Bristol fine-dining restaurant Casamia has borne two offspring: Paco Tapas and Pi Shop, a tapas bar and pizza restaurant to join the family under chef Peter Sanchez-Iglesias. Andy Lynes talks to him about his expanding empire
Casamia looks every inch the modern fine-dining destination restaurant. Located on the ground floor of the General, the upmarket redevelopment of Bristol’s General Hospital that overlooks Bathurst Basin, it’s a truly elegant space. The exposed brickwork, polished wood flooring and modernist grey chairs signal multi-course tasting menus with matching wines loud and clear.
But this is no starchy temple of gastronomy. Yes, there’s a Michelin star and people travel to eat 14 courses of dazzlingly inventive food, but at its heart Casamia is a friendly, family-run restaurant. Dad Paco Sanchez-Iglesias, dressed in a dark, sharp suit and looking at least a decade younger than his 72 years, strikes a charming and charismatic figure running front of house. Behind the scenes, mum Sue handles the accounts and admin. And, centre stage, son Peter presides over the restaurant’s stunning open show kitchen.
Tragically, Jonray, Peter’s older brother, died in November 2015 of skin cancer, aged just 32. But he seems ever-present in the form of the ‘Sanchez Brothers’ company branding (the website landing page features a black and white photograph of Jonray and Peter sporting matching quiffs and chef’s whites) and his name is never far from Peter’s lips during our two-hour interview.
“I always remember the first trip we took down here, me and Jonray. I’d never seen the General Hospital before – never even knew it was here. We just fell in love with it, really. Just walking through the door, we said, ‘We can see what this can actually be. Everything about it feels right – it’s a place we can spend the next 15 years in’. Jonray, unfortunately, never got to see the final result, but I know it captured our spirit and our essence and what we’re all about.”
The new Casamia opened in January 2016 after 15 years at its original location in Bristol’s northern suburb of Westbury-on-Trym.
Although the past 18 months have been a period of dramatic change for Peter and his family (they also launched Pi Shop, a pizzeria, in July, and Paco Tapas in October, both next door to Casamia), the relocation and expansion have long been planned.
“Because it’s happened slowly, it’s not been too bad, stress-wise,” Peter says. “We wanted to open the pizzeria six years ago, but we couldn’t find a location. Then, four and half years ago, we planned to move the restaurant to Portishead, where I live, but the deal fell through. But as soon as we knew we were leaving Westbury, we knew that wherever we moved, we wanted to open restaurants next to Casamia. The whole intention was to do this – it was kind of foreseen, in a weird way.”
Plans drawn up for the proposed Portishead site were adapted for the General with the help of architects and interior designers from the site’s developer, City and Country. “It was really hard designing it and getting it right because it was all done by me and Jonray,” explains Peter.
“There were columns everywhere and we couldn’t do anything we wanted because it’s a listed building, but when we mapped it out we realised it worked quite nicely. It’s not 100% perfect, but that’s the charm and the character of the building.”
Peter also had time to grow into his new role overseeing three restaurants and a staff of 40 – more than triple the 13 that ran Casamia in Westbury. “When we knew we were moving to this new site, there was a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to be answered, so I had already got used to shutting myself off from the kitchen to concentrate on something and then go back,” he says. “Now we have a schedule in place, so I know there are certain meetings planned with the management of the other two restaurants on a weekly basis. It’s just about being organised.”
With all three restaurants in such close proximity, Peter can begin every day by walking around and saying good morning to his staff. “That’s important,” he says. “Sometimes little things like that go a long way. We can just deal with any issues there and then. It’s the detail and the kind of love you find in smaller business
that are run by families, so having everything next door means we can do that – that’s the whole reason behind it.”
Since the relaunch, the offering at Casamia has undergone a natural evolution. Initially, there were two sittings for dinner at 6pm and 9pm and a brigade of nine chefs, but Peter quickly became disillusioned with the setup.
“I didn’t like the fact that you just couldn’t have a really good time and be here for the whole evening,” he says. “The way the service flowed, there were a lot of stops and starts. Once we start service, I want it to go rapidly; to keep busy, so there’s a momentum in the kitchen building up, so we decided to scrap the relays.”
A £38 set lunch, offered on Wednesday and Thursday, along with reduced-price lunchtime tasting menus (£68 on Wednesday and Thursday, £88 on Friday and Saturday) were also scrapped in October 2016 and replaced by a £98 tasting menu for both lunch and dinner, a move that Peter initially found unsettling.
“It was a bit scary the first week,” he admits. “We were a little bit quiet, but we had to stick with it. Our mentality was that we just wanted people to come through the door and we needed to be at that lower price point, but by the time the 20% VAT came out and you had your staff here all day, it was not practical.”
Peter is also rethinking how his menus will reflect the seasons. “The last time we changed the menu all in one go was autumn 2016, but my purpose is not to do that,” he says. “As time has gone on, we’ve got more complex with the way we hand over to the new menu. It’s impossible. The only way I could successfully do that is if we closed for two weeks and then restart with the new one. You realise that the seasons are changing all the time, certain things didn’t last as long as last year and there are peaks of everything. We need to figure out a way of using something when it’s at its absolute peak, and we need to be able to give that to customers.”
Peter recognises it as the “ultimate challenge”, not least because new dishes, created with group head of development Josh Green and Casamia head chef Jim Day (both of whom have been with Peter for the best part of a decade) generally take around a month before they are ready to go on the menu.
“It takes about two weeks of playing with the dish and another two weeks of figuring out how to put it on and keep it consistent – that’s the hardest part,” he says.
