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The Caterer interview: Omar Allibhoy, Tapas Revolution

04 September 2020 by

The chef that Gordon Ramsay called the ‘Antonio Banderas of cooking' is expanding his Tapas Revolution chain of Spanish restaurants. He talks to Lisa Jenkins about his career.

When did you first become interested in becoming a chef?

I developed my love for cooking from my mum, from when I was three years old. My parents and older brother were always fierce critics. I remember when I was eight my mum told me how much it cost her for me to create all my dishes – so I set up a food stall in the garden. My summer stall, mostly bakery, was a sell-out every day and made enough profit to keep me in toys. I never wanted to be anything else other than a baker or a chef.

Where did you do your training?

I started as a kitchen porter in a local pizza restaurant in Madrid, the Chicago Down Town Pizza, after finishing high school, and progressed to commis chef. It was months before they allowed me to make any pizzas, but eventually I did learn to make some wonderful food.

I did a stint at the InterContinental hotel in Madrid as a commis chef, and then I worked with Ferran Adrià at Nhube restaurant in Madrid, which was run by his brother, Albert. I started as chef de partie and worked my way up to sous chef. I was there for two and a half years and learned about molecular cuisine, how to build a team, how to treat people well and how to be organised. I was working with the best in the world – and they taught me well.

I was working with the best in the world – and they taught me well

What made you decide to come to the UK?

I wanted to learn English in London. I arrived in the UK in 2005 and started at Jurys Great Russell Street hotel. I was put in fine dining on the side dishes, but I couldn't understand which dishes the chef was asking for because my English was so bad. Needless to say, I was moved to conferences. After this, and once my English had improved, I went to work with Jason Atherton at Maze – this was when it won a Michelin star. I was only there for six months, but it was a very intense place to work, and it served tapas – British tapas at that.

From Maze I went to L'Escargot's Picasso Room on Greek Street, in London's Soho, which also had a Michelin star, but very early on I cut myself badly on a mandolin and couldn't face going back. Chefs are a very proud breed and I was too embarrassed.

This unfortunate accident meant I took up a role in my first Spanish restaurant in London – the head chef's role at Essence in the Barbican, taking over from Nieves Barragán Mohacho, who had left to open Fino.

This was followed by two years running small kitchens in lots of London pubs, serving tapas. My chef friend, Daniel Campos, and I ran the kitchens and gave a percentage of the food takings to the publicans. We took on some great pubs, like the Malt House and the Harwood Arms, both in Fulham, and the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel – 11 in total after two years. Then, in 2008, the recession came, and within five months we were making a loss. I had to go back into full-time employment.

I was chatting to Ken Sanker, the owner of El Pirata in Notting Hill, on the phone, and he invited me to go to the restaurant for a cook-off. I cooked a few dishes, he liked me and he made an agreement with me that if I made the restaurant a success – the best Spanish restaurant in the country – he would back me with my own restaurant.

Tapas Revolution
Tapas Revolution

Is this where you encountered Gordon Ramsay as part of his TV show, Ramsay's Best Restaurant?

El Pirata became well-known and the press were visiting – we had MasterChef contestants come in to work their restaurant session and then we were approached to be on Ramsay's Best Restaurant. We made it through to the semi-final against Nieves. She had a fantastic reputation, and her team beat us, but the show really put us on the map.

Ken called after the semi-final to say he knew I had done everything I could and, in spite of technically not being ‘the best' Spanish restaurant, he still wanted to back me.

Tapas Revolution
Tapas Revolution

How did being on TV help your career?

Ken knew a gentleman called Douglas Smillie, a lover of Spanish food and a potential investor. He came to the restaurant and we met, and that was when Ken, Douglas and I launched Tapas Revolution.

The original Tapas Revolution site opened in Westfield in Shepherd's Bush, London, in 2010. The shopping mall wanted an express tapas offering and we got a prime site inside. It was something of a spontaneous decision.

We now have Tapas Revolution sites in Bluewater, Birmingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bath, Windsor and Westfield Stratford and we are continuing to expand [see below].

Hosting MasterChef contestants and being on Gordon's show helped me give a voice to Spanish cuisine. It allowed me to reach people in their homes and in the industry. This led to more shows, such as the BBC's One Show and Channel 4's Sunday Brunch, as well as writing for magazines and my own books. In 2013 I published Tapas Revolution, which was the best-selling cookbook on Amazon that year, and then in 2016 I published Spanish Made Simple.

Being on Gordon's show helped me give a voice to Spanish cuisine. It allowed me to reach people in their homes and in the industry

In May 2015 I was awarded the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame and, of course, I'm also really proud of my 2012 Acorn Award from The Caterer.

Tapas Revolution expands

In February this year Tapas Revolution embarked on a joint-venture partnership with the Independent Spanish Restaurant Company, led by managing director James Picton.

Picton, previously group operations director of La Tasca, bought the four remaining sites of La Tasca and La Vina from Casual Dining Group: La Tasca in Lakeside and in Leadenhall Market, London, and La Vina in Liverpool and Deansgate, Manchester. The Tapas Revolution team will support the four restaurants in reopening.

Picton has also been appointed managing director of Tapas Revolution, while Allibhoy's co-founders, Ken Sanker and Douglas Smillie, remain non-executive directors.

Picton and Allibhoy will work on a new food offer across the business, looking to add different cuts of meat and a more considered selection of wines and drinks.

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