“SHE had a little green salad,” says JosÃ© Pizarro, recalling the time Victoria Beckham barged into the Borough Market restaurant he ran.
âShe had dinner with her son and ordered a lot of different dishes from them. What a delicious woman! She was really lovely with the waiters – and left a very generous tip.
But Posh isn’t the first A-lister to love JosÃ©’s acclaimed plates. The 47-year-old chef – nicknamed the King of Tapas, such is his influence on the Spanish culinary scene in Britain – has fed everyone from Jude Law to Monica Lewinsky and Tracey Emin.
Celebrities regularly flock to his eponymous restaurant, tucked away on Bermondsey Street near London Bridge.
Not bad for a guy who came to the UK 19 years ago unable to speak a word of English and with only Â£ 250 in his back pocket.
JosÃ©, who will be discuss his life in food at the Abergavenny Food Festival on Friday, grew up in Extremadura, in west-central Spain, in the small village of TalavÃ¡n. His parents were farmers and he spent his childhood helping his father produce vegetables, dairy products and meat.
âWe drank milk straight from the cow. Aahâ¦ it was still hot and incredibly delicious, âhe said. “And my mom made the most amazing churros.”
JosÃ©, eager to avoid a life of agricultural work and earn money, decided to take training as a dental technician. âI’m very good with my hands and knew it would be easy to find a job,â he said. “But I wasn’t that passionate about it.”
While waiting to take office, he took a three-month cooking course – and quickly found his âcallingâ. He said: âAs a dental technician you spend a lot of time behind a desk, it wasn’t for me. I am very sociable, I love people. Studying was not a loss though, I learned to be very organized and tidy – that’s important in the kitchen.
JosÃ© focused on learning as much as he could about food and cooking. He then worked at El Chapin de la Reina, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid, then became chef de cuisine at El MesÃ³n de DoÃ±a Filo by Julio Reoyo.
Then, after a drink by chance with an English friend in 1998, he decided to settle in London. âI could barely say ‘hello’ in English, but I knew I needed to learn different cuisines, not just Spanish,â he said. âIn London, there was Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, Thai foodâ¦ I fell in love with it.
JosÃ© started working at Gaudi, a Spanish restaurant in east London, before moving to Eyre Brothers in Shoreditch where he became a chef. His English developed rapidly as he joked with the kitchen staff. He stayed here until Monika Linton de Brindisa, one of the restaurant suppliers, offered to open a restaurant.
Getting the British to abandon their meat and two vegetables in favor of small plates has not been easy. âThe British were so used to having a starter, a main course and a dessert. The tapas were a surprise, âhe said.
âBut people loved it. It’s a social way of eating and brings everyone together. The British are open to different things but I never thought it would be such a success. They also loved the open kitchen and seeing the chef at work.
One thing he struggled to get the British to understand was cooking with olive oil. âI went to Manchester 16 years ago and did a demo at Selfridges. I used olive oil and a few people looked at me like I was crazy, âhe said. “They didn’t want to taste something cooked in olive oil because they said they used it to clean their ears – but that was 10 years ago!”
JosÃ©, who prides himself on quality, simple and seasonal cuisine using the freshest possible ingredients, believes that English cuisine is unfairly criticized. âThe selection of ingredients here is amazing,â he said. âPlus you can get a delicious lunch for so cheap. The street food scene is unmatched.
In June 2011, he opened JosÃ©, a small tapas and sherry bar in Bermondsey. âIn Spain, it’s the tradition to give your name to a restaurant, it’s an extension of who you are,â he says.
It was a success and in December he opened Pizarro. In 2015, he opened his third room, JosÃ© Pizarro in Broadgate Circle in the City.
JosÃ©, who has a partner called Peter and lives in Kennington, London, regularly returns to Spain to see his mum, Isabel, 85.
JosÃ© follows his late grandfather’s philosophy of healthy eating. âNot everything has to be super healthy all the time.
âMy grandfather ate fat every day, drank half a bottle of wine and had a fabulous life until he was 95. He worked hard, he ate vegetables every day. You have to be reasonable.
Do you mean chic? Now pass the croquetas.
JosÃ© Pizarro will talk about his culinary life at the Abergavenny Food Festival on Friday September 14th. Click here to buy tickets.