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Introducing José Pizarro: the acclaimed chef who’s merged his love of food and art

Published 7 October 2021

The art-loving Spanish chef shares the secrets of the Iberian menu at his new RA restaurant – and dishes the artistic inspiration behind his indulgent truffle sandwich.

  • Antonia Cundy is a journalist.

    When José Pizarro says something is bad, what he really means is that it’s very, very good – dangerously so. The dish that merits his warning, a chocolate pot laced with olive oil and sea salt, is the devilish end piece to our meal at his new restaurant in the RA’s Dorfman Senate Room, the Spanish chef ’s first in central London. “It’s bad, I told you, it’s really bad,” he chuckles as I devour the indulgent pudding.

    The inspiration behind the menu – and the tapas and sherry café he also runs in the Poster Bar on the floor below – is to do what Pizarro does best, with beautiful ingredients and his much-loved Spanish cooking. “My food is just bringing simple things together,” he says. “To be here is an honour, and I don’t want to do something I don’t know how to do.”

    As a steady stream of dishes arrives from the kitchen, Pizarro recounts each ingredient’s journey to my plate. For the slices of Jamón Ibérico, that’s a five- or six-year epic. For 22 months, a pure-breed Iberico pig snuffles around for acorns in the meadows of southwest Spain, before its meat is cured in traditional cellars for three to four years, the humidity kept constant by water sloshed on the floor. “They eat a lot, they walk a lot, all the oils from the acorns go inside the muscles, that is why it has that nutty flavour,” Pizarro enthuses. “It is the best ham that you can buy.”

    After pan con tomate, there are squid-ink croquettes, the buttery flesh of wild white prawns with garlic and chilli, and small round bursts of chorizo al vino. To cleanse the palate – and pave the way for the chocolate pot – a whipped apple sorbet with basil oil.

  • Friendly faces abound behind the menu and its ingredients. The olive oil, for example, is made for Pizarro by a friend from a blend of three olives – manzanilla, arbequina and morisca – found in his home region of Extremadura. The bread is from a Bermondsey baker, while the almond cake is his partner Peter’s recipe. “Growing up on a farm, a place where we ate very well, I think that is what made me understand food and flavours, and the importance of where food comes from,” Pizarro says.

    Sharing that understanding in an artistic setting is not new to the Spanish chef. Shortly after he opened his acclaimed restaurants on Bermondsey Street in 2011, the contemporary art gallery White Cube moved in next door. Since then, while Pizarro’s cooking has taught London and beyond how to appreciate Spanish cuisine, he has been on his own learning curve.

    “I would do the catering for White Cube, and slowly, slowly I started learning about art,” he says. “Through art I see the world in different ways. It’s like good food, it makes your stomach move.”

    Tracey Emin RA, now a close friend, was one of the first artists whose work he bought (for a sweet £50, 22 years ago). She is also the inspiration behind a new dish at the RA: a toasted truffle sandwich, with Jamón Ibérico and Ermesenda cheese. It is a perfect bite of pure indulgence, and the only part of the meal Pizarro, who is too stressed to eat when he’s working, will try himself. “I’m doing the truffle sandwich here, the first time I’ve ever done it in my restaurant, because I love it – and Tracey loves it,” he says. “When I go with her to France, there is a place that makes the truffle sandwich very well. I said to her, “I want to do my truffle sandwich here,” and she said, “You should”. Diners at the RA will be very glad indeed that he heeded her advice.

    José Pizarro at the RA Dorfman Senate Room, Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy; Tue–Sun, 11.30am– 6pm. Brought to you by Company of Cooks. Contact 020 7300 5912 or visit roy.ac/josepizarro

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