“When you go from making six of something to 20 or 30 you can lose a lot, and it’s the little magic things that have to be just right, otherwise it doesn’t work. You don’t want to mess around with something too much, as you lose the thought process. That’s happened loads of times: a dish has come off the menu because we tweaked and messed around with it and it lost what it was supposed to originally be about.”
At the time of our interview, Peter was in the process of finalising a duck dish that could signal the future direction of the cooking style at Casamia. Duck breasts are prepared Peking-style by first being basted with hot water to
render some of the fat, then injected with curing liquor and left to dry on the carcass. The breast is taken off the bone and cooked at 120°C for 25-30 minutes so that all the sinew breaks down, and it is then cooled completely.
For service, the breast is basted in smoking hot oil to crisp the skin and complete the cooking, then brushed with honey and topped with fennel seeds, cumin and Szechuan pepper. Garnishes include pak choi cooked with orange zest; longan berries (an ingredient Peter discovered at Bristol’s Wai Yee Hong Chinese supermarket) stuffed with turnip jam; puréed lentils cooked in duck stock and topped with lacto-fermented lentils; a caviar of chia seeds rehydrated with soy and a classic duck sauce.
“Every single bite is interesting and everything is working in harmony – that is very hard to do. Every chef is trying to do it, but I’ve just got to the point where I get where I want to go now with food. I know the next step,” he says.
Although he doesn’t hesitate to say that Casamia is “the foundation to everything, it’s the most important thing”, he lavishes just as much care and attention to detail on Pi Shop and Paco Tapas.
“It’s fulfilling for me having the other two places, because I get to tackle more simple food. Sometimes at Casamia you go over and over a dish; development takes so long. At Pi Shop, we spend two days working on a pizza, we get it right and it’s exactly what we intended to get out of it. The tapas bar, everything about it is quite stripped back – there aren’t too many garnishes and we let single ingredients talk for themselves. The produce is a bit beyond what you’d normally get in a tapas bar. We’re always looking for the more sustainable things, like not getting octopus from China.”
A year on, three restaurants successfully launched (Casamia retained its Michelin star and was awarded five AA rosettes in the 2017 edition of the guides, and Pi Shop and Paco Tapas received rave reviews from Olive magazine and The Guardian respectively), no one would blame Peter for taking some time out, but that doesn’t seem likely.
“It’s been a manic year. Jonray leaving us left me in a state of mind where we want to make the most out of everything; you want to do the best you possibly can,” he says. “We always did, but there something that makes you believe he’s looking down and this is a reflection of him and we want him to be proud of it. That’s why we always talk about detail, detail, detail. I want people, one day, when I’m long gone, to still talk about Casamia, to talk about the brothers that started it and to let the memory live on somehow.”
Casamia: the history
1999 Paco and Sue Sanchez-Iglesias open Casamia in the Bristol suburb of Westburyon- Trym. A teenage Peter and Jonray Sanchez-Iglesias help out at the restaurant with Peter taking over the kitchens when the head chef leaves
2004 Peter and Jonray open Fratelli restaurant
2006 Peter and Jonnray return to Bristol to take over the running of Casamia
2009 Casamia awarded a star in the Michelin guide
2009 Jay Rayner reviews Casamia for The Observer, saying: “There is skill here
and technique and eagerness, which in turn results in great food”
2010 Casamia appears on and wins Ramsay’s Best Restaurants TV series
2011 The restaurant is relaunched as Seasons Casamia with seasonally changing
interior details and menu
2011 A development kitchen opens for menu evolution, private masterclasses and dinners
2012 Casamia pops up in London at the Cube on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall
2013 Peter represents the South West on the BBC’s Great British Menu
2014 Jonray And Peter named Chefs of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2015
2016 Casamia relocates to the General development in Bristol, where it retains a
2016 Casamia awarded five rosettes by the AA guide
2016 The Sanchez-Iglesias family launch Pi Shop pizzeria and Paco Tapas next door to Casamia
Pi Shop and Paco Tapas
With Casamia, Paco Tapas and Pi Shop, Peter Sanchez-Iglasias has created a holy trinity of dining experiences that hit all price points and moods: Casamia for high-end, special occasion fine dining, Paco Tapas for mid-market casual dining, and Pi Shop for a fast-casual, low-spend experience. Paco Tapas and Pi Shop might be ‘diffusion’ restaurants, but they still bear all the high-quality hallmarks of the mothership.
Paco Tapas wouldn’t look out of place in Seville, the birthplace of Paco Sanchez-
Iglesias and where Peter researched the menu for the intimate, buzzy bar-restaurant with its sherry barrel tables and Spanish-style decorative ceramic tiles.
“Instead of using a plancha, I decided to use a Basque-style wood-fired grill,” says Peter of the Medieval-looking piece of equipment, complete with racks, hooks, wheels and gears, that dominates the small open kitchen.
Although most of the items on the brown paper menu are simple, affordable dishes, such as tortilla Española and Duroc pork ribs, there’s also plenty of opportunity to splash out on delicacies, like the cardinal red Carabineros prawns from the Canary Islands at £22 each or eight-year-old Galician beef at £105 per kg.
At Pi Shop, another impressive piece of cooking equipment dominates the open kitchen – this time a gleaming, copper-clad, clay oven. “Pi Shop took a long time to get right. It’s pizza, but we made our lives so hard by using the sourdough process. It’s an art form; you’ve really got to get into it and understand it,” says Peter.
Pi Shop offerings include a twist on that controversial pizza-chain classic the Hawaiian by topping it with Tuscan Rustego ham and pineapple, along with a bit of unexpected luxury in the form of a Wagyu meat feast pizza. The ‘JR’, topped with black olives, anchovy and basil, is a tribute to the late Jonray, with £1 from every sale going to Skcin, a skin cancer charity.