- Posted by Amy Bell
- On November 12, 2023
An interview with the Michelin-starred Spanish owner and chef at Sabor restaurant in London
By Anna Swinfield
Nieves Barragán grew up in Santurtzi, on the north-western coast of Bizkaia, in Bilbao. Home to a principal Atlantic port, Santurtzi is famous for sardines. Locals call it “Sardine Kingdom”. Visitors flock to taste freshly grilled sardines which, says Nieves – and she should know – are the best in Spain.
Sabor (flavour in Spanish) on Heddon St in London, offers a culinary adventure from the tapas bars of Andalucía, to the asadores of Castile and the seafood restaurants of Galicia. Sabor won a coveted Michelin star in 2018.
Nieves came to London in 1998 intending to stay for a year. It turned into several years. She’d “fallen in love” with England. “Every time I flew into London,” she told me, “I felt I was landing at home”. She spoke warmly of Spain, but today London is her home.
“London is beautiful, with the finest restaurants in the world and a huge gastronomic diversity which keeps my passion for learning alive.”
Sabor is like three restaurants in one. A tapas bar is focused on the South of Spain, whereas El Asador is more traditional: dishes such as brazen suckling pig cooked in the conventional Segovian oven, with customary large copper pans for octopus dishes typical of Galicia. The Counter is where Nieves comes into her own. She adores it and the staff have a lot of fun. This is Nieves’ “expression” of Spanish cuisine.
Her restaurant is open plan. The idea is for everyone to interact – chefs, waiting staff, front of house. One big family. Her concept is to make customers feel as if they have been magicked off to Spain, where they can relax and enjoy the best food and service.
Nieves isn’t at home very often but when there she tends to cook a mix of Spanish and English dishes. She likes “a bit of everything” and loves travelling, enhancing her culinary culture, constantly learning about different ingredients and flavours.
“Gastronomic cuisines are so diverse. They never end. There is always something new. It’s why I love being a chef.”
Prior to hospitality she studied graphic design. At weekends she volunteered with the Red Cross. With her outgoing, caring personality, I imagine she was good at it. Having spent many hours drawing she believes she has acquired transferable skills which can be linked to her passion for cooking. “You need to care about ingredients. When you put food on a plate it must look good, presentable, and that’s partly my skill in drawing which comes through.”
She doesn’t have a clue how many hours she works in a day. But it’s a lot. The restaurant trade is a tough call. She knows what time she starts but has little idea of when she clocks off. It’s in part because every day is different and throws up a diversity of problems. She says she doesn’t care because she’s so enamoured with what she does. Staff joke with her saying she works too much. She can’t remember the last time she had a holiday without sending emails, making calls, generally “bothering”, but she wouldn’t want it any other way.
I wondered how she can go from being a chef to building a commercial empire. Being a fully-fledged businesswoman calls for different qualities. At a personal level, I know something about this as I too have built up my own business. Whatever line it is that one chooses to pursue, it’s always a steep and sometimes perilous learning curve. Nieves thinks that consistency is key. You learn day by day and slowly things begin to get better. You learn from your mistakes. In hospitality you can learn volumes from your staff and guests.
She is focused: “I have a goal and a dream, and and believe in myself. The reaction I have received so far is positive. I have to keep following my beliefs. I must be consistent. And of course one has to work hard. You must pursue these objectives. There is no one to tell you that you will have a reward at the end of it.”
She returns to Spain when she can, visiting every region, analysing what she can bring back to England, each area having its own take on Spanish cuisine. It was difficult during the pandemic, as it was for all restaurants. Things are slowly improving. She admits it’s been a slog: “I am a very busy woman”. But when she can eke out time from the business, walking and cycling help her overall wellbeing.
When I asked if she was ambitious for the future, she gave a resounding ‘Yes.’ She hopes to open a new “gastronomic experience” in London. Precisely what and how is still under wraps. Watch this space.