INTERVIEW: DOUGLAS BLYDE
Nacho Manzano, the two-Michelin-starred Asturian chef behind London’s Ibérica Food & Culture restaurants talks kilometer- zero cuisine, and the importance of unfussy fare...
My restaurant Casa Marcial takes my father’s name. It’s located above the clouds at Pico Pienzu on the Sierra del Sueve massif in Asturias. It used to be my parents’ house. They ran it as the local bar, dance salon, restaurant and shop. I remember they even sold shirts to villagers to wear to funerals. But as a child I grew most fascinated by how it worked as a restaurant from both economic and food perspectives.
Like my friends, on finishing school I learned a trade and toiled briefly as a shepherd. But I knew that wouldn’t be my future. Instead I had the clear idea of turning my parents’ home into a restaurant. To gain experience I worked at an eatery in nearby Gijon. These days it’s not normal to be loyal, but I stayed there seven years. At 21 I returned home to realise my ambition. Instead of stealing dishes learned during my apprenticeship, I experimented and innovated. And success came fast – it had to. We won our first Michelin star in 1998 when I was 27 and I rebuilt the house.
As my cuisine progressed it became more personal but less populist. Now at least 60 per cent of customers travel from Madrid on ‘a pilgrimage’. For this reason I’m one of few chefs of my generation who hasn’t ‘escaped’ the kitchen. On account of our rugged, singular location, if people don’t see me – the author – cooking for them, they don’t always forgive me...
I’ve had no formal training and travelled little before finding success. I simply cooked what I felt secure with. One of my enduring dishes is a cosy but crisp corn puff made with stone-milled cornflour with an egg paste of blue cheese and caramelised onion. I invented it when I was seven years old. Although it’s now in vogue to focus on a ‘local’ larder, I’ve always been being tied to terroir, cooking what I call ‘kilometre-zero’ cuisine, reaching through the open window of the kitchen and hunting and fishing the valleys and waters around me.
Rather than confuse customers with showy dishes which might cause them to scratch their heads, I’m obsessed with light, healthy food promoting clear, increased flavours. And mine is food to eat, not food to look at.
In London I’m Executive Chef for Ibérica Food & Culture where I serve traditional Spanish food which hasn’t been adapted for a British palate. As a restaurateur, chef and consumer, I value the honesty of the best service and best products. My mission is therefore to consolidate Spain’s culinary history and heritage, free from cliché.
Many of our team at both the original Ibérica at Great Portland Street and the brand new branch at Canary Wharf, which features silver walls and blood-coloured banquettes, trained with me at Casa Marcial. But we never gave them cars when they came to Pico Pienzu – their focus had to remain on the cooking.
Ibérica Canary Wharf opens on Monday 21 November at 12 Cabot Square, E14 4QT; ibericalondon.co.uk