José Pizarro, nostalgic. Often dubbed the godfather of Spanish cuisine, the hugely acclaimed chef has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens and opened no less than six restaurants, but lately he reminisces about life on the farm where he grew up and the food of this time.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because my mother is getting older, and it’s important to feel that,” Pizarro says poignantly.
Isabel, his mother, is 89 (his father passed away a few years ago) and she had a huge influence on what he thinks about food. “I was never allowed to be in the kitchen, but food has always been very important to us. Still nothing fancy, but amazing. Properly made with love. More than anything else, she taught me, “Do everything with love,” and so did my father.
“They always taught me that anyone who comes home should leave full and should leave happy!”
Her sixth cookbook, The Spanish Home Kitchen, is a tribute to those memories. “Some of the recipes come right out of my mum’s kitchen, the lentils from the same pan my mum used,” says Pizarro, 49, who moved to the UK in 1998. “Memories are what’s the most important thing in our life, and of course in my kitchen.These are always memories that take you somewhere.
And this latest offering is his most personal – littered with old family photos of his parents and grandparents, the rural village where he grew up in Extremadura, and snapshots of life with partner Peter (adorable dogs included).
The way his mother cooks has always been very traditional and Pizarro feels responsible for keeping these recipes. “My mother learned from her mother, my grandmother only cooked, so my grandfather always ate well. My father learned food from his mother – that’s how we learn.
A dish that will always remind Pizarro of his mom is a simple tuna tortilla: “These flavors are my mom. A tuna omelette with mayonnaise.
But a lot of people make Spanish tortillas incorrectly, he says, especially if you’re only cooking one side. “It’s a frittata – more Italian – for a Spanish omelette, you have to turn and you’ll see it’s beautiful and raw. I tell you, flipping an omelette is not difficult – try to do it with a lid first and make it small (12-14 cm). The lid will make your pan safer, it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Even tortilla pros sometimes drop one mid-round. “I was at a festival in la rioja maybe 10 years ago and on stage I was cooking, I was busy, I don’t know how many people were in front, maybe 100 and I flipped the damn omelette on the floor! Everyone was laughing because they thought it was something that was planned,” he recalls.
Many people overcook the eggs too – traditionally a Spanish omelet is gooey in the middle. “For me, when I’m eating and cooking, I love it very runny. My mom just makes the omelet – a little runny but not too runny – I love the next day omelet. In the South [of Spain] they are not as liquid.
You can really throw what you have left in the fridge, he says, and it makes a delicious (but easy) dish to entertain: “People love to see an omelet on the table.
Basically, Spanish food is incredibly simple. “Totally,” says Pizarro. “Spanish cuisine is all about ingredients, it has never been something extraordinary. How I grew up and how we eat at home, it’s good, it’s quality, it’s that simple.
“We are so lucky now that there is so much creativity, so many incredible chefs that we have in Spain, but Spanish cuisine has always been honest – good oven-roasted lamb, good salad, good potatoes earth, that’s all.”
He and Peter love to entertain (and recently bought a “dream” house near Cadiz, Spain, perfect for dinner parties with stunning sea views). “If I’m cooking for lots of friends, I want it to be simple,” shares the chef. “Because I want to eat with my friends, I don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, or I want them to be in the kitchen with me and enjoying it.”
Also, cookbooks are no good if they only look good on a shelf. “It’s a beautiful book for a coffee table, don’t get me wrong” – but ultimately most of the recipes in his new collection are very simple as he wants home cooks to use his books until they are collapsing. “What I’m saying is if your book is broken because you’ve been using it for years, send it to me and I’ll send you a new one!”
At home, Pizarro is unsurprisingly in charge of the kitchen, but Peter – an avid baker – “is responsible for the cake”. In fact, Peter’s tarta de Santiago – or almond cake – is featured in the new book as well as on menus at Pizarro’s restaurant. “Peter likes sweet things, we call him ‘goloso’ – a person who likes to eat sweets all the time.”
Pizarro is more about cheese (and more wine) after a meal — and, believe it or not, making your own cheese is “really, really easy, if you follow a recipe,” he says. Growing up, his mother used fresh milk straight from the cows on the farm, but he assures that it can be made with milk from a store.
“When you make it, you’re going to feel very happy, and when you put it in front of your guests and say, ‘I made cheese!’, it’s very satisfying. People will remember that – the first time you made a cheese.
The Spanish Home Kitchen: Simple, Seasonal Recipes And Memories From My Home by José Pizarro is published by Hardie Grant, priced at £27. Photograph by Emma Lee. Available now.
The best videos delivered daily
Watch the stories that matter, straight from your inbox