Welcome to our ‘Amigo’: Camino’s Richard Bigg
- Posted by Amy Bell
- On March 9, 2023
By Anna Swinfield
Introducing our new initiative, ‘Amigos & Amigas of the BritishSpanish Society’, celebrating Spanish food and drink in the UK
First, for those who enjoy the best of Spanish food and wine, some news of an exciting gastronomic initiative the charity the BritishSpanish Society is launching in 2023: “Amigos and Amigas of the BritishSpanish Society”.
This is a network aimed at strengthening our growing community in partnership with prestigious stakeholders in the Spanish gastronomic sector through a shared appreciation and support for the best quality food and wines of Spain.
Our charity shares a belief in quality, sustainability, community and Spanish as key words we link to gastronomy that is much loved by the British, and Spanish, and distinguished by its country of origin.
We are inviting those involved in the Spanish gastronomic sector to join a network of association with our charity’s mission, by becoming an Amigo or Amiga of the BritishSpanish Society and honorary patron.
We aim to build a cooperation, offering greater visibility, outreach, and engagement to the businesses involved as part of the BSS’s mission of cultural understanding and friendship.
We hope, as the scheme develops, that our members and supporters will benefit from a wider offer of venues for small gatherings and larger events, and discounts on services and certain products subject to agreement.
The scheme will aim to build on existing relationships we already have with companies that support us by sponsoring our events or contributing prizes to our popular fund-raising raffles as we report in this magazine and on our website.
We are delighted to welcome our Punto de Encuentro new Amigo, and honorary patron Richard Bigg, founder and director of the London Spanish restaurant group Camino.
CAMINO restaurateur, Richard Bigg, was born in Aldershot, Hampshire, and grew up in Sussex and Kent.
He admits he was average at school. He fell behind when he changed schools going from average to below average and ending up with four O-levels. Leaving full-time education at 17, he tried various jobs and spent six months in Germany learning the language. On his return he had a go at A-Levels but failed miserably: “Luckily, I got glandular fever during the exams, so I didn’t have to sit them. I told my future employer I would easily pass, and he couldn’t disprove it!”
He worked in the City as a commodity trader but never made any real money, followed by backpacking in South America and a year in America as a bartender. While friends at home studied for degrees, Richard was sowing wild oats overseas. Back in the UK he took a diversity of jobs. “I found out what I liked and didn’t like.”
By his late-20s it dawned on him that to succeed in hospitality in the 1980s you had to start at the bottom and endure abysmal pay and conditions. Those experiences taught him a lot: “Thanks for the lesson. I’ll do the exact opposite. They showed me what to do by doing the opposite of what I thought should be done.”
His first trip to Spain was with a girlfriend in 1984 in a clapped out black mini. The car was pitifully slow, his relationship with the girl went in to reverse and she dumped him in Zaragoza. He was heartbroken but he’d found a new love: Spain.
Richard is now big in hospitality. The heady days of youth are behind him and with a string of restaurants and bars he makes an extra effort to ensure his staff are looked after and valued. The team regularly go to Spain to try out new products, meet suppliers and immerse themselves in Spanish culture: “They’re great initiatives, enormous fun, terrific bonding and educational. My staff come back all fired up. It’s a joy to see!”
His wife, Inma, is from Aragon, the wine region of Huesca. Their plan is to keep a small pad in central London and within the next couple of years to buy a home in the Tarragona region.
We talk about World Heritage cities that are still relatively undiscovered such as Toledo, Avila, Salamanca and Segovia. He finds fascination in the “real Spain” where you can “dig a lot deeper”.
He also loves the Costas and believes Spain is an astonishing country with a plethora of beautiful products. The English see Italy as elegant, sophisticated, fashionable, he says. But Spain has its own incredible products.
