Revolutionary or Celebrity in the making?

Gordon Ramsey might not have read the script when he dubbed Omar Allibhoy ‘the Antonio Banderas of cooking’. But Hollywood looks can’t hurt and, as Emma Cory finds out, the reference takes little away from the chef on a genuine revolutionary mission to bring Spanish food to the British masses.
Emma Cory

You may not have heard of Omar Allibhoy, but you soon will. Dubbed the ‘Antonio Banderas’ of cooking by Gordon Ramsay, he is a publicist’s dream; young, energetic and good-looking with (lo and behold) a sexy Spanish accent. You can just imagine the fantasies about to swirl around suburbia as his cheeky face is passed around our nation’s kitchens.

Why not Javier Bardem? I wonder, on my way to meet Omar at his Westfield ‘Tapas Revolution’ restaurant. We sit at the long bar, and for a second I am in a small side street in Madrid rather than a huge London shopping centre. It’s an odd location, considering the revolution theme and Che Guevara references on Omar’s website. In fact, come to think of it, the rugged, semi-bearded chef has more of a ‘Che’ about him than a slick Spanish Hollywood convert. It does leave me wondering about Gordon Ramsay’s choice of icon. Half apologetically, I couldn’t help ask about what he thinks of being sold as the Antonio Banderas of cooking, I mean, for better or for worse, it’s a difficult image to get out of one’s head.

“Not sold!” he exclaims, after two Spanish style kisses.”That’s what Gordon calls me. I used to work for him. It is quite amusing really. I guess he is very influential – people remember what he says! And in this case it was quite a funny comment.”

Film stars and Revolutionaries aside, there is more to this young chef than his nickname suggests. Having trained with Ferran Adrià, worked at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze and reached critical acclaim with the Notting Hill restaurant El Pirata de Tapas, Omar’s first cookbook ‘Tapas Revolution’ is inspired by a genuine desire from the author to bring tapas home from Spanish holidays and onto British dinner tables throughout the year.

For Omar, the cookbook is but one step towards the wider goal of bringing Spanish cuisine to mainstream UK culture, much like Italian has become, by showing how simple it can be: “’Tapas Revolution’ is a culmination of many years of hard work, trying to spread the word of Spanish food. It’s something that people can go back to easily, because everyone will be able to grab that philosophy of cooking simple, beautiful tapas at home.”

So how did the revolution start? Rewind eight years and Omar had just arrived in London from his native Madrid. “When I came to London I started to realize that firstly, there were very few Spanish restaurants in the UK, and secondly, people didn’t cook Spanish food at home. And I started wondering why, what was the reason that Spanish food was not that popular? Everybody cooked curries, stir fries, pasta but nobody gave paella a go, or any of the other million wonders that we have. And I couldn’t find the answer. So I took a pen and a paper, I went downstairs and out of my house and the first person I asked was a middle aged woman. I asked her: have you ever been in Spain? And she said, I have been there every year for the past 25 years, I love it. I’ve been to Barcelona, Madrid, all over the coast. She knew Spain very well. So I asked her, I guess you are familiar with Spanish cuisine. And she told me she loved Spanish cuisine, croquetas, paella... She mentioned everything, she knew a lot about it. Then I asked do you cook this food at home? No, not really, I never cook Spanish food at home. Of course, I asked why not. She gave me the answer that every person was going to give me; it took this one woman to know the answer: Nobody has shown me. I saw the light! That is it.

You have Gino Di Campo on the Italian side, Raymond Blanc and loads of great French chefs, Ken Hom for Chinese food. Everybody is representing their cuisine, but nobody is representing Spanish food. You never see a Spanish chef on TV, in magazines or the newspapers. It’s very rare. That is the reason people aren’t cooking tapas – we are not spreading the word!”

