Arriving unfashionably early to the interview, I lingered in the foyer of Iberica with a luxury of time and broad daylight that I’d not been afforded on my previous visit - one evening during its soft-launch. The grandeur of the main dining room didn’t escape me the first time round, of course, but being given a few moments to absorb the attention to detail put into the decor.
Framed photos and artwork in new restaurants often look like they’ve come from the props department of a particularly Am AmDram club; the ones here look like they’ve been curated over decades. High-backed leather chairs in the bar look like they’re ready to support foreign dignitaries, people of wealth and status (they poor things must have been disappointed when a humble writer from a regional food & drink website eventually plonked himself down). Waiting staff chat in Spanish as they work the cavernous dining room, making sure everything is just-so for the upcoming lunch service. It’s a far cry from the usual tapas restaurant.
There’s something else that separate Iberica from the La Tascas of the world, besides their interior design acumen.
“Ah, Nacho Manzano!” the Spanish-speaking waitress confirms when I tell her my business here. Again, not every waitress in every tapas joint would know the name of the company’s executive chef. Then again, not all exec chefs happen to have three Michelin stars across two restaurants (Casa Marcial, I find out, it currently looking to achieve a perfect hat trick), plus, ‘Nacho Manzano’ isn’t a name you’re likely to forget in a hurry.
A part of Iberica since the very beginning in 2007, Nacho has created, amended, and constantly examines the menu at each restaurant - the five in London, the Manchester outpost, and now the most recent one in Leeds, which opened last month after a few weeks of soft-launch events. With plans to have ten restaurants by the end of 2016, his role certainly keeps him busy. I chat with him along with a couple of friends and ad-hoc translators to find out how he strikes a balance between the UK and Spain, in terms of his schedule, cooking style, and philosophy.
“The idea behind Iberica is really to create quality tapas to really differentiate us from the rest of Spanish food on offer, and get a step further into real quality tapas - not just better than what’s available in the UK, but what’s available in Spain as well.” Which made Nacho, with his philosophy of stripped-back quality and modern Spanish techniques, and his Michelin-estrella’d restaurants an obvious choice for developing Iberica’s food offerings.
“It can be quite challenging when Casa Marcial opens, as I need to be in the kitchen. We have two Michelin stars now and I’m in a position to get to the next level which is very stressful” He says of his joint responsibilities. “It’s in the hills on the Asturian coast so opens seasonally - from late winter until Easter it’s closed so we see him more often, but usually he comes over every month and a half or so” adds Sofia Garazaibal, Marketing Director for Iberica.
But once a menu is written and the name is emblazoned on press releases to lend pedigree to each restaurant, how involved is the job of an Executive Chef?
“I work with constant feedback from the customers, as well as the chairman and directors” He describes a democratic process of adding new dishes to the menu, and a system of constant renewal and examination. “When I have a new idea I gather the directors in the dining room - I cook it for them and listen to their feedback. We take it from there and work together to make it appealing for English tastes”
This isn’t without the help of Iberica group’s head chef César García, who joined the company directly from working alongside Nacho in his own restaurants. “We look at the things we want to achieve with a dish, see if it fits our philosophy, then we see how it has to be adapted for a 150-cover restaurant. We try not to change the recipes - the most important thing is the flavour”
Both chefs have a relentless to dedication to Spanish provenance and produce, importing not only the produce featuring on the menu, but 100% of the meats, cheese, and groceries which are available in the boqueria - the downstairs delicatessen when customers can take home gourmet Spanish delicacies such as preserved olives, fish and seafood. “We only use suppliers who are artisans, people who are doing something truly unique, or are made with passion by people who live what they do”
“Generally, my cooking style is things made well, and with quality ingredients. I can cook a typical, classic English dish, or something more difficult or challenging that you’re not used to, but when things are done well people will like it.” “I don’t feel the need to really adapt at all, it doesn’t matter if a dish is Spanish or English. Not all the tapas you eat in Spain is good - I’m sure we’ve all had terrible tortillas - but good quality is universal”
Being able to say your menu was concepted by a Michelin star chef comes with several benefits, including dishes from Casa Marcial and La Salgar popping up on Iberica’s menu. “The croquettas are the same, the Pitu rice - the pitu is not the same animal as we use in the Asturias, we use chickens over here, but the process is the same. The Torto, Hake. Dpeending on the season and the particular menu, there are sometimes more of fewer, but there’s always some that are the same”
And how about dishes or ingredients that he’s been unable to tempt English palates with?
“Tripe. It can be very gelatinous and difficult, but sometimes you need to introduce yourself to things and expand your palate. In game season we had six game dishes, one of them was hare. We knew not everybody would want to order and and we wouldn’t sell a lot, but some people would appreciate having it on the menu and have a chance to expand their palates, so it was important for us to have it on there”
For chefs of such reputation and accomplishment, they’re refreshingly humble. “We’ve come a long way since the soft opening, every day we’re doing better things and every day we’re improving our work. We’ve had some not so good feedback which we take very seriously and see it as a chance to grow, and we’ve had a lot of good feedback which is nice - we’ve been open a month and we’re already spotting regular customers”
I ask about the upcoming Summer menu, but by now the reception bar behind us is starting to fill up and generate quite a lot of buzz. There’s a special one-off lunch with friend of Nacho and holder of four Michelin stars, Quique Dacosta and it’s attracted quite the crowd - some of them can’t wait to approach Nacho, who’s been fending off calls from Spain throughout our chat, and congratulate him personally on another successful opening.
“This is a very very small, intimate lunch with Quique. We did dinner yesterday with Nacho and Quique in London which was amazing, and tonight we’ll be in Manchester. Because the restaurant is so new we weren’t able to book in dinner in Leeds, but Nacho was very keen on bringing Quique here to show him - it’s his new baby!”
It seems selfish to keep Nacho and Cesar any longer, so I release them to their adoring crowd; a mixture of food fans, friends, business partners, and local chefs, including Michael O’Hare, towering over the crowd in a fetching metallic gold cowboy shirt.
The private room upstairs will play host to todays lunch, as well as private bookings, Spanish cuisine masterclasses and events for smaller groups, press and bloggers. The dinner with Quique in London and Manchester is the first of three (for now) Nacho & Friends events - he’ll be bringing more friends to the UK in September and November, and they’ll be making use of the private room too. “The idea is to bring the greatest chefs in Spain at the moment, to bring them here and do something just as special, but more relaxed”
Packing out a dining room before 1pm on any old Tuesday is no easy job, and it shows that Nacho and his friends know what they’re doing, as did Iberica when they got him on board way back in 2007. There’s no other restaurant in Leeds that boasts a chef with these kind of credentials, and it’s exciting to see what he’s got in store for us next.