If you have not heard of Omar Allibhoy yet, you will soon. The 35-year-old Spanish founder of the Tapas Revolution restaurant chain is on a mission to fly the flag for Spanish cuisine around the world, and is fast doing exactly that.
The idea of bringing the bustle and brio of the traditional Spanish tapas bar with its sizzling patatas bravas and tantalising tortillas to a wider British audience might seem a little incongruous. Particularly when you are trying to beam up that notion and transplant it to the midst of the not famously atmospheric British shopping centre.
However, producing top-quality tapas, which actually tastes like the tapas you would get in Spain and doing so at a price that is accessible to a wide audience, was always Allibhoy’s goal.
“I started realising that nobody in Britain cooks Spanish food in their homes,” the charismatic chef tells me in his fluent but still heavily Spanish-accented English, when we meet at Tapas Revolution. “Everybody goes on holiday to Spain in this country, but nobody cooks Spanish food. They cook all these complicated pasta sauces and Chinese stir fries but never a Spanish omelette! So I started wondering what’s wrong? Why?”
”I also realised that there was no ambassador for Spanish food,” he continues. “You had Antonio Carluccio talking about Italian food and Ken Hom talking about Chinese and Raymond Blanc for French, but there was nobody in the Spanish market. So that’s when I started thinking ‘Maybe I need to spread the word of Spanish cuisine because this is what I know’. And that became my tapas revolution.”
Since Allibhoy opened the first Tapas Revolution at West London’s Westfield shopping centre in 2010, the chef, described by Gordon Ramsay as ‘the Antonio Banderas of cooking’, has become a regular on TV on the likes of Sunday Brunch, The One Show, This Morning, Masterchef, and Saturday Kitchen.
Tapas Revolution has also proved so successful that he has opened a further six branches: in Birmingham; Sheffield; Newcastle; Bath; Windsor and at Bluewater in Kent, with an eighth branch due to open at Westfield Stratford in June 2019. The Westfield branch will make it the largest Spanish restaurant group outside Spain. Against considerable odds, Allibhoy has managed to pull off that rare feat – a restaurant which is as popular with the public as it is with the critics.
It is quite an achievement for a 35-year-old by anybody’s standards. But Allibhoy not only loved cooking from an early age, but also showed entrepreneurial flair from a young age, too.
Allibhoy grew up in Madrid with his Spanish parents and Indian paternal grandfather. When he was six, his aunt Marisa – “a very important influence on me being a chef because she was a fantastic cook” – gave him a book called Mi Primer Libro de Cocina (My First Cookery Book).
“I learnt how to do everything in the book,” remembers Allibhoy, “and I still have it at home. I know all the recipes and now I cook them with my son, who is five, and makes the pizzas I used to make.”
“At a very early age, I became quite a competent cook,” he tells me and, by the time he was eight, his mother named him the ‘head chef of the house’. His passion was for cakes, but when his parents started complaining that there was too much food and that some of it was going to waste, he swiftly came up with a solution.
With an entrepreneurial spirit that would no doubt impress Sir Alan Sugar, he started knocking on the neighbours’ doors, selling any leftover pieces of the cakes, until they were all sold: “and that’s how I started in business!”
By the time he was 15, he had got himself his first professional kitchen job, as a kitchen porter washing up at a pizza restaurant in Madrid. But it was three years later that he landed the job which he says really formed him as a cook and businessman.
Allibhoy had heard that Ferran Adrià and his chef brother Albert, renowned for their pioneering molecular cuisine and multi-award-winning Costa Brava restaurant, El Bullí, were due to open a new restaurant project with leading Spanish hotel chain NH, and that there were jobs going.
Over the next two years, Allibhoy not only learnt about techniques – “the molecular cuisine – the caviars and the foams”, but also about organisation. “They were very organised in the systems,” he explains, “and the way they train. Just everything was of a way higher level and calibre than I had ever experienced, and that really stayed with me. Even though there was the flair of creativity, it was very robotic, very streamlined and I’ve brought that with me in everything I’ve done since in my life.”
At 21, Allibhoy came to London and, within a few years, was working under head chef Jason Atherton at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred Maze restaurant, in a role he describes as “the most demanding job I’ve ever had.”
He had gone to Maze because the restaurant was serving what they described at the time as tapas, but which Allibhoy believed was anything but, and eventually told Atherton so.
“One day, Jason and I were walking back to the tube and I said ‘You know it’s not tapas, don’t you?’, and he was completely shocked. He said ‘What do you mean?’. I said ‘Tapas dishes are meant to be shared, so everybody at the table can grab exactly the same thing whether it’s a piece of squid or mushrooms or whatever’. He was silent for two minutes and I thought ‘Oh, I’ve messed up’. But from then on, they started calling it ‘small plates’ instead of tapas, because I think he actually went and told Gordon.”
After a subsequent stint at the high-profile London restaurant El Pirata de Tapas in Notting Hill, including an appearance in the ‘pro kitchen’ spot on Masterchef in 2010, Allibhoy joined forces with his current business partners, restaurant industry veterans Douglas Smillie and Ken Sanker, to start Tapas Revolution.
Allibhoy’s eyes well up with tears as he tells me about his “audition” meeting with Smillie, who was keen to sound him out as a potential business partner.
Smillie asked him what had been his first ever professional kitchen job, and when Allibhoy mentioned that it had been the Chicago Downtown Pizza Restaurant in Madrid, Smillie’s ears pricked up.
In one of those strange life coincidences, it turned out the British owner of the pizza restaurant was an old friend of his. Smillie phoned his friend and put her on speakerphone. ‘Angela’, he said, ‘you don’t happen to remember a 15-year-old boy working at Chicago Downtown Pizza when you first opened do you?’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘I do’. ‘I remember he was a local young boy who really wanted to cook’, she said. ‘His name was Omar’.
‘Well’, said Smillie, ‘he’s quite a big deal here in London now and I’m thinking of going into business with him’.
‘I knew he would make it far’, said his friend. ‘That’s the thing I remember about him – he was very very driven’. “At that point,” remembers Allibhoy, “Douglas shook my hand and said ‘No more questions’. And that’s how we went into business.”
“Sorry about this,” says Allibhoy, as he wipes the tears from his eye, “I’ve never cried in an interview – really. But I get very emotional thinking about it. It’s such a story!”
By Eddi Fiegel