“There have been bumps in the road”

Just because something works in one restaurant doesn’t mean it will work in another, says Spanish restaurateur, author and entrepreneur José Pizarro.

Having walked away from a promising career in Spain, José Pizarro turned up in London not speaking a word of English, but with a burning desire to make it as a chef. He earned his culinary stripes in some of the city’s top Spanish restaurants before striking out on his own with the hugely successful José tapas bar. Two restaurants followed and then, this year, a pub. Pizarro has also written five cookbooks, developed his own olive oil and wine brands, and employs over 100 people. But has it all gone without a hitch? Not exactly…

I grew up on a farm in a small town in Extremadura and was set to become a dental technician. While studying, I had to make some money, so I worked in a kitchen. Something stirred inside me while I was there. I looked forward to those kitchen shifts more than attending my lectures, and eventually I realised that I should follow my heart and pursue a career as a chef.

Eventually I moved to London, as I thought it was the place to cook diverse food and grow as a chef. One big obstacle was not being able to speak English, so I had to ask my friends to translate for me. I learned to speak the language in the kitchens of Spanish restaurants and by listening to my friends talk.

The moment I knew I was on to something was when my first small restaurant was full… and it stayed full. I knew people had a ‘hunger’ for simple, good-quality Spanish cuisine, so we’ve stuck to that and have made it work time and again.

There have been bumps in the road. When we opened Pizarro restaurant, I wanted to replicate the walk-in only policy from José tapas bar. I thought this would create a demand for seats. The reality was that customers complained, and would go somewhere else and not come back, because they couldn’t be guaranteed a table. We lost a few customers in those early days of Pizarro restaurant.

You can’t paint every restaurant with the same brush. What worked for José tapas didn’t work for Pizarro restaurant and I needed to create a new set of rules for it. You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can please some of the people all of the time, so we decided to compromise by allowing reservations for a certain number of seats and the rest we left as walk-ins. This turned out to be the best of both worlds, as we are now fully booked most of the time, but still have space for those diners who prefer to spontaneously decide where they want to eat.

The best thing about seeing the business grow has been the opportunity to work with so many amazing people. The staff that are part of the José Pizarro team are all like family to me – it’s a great environment. In fact, one big thing I’ve learned along the way is that it’s invaluable to have the right team around you to ensure that what you’re doing is a success. It’s important to have the right type of person, too, as we all spend so much time together.

Writing cookbooks has taken my business to another level, which I am so grateful for. Being able to be in people’s homes and have them cook my recipes is very special.

I struggle to disconnect when I go home. I’m always thinking about the business and I genuinely enjoy being at each restaurant in service.

The best part of my week is when I get into the kitchen and run a service for one of my restaurants. Nothing beats the rush of a buzzing kitchen and many hands doing incredible work around me. To be able to feed people and watch them smile when eating food that I’ve prepared is one of my life’s big joys.

This interview was carried out by SIM7’s Simeon de la Torre and first appeared in easyJet Traveller magazine. To read the latest issue (and the entire back catalogue of magazines), visit: https://ink-global.com/our-clients/portfolio/easyjet-traveller/