When 28 year-old Omar Allibhoy called his first Spanish bar ‘Tapas Revolution’, it wasn’t a name that he took on lightly. With his ‘call to arms’ rhetoric, his passion and even his Che Guevara haircut, he is a true revolutionary. Only, Allibhoy's revolution is about tapas for the masses.
“Tapas is a lot more than a small plate of food. It is a way of having a great conversation.” Allibhoy explains. “It’s a type of food which allows people to engage and share. It’s healthy, affordable to make at home, and as tasty as any other cuisine – more so in my opinion.
“British people cook Italian pasta, Chinese stir fries and Thai green curries – they try their hands at a lot of things. But I never understood why they hardly cooked Spanish food.”
Tapas is a lot more than a small plate of food. It is a way of having a great conversation
Puzzled, he decided to take to the streets to ask people what they had against Spain’s cuisine. It wasn’t the most scientific survey. In fact, it started and ended with the first woman he spoke to:
“I asked her if she had ever been to Spain. She said she went every summer. I asked if she liked Spanish food, and she said she loved it. I asked if she ever cooked it at home. She said she hadn’t, because nobody had ever shown her how.”
In sheer dismay, Allibhoy set about righting the situation. He jumped on his motorbike and spent the next few months travelling Britain to teach tapas to anybody willing to learn. “I cooked from Liverpool to the East Coast to The Isle of Wight” he grins. “For young or old or rich or poor people. Any time of the day – whether it was lunch or dinner, or Monday or Sunday. Something quick and affordable for a single mother and her kid on a Tuesday evening, or a party of ten students on a Friday night.”
By the end of the expedition, Allibhoy had set his heart on opening a bar to showcase authentic tapas. “People thought that La Tasca was real Spanish food” he winces. “And that upset me”. And so Tapas Revolution was born.
I was always trying new things – putting curry into a bolognese to see what happens. It's how you learn
Now Allibhoy is working on his first cookbook to provide even more instruction on cooking tapas at home. “I’ve cooked every recipe in the book a thousand times.” He laughs. “When I’m making a tortilla, I know exactly what’s going to happen with the potato if it’s at a different temperature, or in a different pan. I’ve cooked it twenty five different ways, twenty five different times each way, and I know which one tastes better.”
Allibhoy began cooking in the kitchen with his mother aged five. “By the age of eight I had appointed myself Head Chef” he laughs. Living in Madrid with his parents and older brother he earned the nickname ‘The Kid of the Spices’ thanks to his eagerness for experimentation. “I was always trying new things – putting curry into a bolognese to see what happens. I can tell you it’s not good. But that’s how you learn.”
When he was 14, Allibhoy’s mother enrolled him on a year of ‘traditional Spanish cooking’ evening classes. The minimum age was 16, but she had no problem convincing Allibhoy’s teacher of his enthusiasm. “It was a big effort” Allibhoy remembers, juggling school and evening classes. “It’s an age when you should be hanging round with girls and having fun, but for me cooking every day was so interesting I didn’t mind.”
The chef told me I could cook when I’d done the cleaning – but he forgot to tell me that there were 12 hours of cleaning each day
At the end of the course, Allibhoy decided to finish high school from a distance, turning up once a month to hand in homework and sit exams so he could start working in a professional kitchen straight away. “My first job was as a kitchen porter in a pizzeria. The chef told me I could cook when I’d done the cleaning – but he forgot to tell me that there were 12 hours of cleaning each day” He laughs. “But I was in the kitchen, and I was happy, and even though I was cleaning I was looking at what everyone else was doing, and learning to be organised and part of a team.”
After the pizzeria, Allibhoy moved from restaurant to restaurant – “everyone does when they’re young, because it’s important to see different things and to learn very quickly at that age.” And then he was given an opportunity to work on the launch of Ferran Adrià’s Nhube - a two year stint where he claims to have learned everything he knows. From there he worked with Gordon Ramsay and Jason Atherton at Maze and then Marco Pierre White at Picasso and finally at Westbourne Grove’s El Pirata before finding his own niche as a self-styled Tapas revolutionary.
If it says one teaspoon, use one teaspoon. Don’t use a tablespoon.With wealth of experience, and so many big names under his belt at such a young age, Allibhoy remains grounded. When I for ask his best piece of advice for keen tapas-makers, it doesn’t involve any artistry or wizardry, or hint of a divide between ‘chefs’ and ‘others’. “Just follow the recipe” he says. “If it says one teaspoon, use one teaspoon – it’s the best way to learn. Don’t use a tablespoon.”