Creative Conversations: Plum Guide meets Nieves Barragán
We talk to the Chef Director of Michelin-starred Sabor about her restaurant's main influences, where she loves visiting most for its food and why a sense of space is so important on holiday
In this installment of our Creative Conversations series, we're catching up with Nieves Barragán, Chef Director of London's much-loved, Michelin-starred Sabor. Nieves tells us about the influences behind her restaurant's menu and setting, how her house has become a home since lockdown and why Mexico is her favourite foodie destination.
Tell us about Sabor and the influences behind its menu
Sabor, we always say, is like a full journey to Spain because Sabor has a bar which is like the South of Spain, like little tapas bars. Then you have the counter which is more like the bars of Catalonia – a little bit of everything. The counter is more my type of cuisine and what I like to present as Spanish cuisine. Then, we have the asador which is traditional from Segovia and Galicia. We bring the traditional wood oven to cook traditional suckling pigs. It’s the only wood oven like that in the UK and it's rotated. Also, we have the Galician pit where we cook the octopus. But it is beyond that, it’s more rustic, more for sharing. It’s pure Spain, it’s more traditional cooking.
How do those different settings complement and contribute to the dining experience?
The good thing about the bar is that, usually, you might come a little earlier to eat at the counter or asador, so you can pop in and have a sherry or a cocktail or a sangria. You can have some tapas to warm up before the meal. Or vice versa: people finish the counter or asador and then they like to go back to have a sherry and finish their meal at the bar. What’s good about the bar as well is that we don’t take bookings so you can just go there with your friends and have fun - have your gin tonics, have your wines, have your sherrys, have your tapas and try to feel like you’re in a bar in Spain.
What is your go-to neighbourhood restaurant in London?
I love Kiln because it’s nearby - it’s one for my break or before I go home. I love Brat as well. Where else? It’s a tricky question after having not been going out! I like Cornerstone as well, I like it a lot. I haven’t been out much, that’s the problem - we need to go out more, right! I need to catch up because a lot of things have been going on and a lot of new restaurants have been opening.
For many people, a kitchen is the heart of a home. What is your favourite thing about your own kitchen?
I always say this: we’ve got nothing to hide, everything is visible. All the kitchens – in the asador, at the counter – everything is open plan so you can see everything that is happening in the restaurant. The chefs can interact with the guests, and that was my dream. To have everything open plan and to have the seafood display on the counter. And I think that’s the beauty of it. We always say it’s like a show. A restaurant should be like a show. It should be a place where you can smell it, you can see it, you can hear it – the cooking, the noise... If you match these three things, for me, that is key. That’s why, basically in Sabor, we knew exactly how we wanted to design it, which type of tiles, everything. José, my business partner, and I, designed absolutely everything, with our designer obviously. But I think that is the fun part of cooking in the kitchen, of being exposed to the restaurant.
Where in the world do you love visiting most for its food?
I love Mexico. Oaxaca. Malinalco, a small town in the middle of the mountains. It's so precious, not many tourists. Three times I’ve been there and you hardly see any tourists. The markets… There’s one place, which is called Rancho, I think, in the mountains. So, you go there and they do this lamb cooked underground overnight for 18 hours. It's like back of the garden, it's very laid back. They butcher the meat, make the marinade and then the table has been made up with all your chilli sauces, all your tacos, and then underneath the lamb they put some chickpeas. So basically, they braise the lamb and then underneath there is a pot of chickpeas and vegetables. You remove the charcoal, the lamb, the vegetables and the smell…I can smell it now.
Tell us the story behind a favourite item in your home
It’s a difficult one because I don’t spend too much time at home. But my chopping board is very special to me. I don’t like these little, thin chopping boards when you try to cook and you don’t have the space. I think a chopping board should be big and chunky – it should be part of the kitchen. And I always have good olive oil, always.
What makes a house a home, to you?
Now, after what has happened during lockdown I’ve realised... I have a little garden, and I started to put more pots, flowers and herbs outside and inside the house. I planted a grape plant and it makes me feel like I’m in Spain. So beforehand, it would be a place where I would come back and it was a house, not a home – go home, have a shower, sleep, back to work. But now, having these plants, this colour, herbs like basil, the grapes – it brings life to the house. So this small detail has changed what home is. It brings life.
Where is your home away from home?
I love Cádiz. I haven’t been in a few years because of lockdown and everything, but I used to go one or two times a year, at least for a short time. Just to go there and have some sherry and tapas, go to the beach. Cádiz is a place that feels like living. It’s a place that I wouldn’t mind to retire one day. Simple as that. It’s very chilled, with very good food, good ingredients, and it’s still not expensive. I love the sun, and the people…
For the Plum Guide ‘Perfect Stay’ home test, we collaborate with experts from different fields — from psychologists and hospitality experts to architects and interior designers — to identify the ingredients a holiday home needs in order to deliver a perfect stay. If you were designing a test or set of criteria for the perfect holiday home, what ingredient(s) would you specify as essential for the perfect stay?
When I go on holiday, I need to see big windows, a big and open plan space and the windows need to open out to the view. Working in London and as a chef, your life is very narrow and very focused, so when I go on holiday, I need to have nice light in the rooms, big windows, big open plan spaces, big doors…because I need to breathe.