Growing up in Bilbao, my mum used to get up in the morning and put her apron on ready to cook and say, "What are we going to have for dinner?" – it was the conversation we would always have every day. For my family it was very important to eat well. It's a misconception that you have to spend a lot of money to do that. We used to eat pulses, stews and fish, something we could eat with a spoon. I remember there was always a lot of colour on the table and I was always involved, peeling broad beans or peas.
My mum and my heritage are my biggest influences but when I came to London 20 years ago, I found new ingredients I didn't know about before. I learned to speak English in the kitchen here, and I love the respect for the food and how you should treat it. That's why I've opened Sabor in London. It's definitely love.
When Sam and Eddie Hart called me 15 years ago and we opened Fino, that's when I realised how much I want to bring to London. For me, Fino was the first Spanish restaurant. Then I was at Barrafina for ten years. Leaving to open Sabor was the hardest moment of my life. I'd created Barrafina from the bottom, but it was time for my business partner Jose Etura and I to open something for us. Now, Jose and I are very happy to finally open Sabor and share our love for Spanish cooking. It's been a long-held dream for both of us.
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Sabor, which means flavour in Spanish, is set over two floors with three different areas – the restaurant, a bar and the traditional asador on the first floor. The asador will be different to the restaurant and bar. Jose and I brought the traditional wood-fired oven over from Castilla last year, which is the focal point. There are large sharing tables overlooking the open kitchen, which is a very important part of the Spanish dining experience. We have used Andalucian-style tiles throughout, which we brought over from Spain and there is a helical staircase connecting the asador to the restaurant and the bar downstairs. Diners in the restaurant are seated at a long dining bar overlooking the kitchen, sharing the counter with the chefs, and people's orders are written in chalk on the limestone counter like in traditional Andalucian tapas bars.
The food is a culinary journey through Basque Country, Catalunia, Mallorca and Madrid, with dishes such as wild rabbit empanadilla and Jerusalem artichoke and jamon tortilla with sage aioli. We also have an in-house fishmonger preparing and serving fresh seafood, which changes daily with dishes such as diver-caught scallop and five jotas ham consome. Then guests can enjoy drinks and tapas at the bar with a focus on vermouth and Spanish gins, wines and beers from Barcelona to Jerez. The idea has always been: come to Sabor and taste the whole of Spain. North to south, east to west, the food is so different so Sabor gives you a huge picture of the variety Spanish food can offer.
People used to think Spanish food was just paella but it's so much beyond that. Now people are not afraid to be more adventurous and try things like pig's cheeks and pig's trotters; that's a really good thing. We have suckling pig in the asador at Sabor, the way we do in Central Spain, and octopus the way we do it in Galicia with copper pans and cutting with scissors the traditional way. The menu will change seasonally and there are things on the menu that London has never seen before.
For me, food does not need to be fancy at all. It's about finding the right ingredients at the right moment, not messing around and mixing too many flavours. Sometimes simple is the difficult thing. We went to Seville recently and there was an old man there who ran a very simple restaurant. When the food was served, it looked like there was hardly anything on the plate but it was delicious. It was green beans, caramelized onions and carrot and that was it: three ingredients. And to get that perfection with three ingredients is just amazing.
For me, food should always make people say, "wow". The most important thing for me at Sabor is to make the happiest customers in the world and have the restaurant full. I remember when I heard we'd won a Michelin star at Barrafina, I wasn't sure if I was dreaming. Before that moment, it was not on my mind. We are very proud. It just shows a Michelin star is not just about tablecloths; it's about good service and amazing food. My aim is not to have a Michelin star, it's to have an amazing team at Sabor and to see regulars come in day by day. After that, if you win something else: happy days.
NIEVES BARRAGAN began working as sous chef at Fino in 2003 before becoming executive chef at Barrafina and Fino for the next ten years. She was awarded a Michelin star for Barrafina Frith Street in 2014. Her first solo venture, Sabor opened last week and the first-floor asador will open on 1 March. She has also written a cookbook, Sabor: Flavours from a Spanish Kitchen (£25, Fig Tree), out now. Sabor, 35 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BR; saborrestaurants.co.uk
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