With his boyish good looks, culinary talent beyond his years and passion for great food, it is little wonder that Spanish chef Omar Allibhoy is compared to our very own food revolutionary Jamie Oliver. Like Jamie, Omar wants to change the way that we look at food and bring good quality Spanish food to the people of the United Kingdom making it popular in the same way that Italian or Thai has become.
Food has influenced Omar’s life from a very young age when one of his earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the kitchen and watching his mother cook crème caramel. From those humble beginnings Omar has pushed himself to be the best at what he does and in the process worked with some of the top chefs in the industry from legendary chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli to Marco Pierre White and Jason Atherton.
Now at just 27, the executive chef of El Pirata Detapas has launched a chain of high quality tapas bars that he hopes will bring the joy of traditional Spanish food to people all over Britain. Here he talks about working with the best and why he wants to create a revolution around good quality tapas.
Where did you get your passion for food from?
I started helping my mum by putting ingredients together, whisking eggs and by the age of eight I already knew how to cook most pastries, cakes and sweets. I think that I was meant to be a baker not a chef.
My mum wasn’t the greatest of chefs but she was great on the sweet side so I started taking over from her on the savoury side making dinner and by the age of 12 I was quite an accomplished chef. I wasn’t that good at school so at 14 I joined a cooking school in the evening to develop my skills even further and at the end of that year I stopped school and I started working as a kitchen porter in the restaurant and started at the bottom and then worked my way up.
How did that develop into a career and working for Ferran Adria of El Bulli?
I was very passionate about food and wanted to be the best chef in the world. It was a great experience and made the biggest mark on my life. He is a very big influence in the way I cook and the way I see things.
You have worked with a number of celebrity chefs…
I’ve been very lucky and worked with some great chefs. I went for a trial with Marco Pierre White and while there chopped my finger and went to hospital for the first time in my life from a work accident. I felt really embarrassed about it but when I came back from hospital he offered me the job. I felt like it was a really bad start so I thought about it while working for him for a month but decided to leave. I then went to Gordan Ramsay’s restaurant Maze where I joined head chef Jason Atherton, which was a very good experience. Jason is a very demanding chef but I learnt a lot as he is a great organizer and there were some great people to learn from there.
What made you want to promote a return to traditional Spanish food with all the culinary experience you have had?
I’ve spent the last few years cooking at the highest level but there was a point last year that I thought Spanish food was not as well represented over here as say Indian, Chinese, Thai or Japanese. I thought lets go back to basics and cook traditional Spanish food based on very good quality recipes with very good ingredients as I used to do when I was a kid. Spanish food is very entertaining as it’s about small dishes, sharing, and tantilising your palate with lots of different flavours. The sharing also helps conversation and that is why Spanish is a beautiful philosophy of eating. I want to make people realize what they are missing.
What made an accomplished chef like you open a restaurant in a shopping centre?
Tapas back home is about going to one place, then another, then another, having the best dish and wine at each place and then move on. Unfortunately there are not enough good tapas places in London or around the country for you to do that so I thought I would take that philosophy to the people and the place that that seemed to fit was in the shopping centre where people want to eat good quality quickly and move on. If I had opened it as a restaurant on the high street people would spent two hours eating in there and spend £30 a head and that is not what Tapas is about, it is about 30 – 40 minutes and then moving on to what you were doing.
How do you inspire others to experiment more with food?
I take photographs of every dinner I make at home and I encourage my chefs to do the same. We have a competition to see which one looks best. It also encourages us to try something different to impress the others as we can all get stuck in just cooking the 12 dishes that we always cook. It is great to be inspired by magazines, recipe books and tv shows as well.
Who would be your dream dinner party guests and what would you cook?
To be honest it would be my family and friends. I could say people like Michael Jackson or Gordon Ramsay but really it would just be my family and friends that I would want there.
There is a family tradition of cooking black rice. It is like a creamy paella with cuttlefish, saffron and squid ink and that is the one I like to do for special family gatherings. At Christmas I cook a baked king crab dish with cava and brandy sauce, which is flamed – it is one of my grandfathers recipes that he taught me when I was really young as he was bored of cooking it so I have done so for the last 15 years at Christmas.
What is next for you?
I have the next Tapas Revolution opening at Bluewater shopping centre very soon so I am very busy with that.
Tapas Revolution, Kiosk K2024, The Balcony, Westfield Shopping Centre, Shepherd Bush, London W12 7SL and Bluewater, Greenhithe, Kent DA9 9ST coming soon.
Look out next week for Omar’s fabulous Braised Andalucian Chicken in Spanish Olive Sauce recipe.