such a thing as an average Jose Pizarro customer?

 It’s really hard to define a certain type because they are all so different. Foodies, businessmen, women, couples, people curious about Spanish food...all sorts.

Q: Are there dishes more popular with women than men and vice versa?

 Not at all.

Q: One last question? Would you have ventured in the same direction, restaurant wise if you had not established a partnership with Monika Linton of Brindisa Foods?

 Monika has been very important for me. She opened my eyes to the possibility of being able to serve authentic, simple, quality Spanish food in London.  We have a great partnership. I think if it was my own restaurant I would be doing exactly the same thing.

Thanks to Jose for talking with us.

Thanks also to Kyle Books and Ron Longe who made it happen.

(illustrations for this piece are Roast Pumpkin Soup with Blue Cheese and Red Mullet with Sliced Potatoes and Black Olives and Jose back home).

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