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Nieves Barragan: “I love listening to the sound of a kitchen”

Few chefs can boast about making the “Segovian-style Suckling Pig” one of the trendiest dishes in the cosmopolitan city of London, but when you cook with the loving passion that Nieves Barragan has for Spanish cuisine, nothing is impossible.

This is the only way to explain how a 20-year-old who went to London “to try her luck” has had such a meteoric career. After being awarded a Michelin star as head chef at Barrafina restaurant, she decided to open her own London restaurant: Sabor. Her Spanish omelette, tapas and Galician octopus have since become Michelin Star dishes themselves. And it is probably largely down to the love for cooking that her mother instilled in her as a child.

How did a delineation student from a port town in the Basque country end up becoming one of the most renowned chefs in London? 

When I was trying to figure out what to study, I was hesitating between delineation studies, because I liked drawing, nursing and cooking. I ended up choosing the first of the three, but I quickly found that drawing wasn’t as exciting as I had thought and it didn’t really fill me up.

At home, we have always loved food. I attended a few cookery courses here and there, but above all I learned my cooking skills from my mother. When I was little, she would talk about food all day long, always planning ahead what dish she was going to make for lunch or dinner later. On TV there was always a cooking program on in the background. And I remember going food shopping with her a lot.

When I was 20, a friend of mine went to the UK and fell in love with a New Zealander who worked in a 2-Star Michelin restaurant. After six months she said to me “Why don’t you come and work in London? Chefs are in high demand and you love cooking”, so I decided to take a leap of faith and give it a year. 

I literally fell in love with the capital as soon as I arrived. I started to cook with foods from Asia and South America that were not as readily available in Spain at the time… discovering other gastronomic cultures was a huge revelation to me. A year into my London life, my mother asked me when I was coming back and I realized that I didn’t want to go home. I felt that I was in the prime of my life and I haven’t looked back since.

On the Sabor menu we can find everything from Spanish potato omelette to Galician octopus. Why is this commitment to traditional Spanish recipes so important to you? 

I am and always have been a big foodie. Among my many travels, tasting food from all over the world was always one of the biggest highlights, but my Spanish heritage is firmly instilled within me. I believe that Spanish cuisine is one of the best in the world. From north to south, from east to west, there is so much variety. That’s what I wanted for Sabor : to take people on a sensorial trip around Spain without having to get up from their seat.

The Asador (the grill), for example, is extremely traditional. But there was no question whether to have one because I think that the British deserve to try an amazing Segovian-style suckling pig or a great octopus pulpera exactly the way they do it in Galicia. The Bar area of the restaurant is more focused on the informal tapas concept commonly found in southern Spain. Then there is the Counter, which is where I try to give my own personal touch to the dishes that are served. People often say they are surprised by the “very particular flavours” here. 

How can very traditional Spanish dishes be modernized without losing their essence?

After more than 20 years living here, it is easier for me to spot a little of what is missing in Spanish restaurants found in the UK. People want quality and seasonal products. A good cured ham, tender meat, fresh fish… I try to innovate using everything I’ve learnt on my travels whilst always respecting Spanish flavours. We are a Spanish restaurant, but it’s not something you would typically find in a big Spanish city like Barcelona for example.

Some chefs say that their mothers are their most demanding diners. In your case, what does she think when she comes to eat at Sabor? 

My mother has only been able to come to Sabor once since we opened. She was thrilled and finds what we are doing quite impressive, although she also told me “that’s not how she made sweetbreads“. She gave us a lot of liver, brain and sweetbreads (pancreas) when we were growing up. So I learnt from a young age that eating meat doesn’t have to be limited to steak… That’s also Spanish culture. 

Many modern Michelin-starred kitchens look like laboratories, but in Sabor we find large grills, very common all over Spain for cooking food, and even a traditional castellan moorish oven. Are customers surprised? 

I always say that “the only important thing about the tool is how well you know how to use it”. In the end, what people want is to eat well and have great service. We use grills, frying pans and griddles a lot. That doesn’t mean it’s less or more. It’s just different.

The thing I love the most is the sound of a kitchen as a dish is being prepared. The crackling of the grill, the sound of the meat on the griddle, it’s what I grew up with. The world of cooking is very vast and everyone chooses the journey that best suits them. In my view, you can’t get real Spanish flavours without a good grill. 

In the last few years you have not only become one of the most renowned chefs in London, but also an ambassador for Spanish cuisine across the country. What new ideas for the future are simmering in your mind? 

We have a couple of very exciting projects in the pipeline. A small one that will come out very soon by the end of this year if all goes to plan, and a much bigger one: a new restaurant aiming to develop some culinary jewels of certain areas of Spain which are not fully represented in Sabor. Watch this espacio!

Having said that, I don’t want to go crazy either. We’re doing very well, I would like to maintain the quality we are best known for and continue to find joy in what I do.

Finally, what would you say is the perfect Spanish dish to pair with a bottle of Finca Martelo (and some great company)? 

I am a huge fan of rice dishes simmered in broth (arroz meloso). I want my next holiday to be in Menorca and I’ve already started looking for places where they make the best lobster rice – an all-time favourite of mine – although the other kinds of rice dishes are pretty spectacular too: with wild mushrooms, with rabbit, with seafood. Best enjoyed with a chunk of crusty bread on one side and a great wine on the other!

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