Richard has a philanthropic side to him. Camino has raised £120,000 for the charity Action Against Hunger with various initiatives over the years. They included Richard’s participation in a 6-day Nepal Trek. Was it tough? “Frankly it was disappointingly easy! I was thinking I’ll need to get really fit for this. I try to keep in shape but can’t run ever again because I broke my back with one of my near-death driving experiences and almost became paralysed.”
His London-based portfolio consists of three Camino restaurants, Bar Pepito and two music-focused Big Chill bars, one of which was opened recently. He employs 180 staff, Spanish and English. He says Brexit has meant relying on more people “from that small island in the north of Europe called England whose work ethic is not the same”. Most of the chefs are Spanish. The executive chef, Nacho, is from Vitoria in the Basque country.
It all sounds dandy: the sunlit plains of youth, the eventual success of a thriving clutch of bars and eateries. But business is all about setbacks and learning to cope with them. And there was no bigger blow than Covid. The pandemic knocked the stuffing out of the company, as it did with thousands more across the globe. The business went bust. Thanks to the Big Chill brand he and his business partner were able to buy back Camino out of administration. They lost one site but kept the others and managed to get the business up and running again. Staff got their jobs back and suppliers were paid.
Currently, Richard’s objective is to keep costs as low as possible for customers and to get through this difficult stage.
He has no desire to expand: “People consistently say you’ve got to expand, but no you don’t. In the old days you could have one restaurant and that was enough. This insistence about brands being rolled out across the country is not something I want to pursue. I’m going to be 60 this year and I want to enjoy life. I want to make sure the place is run as well as it can be by staff who love being there, who earn well and have opportunities, whether that’s trips or promotions. We don’t need ten or twenty Caminos.”
All Camino’s meat is sustainable and direct from Spain. Steak comes from the north, Galicia and Asturias. The average age of a cow slaughtered in the UK is around 2.5 years old, compared with 5,12- or 14-year-old Spanish cows. Surely, it’s a good thing to have a longer life eating lush grass in the north of Spain where it can rain even more than in England.
Richard’s wife Inma cooks more Spanish food at home than he does. She’s a deli chef, not a restaurant chef. Richard cooks food sourced from everywhere to offer variety and to mix it up a little (typically English). Sometimes there’s feedback from Spanish diners moaning that Camino dishes are slightly more expensive, from which it’s clear they’re visitors and don’t live in London. “You can pay as much for a plate of jamon iberico in Spain (over 20 euros) as you do in London,” Richard says. “We are good value in that respect.”
“Some dishes are bound to cost more in London than in Spain where you’re not paying London rents! Wines are also such good value in Spain. The Spanish who live in the UK understand that we have to charge what we charge. I’d rather have a full restaurant on a worse margin and everyone having a good time, than a half empty restaurant and trying to squeeze the maximum dollar out of everybody.”
Richard adores a juicy Spanish tortilla and thinks it tricky finding the ‘perfect one’ in Spain (I can’t really believe that). He finds bar tortillas quite dry (now hang on Richard: it’s not a ‘bar’ tortilla, but my Spanish mother-in-law’s tortilla is to die for). He loves seafood from Galicia and the whole of the northwest. Another favourite in Camino is Arroz Negro. It’s been on the menu since Nacho the chef started. As for a vineyard and a glass of something delicious – he recommends a visit to The Granja Nuestra Señora de Remelluri – the Rioja wine estate.
With a passion for F1, and having raced himself for years, he’s car obsessed. So am I and could easily have talked about it for another hour. He now drives an Alfa Romeo 159 (my dad had 9 Alfas on the trot over 30 years). If you’re a petrol-head, it’s a racing certainty that sooner or later you’ll drive an Alfa. The last interesting car (apart from his Alfa) was a Holden (rebadged as Vauxhall in the UK) Monaro VXR, a 6-litre supercharged V8, offering 600bhp. It was, he says, “an absolute beast”. Once he eventually settles in Spain, as is his plan, he has his heart set on buying an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – now there’s a car with real Va Va Voom.