And how do you spread the word? Allibhoy himself laughingly states that he has “done a lot of crazy things” in pursuit of his mission. There was the ‘T’ trip across the UK, where he and a friend rode their motorbikes across the country in a ‘T’, cooking Spanish food for whoever wanted it. More conventionally, there are also two ‘Tapas Revolution’ restaurants in the somewhat unlikely locations of Bluewater and Westfield shopping centres, serving authentic and delicious tapas (I know, I tried them!) to shoppers perched on their bar stools.

A shopping centre isn’t exactly where you expect to find an authentic Spanish tapas experience, but this is all part of the plan, “We have a beautiful restaurant in Notting Hill, but that is a one off. It is a neighbourhood restaurant. Notting Hill has 15,000 people living in the area. It is not the place where people go. There are 28 million people passing through the door of Westfield. This is the best place to spread the word. Particularly because it hasn’t been done in this format, or at least I haven’t see it, and it was something I wanted to try. There is no Spanish food in the shopping centres in this format”

The cookbook is the next step, inspiring people to not only eat Spanish food, but also to cook it at home. The recipes are simple, easy to follow and use ingredients that are easy to find in the UK. For Omar, this is key to his book, “There are beautiful Spanish cookbooks out there, and made by renowned chefs and they are fantastic. But the truth is that you can hardly cook from them unless you are one of those lucky people who have a specialist deli near them. Most of the country doesn’t have that privilege. Seasonal cuisine, organic local produce, they sound great, but the truth is that 75% of the UK population buys their food in the five major supermarkets: Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsburys, Morrisons. 90% of my cooking happens with what I find in the supermarket. So this book is done with that in mind. Every recipe, you can get ingredients from those five major supermarket chains all over the country.”

But by making tapas more accessible and easier to cook in the UK, surely we are losing some of the magic? But the answer from Allibhoy is a definitive no. “You will find chorizo, you will find pimentón and you can find saffron. But all the rest of it, to be completely honest with you, is fresh produce. It’s meat, its dairy, its vegetables; it’s the ingredients that everybody cooks with. No recipes have suffered.”

So Omar is offering himself to the UK as the face of Spanish cooking. At first, it may seem a somewhat arrogant claim to make, but his enthusiasm and passion show it is coming from a different place than vanity. When I ask him what to eat at his restaurant, he is quick to recommend the croquetas, and then the jamon, and then the fideua… he clearly loves everything on his menu, and is eager to share his passion for food. So, will we be seeing more of Omar on our TV screens soon?

“I am not sure if I am the best communicator in the world, or the most fun, but I am very certain of my cooking skills and I have been cooking Spanish food all my life. So I want to start the job, I want to start spreading the word of Spanish food. And that is what I have been working for, that is my mission. When I ask somebody in the street if they cook Spanish food at home and they tell me yes, that will be the day that I know that something has changed since I first asked that question in 2008. That will be the real Tapas revolution!”

As he packs his bag to leave for the day, Omar is joking and laughing with his restaurant staff, while checking that the food he recommended is ok. With several TV appearances under his belt already, I can’t help but think that it surely can’t be long until somebody gives Omar his own show. Antonio Banderas, Che Guevara, Javier Bardem… there seems little doubt that soon it will just be ‘Omar Allibhoy’ on people’s lips as he spreads his message to homes across the country. And about the namesake: just think, it could be worse, you could be called the Gordon Ramsey of Spanish cooking.

Omar’s Special Tip for 'Chorizo a la Sidrai'

If you want to start your own mini kitchen revolution, Omar has shown us where to begin with his tasty Chorizo a la Sidra recipe:

“For somebody who hasn’t cooked tapas before, this is perfect. Two ingredients, you don’t even need a chopping board or a knife. Put two chorizo sausages in a little pot over high heat and pour over cider – not Magners - a vintage type of cider. Let it reduce down until it is syrupy, it might take you 15 minutes, depending on the size of the pot, or 30. Simple as that and it’s incredible – you will see the result!”

Tapas Revolution is published by Ebury Press