Nieves Barragán Mohacho
Published 03 March 2018

Photo by Chris Terry

Nieves Barragán Mohacho of Sabor says cooking in an open kitchen and talking to the customers are key elements to the success of her first restaurant

Spanish chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho only planned to stay in the UK for 12 months during a break from studying nursery teaching.

Speaking no English and working as a kitchen porter washing the dishes in a London restaurant, she had no plans to make a career out of cooking, so the fact she has just opened her own restaurant in London 20 years after she first arrived is all the more remarkable.

Nieves and her business partner, José Etura, opened Sabor on London’s Heddon Street at the end of January and the buzz about this new restaurant, bar and asador has been deafening. It’s already one of the most talked about new openings of 2018.

Sabor – meaning ‘flavour’ in Spanish – captures the regional flavours of Spain, from the tapas bars of Andalucia through to the seafood restaurants of Galicia and the asadors of Castile.

A typical meal at Sabor might include prawn croquetas; Iberian duck breast and tarragon ajoblanco; Jerusalem artichoke and jamón tortilla, and rhubarb and mascarpone tartaleta.

The kitchen sources the best ingredients it can from the UK and Spain. Although most of the seafood and meat is British, Nieves looks to Spain for specialist ingredients like the Iberico pork, suckling pigs, Spanish prawns and Galician octopus.

Featuring a long bar where diners can grab a seat overlooking the open kitchen, everything is on show, much as it was when Nieves and José worked for Sam and Eddie Hart at Barrafina.

The Spanish duo worked their way up through the ranks of the Barrafina empire. Nieves started as a sous chef and was the group’s executive chef by the time she left in 2017 after 14 years with the company.

José, who studied business in Spain before moving to London in 2007, joined Barrafina as a glass polisher and fell in love with restaurants so much that he was operations director by 2015.

For Nieves, open kitchens are an integral part of the Spanish dining experience and they are at the very heart of Sabor, in both the restaurant and asador.

As with typical Andalucian tapas bars, orders are written on the limestone counter in chalk, so guests can see exactly what they have ordered.

‘I think the open kitchen and cooking everything in front of the customers is key,’ says Nieves, who grew up in Bilbao, the capital city of Spain’s Basque region.

‘It brings to London what I enjoy about the way we eat in Spain, it’s a very Spanish way of doing things. It’s also so much more fun and friendly to cook in an open kitchen.

‘I love seeing customer reactions to dishes and I learn from those reactions and conversations. I also find that the younger chefs working for us enjoy listening to the customers and watching them enjoy the food.’

When Nieves arrived in the UK, her first impressions of the city’s food scene weren’t all favourable.

‘When I started working in London 20 years ago, I could hardly find a good olive oil or even any good Spanish ingredients.

‘In the last decade, and especially the last seven years, it has got better and better. I can’t imagine living anywhere else other than London, it’s the best city to be a chef.’

Sabor draws influence from different regions of Spain and the restaurant is divided into different areas with different styles and menus. Nieves says the idea was to showcase the variety of Spanish cuisine.

‘In the asador kitchen, we cook suckling pigs in a Galician and Castilian style and we also have huge copper pots for cooking the octopus, which is a traditional Galician way of preparing it.’

Sabor may be proudly flying the Spanish flag in London, but why is it still hard to find great regional Spanish food elsewhere in the UK?

Nieves says: ‘London is the main hub of the UK but when I go to other parts of the country, I’m looking for British food, not Spanish.

‘Saying that, there are some people cooking great Spanish food outside of London, like Peter Sanchez-Iglesias at Paco Tapas in Bristol.

‘At Sabor, we wanted to showcase all aspects of regional Spanish cooking. The British are keen explorers of different cuisines and we wanted to tap into that.’

Published March 2018