She parted ways with the business last year, teaming up with former Barrafina general manager José Etura to launch Spanish restaurant Sabor on London’s Heddon Street, which is now open.
Your downstairs restaurant has been open a few weeks, how’s it going so far?
It’s been very busy. The upstairs Asador opens on 1 March. We’re learning day by day. We’ve changed the way we’re plating up and taking orders because at the beginning we didn’t realise how busy we were going to be. You have a rough idea but it’s not until you have a service you see everything. Here I also have to deal with two teams, a total of 28 staff, and two kitchens, so it’s a new challenge.
Was it always your ultimate goal to open your own London restaurant?
No. When I came to London 20 years ago my idea was to work for one year then go back to Spain. After a year working in French restaurants I was learning so much I didn’t want to leave. The idea to open a restaurant is a dream for every chef. I used to love Barrafina, but it wasn’t mine. It wasn’t until the last two/three years that Jose and I had an idea of what we wanted to do and what was missing in London. We wanted people to understand the cuisine that comes from different regions of Spain, which is where Sabor came from.
How does it feel to be finally running your own restaurant?
It’s funny, this morning I was thinking it hasn’t changed much since I was at Barrafina. People said to me ‘Nieves now you’re going to work harder’, but it is impossible to work more than I was before. It’s the same labour, passion and hours. For me Barrafina was the same, because I was working like it was my restaurant.
How does Sabor differ from what you were doing at Barrafina?
At Sabor there are three menus. The bar menu is focused on dishes from the South of Spain, and when you’re having a beer it makes sense to have tapas sharing dishes. The restaurant is a little bit more elaborate, there is a lot of colour in the food. In the upstairs Asador the food is more rustic like in central Spain and Galicia, with community tables where you can book for 4-6 people. So it’s very different from Barrafina.
The impact of Brexit means it could potentially get harder for chefs to go back and forth between the UK and EU, how do you think it will impact the restaurant industry?
Obviously it’s going to be more difficult to find Spanish chefs, but the whole team doesn’t need to be Spanish. Of course it’s going to change things, but we don’t want to think about it, because it’s too depressing. We’ll work out what to do. In my mind I think it’s not going to happen, because it will be a disaster for the UK. But I have different things to worry about at the moment, I can’t think about Brexit. It’s also going to be very difficult to find staff and Spanish ingredients because it’s going to get more expensive. We’re already seeing costs go up a little bit because of the exchange rate. We don’t want to think about it too much, we don’t want to stress out.
You won a Michelin star for Barrafina, what was the impact of that on you?
Winning the award obviously means people have higher expectations, so you can’t make any mistakes and there’s more pressure. You have a lot of adrenaline every day before customers come in because you want to make sure they’re eating the best food.
Barrafina is known for its open kitchens, why did you decide to keep that element at Sabor?
It’s my favourite style. Everything changes when you start to cook in an open kitchen, it creates a more relaxed ambience and gives people a better understanding of what’s happening in the kitchen. The open kitchen changed things for women. When I came to London there was more of a macho culture. Before the kitchen was always at the back or underground, it was sweaty and small, now it’s happier.
Once Sabor is up and running, what’s next for you?
If we have the team and the challenge and people who want to develop, maybe we’ll do more restaurants or different concepts. You never know what will happen in two or three years, but there will only be one Sabor.