Meet chef Nieves Barragan: “Sabor means Flavour” | My Soho Times

Ivo Belohoubek speaks to Nieves Barragan about gaining a Michelin Star for Sabor, growing up in her mum’s kitchen and giving back…

“This was the first site we saw when we looked for a place” José explains. “In Heddon Street you can feel like you are in Spain. And this space with its beautiful bricks felt very rustic and Spanish.”

Nieves and José met at London’s acclaimed Barrafina restaurants, where Nieves was Executive Chef for the group for nine years. In 2014 Barrafina Soho was awarded a Michelin Star for under her watch. The pair both come from Spain, Nieves from Bilbao and José from Valladolid in Castile. They founded Sabor in 2018, with the aim of taking their diners on a journey from the tapas bars of Andalucía via the asadors of Castile, all the way to the seafood restaurants of Galicia.

When you get into Sabor you could be forgiven for thinking you have been transported into Spain. The place is abuzz, and the atmosphere friendly and relaxed. It feels down to earth compared with many top end eateries, with people sitting comfortably at large tables in the upstairs restaurant or at the counter downstairs. Instead of the isolation of tables for two, you become a part of an ongoing celebration of Spanish cuisine: A fiesta de Sabor! The open kitchen radiates inclusion as waiting staff weave in and out amongst the tables with smiles on their faces – and the skill of slalom skier.

Spanish food is the core of Sabor’s DNA. From its origins in Nieves’ mother’s Basque kitchen, through its rustic décor to its layout. “There are three distinct areas reminiscent of different parts of Spain,” José shows me around. “The downstairs bar takes you to Southern Spain where you can sip Sangria while waiting for a seat. The counter with its open kitchen is all about seafood from Costa Verde and other parts of Northern Spain.” El Asador upstairs is the only place in Sabor where you can pre book (downstairs is first come first serve) and that’s where the magic happens. The Segovian Suckling pig roasted in a wood fired oven is definitely Sabor’s signature dish as well as the pulpo a feira, croquettes, and other Spanish classics. If you think you know Spanish food then this place is for you. Not because it will fundamentally change your view of Spanish cuisine, but because you will probably have some of your best tapas, your best pork, seafood or beef here. And to add to that some unexpected gems like goats cheese ice cream. Yes, you read it right – it shouldn’t work but it does!

Eating at Sabor means you are as close to the action as it gets. The chefs cook in front of you, the waiting staff dance around you in the tight space between tables with plates full of food and enthusiastically recommend their favourites. The team vibe is that of staff who enjoy their job and take pride in doing it well. “You need to be their friend, their family.” Nieves explains. “They call me mommy Nieves! We do a lot together, we all sit down together for breakfast and dinner. With the open plan at Sabor, there is no front and back of house, we are one team.”

With the coveted Michelin Star Nieves knows all too well that talent on its own is not enough. “There is a big difference between love of cooking and being a chef. As a chef, you have to stay focused, you have to become a leader.” When Nieves started, she was often the only woman in the kitchen but thankfully times are changing now. The conversations have evolved and the machismo and chauvinism of the high end food industry are becoming a thing of the past. Women are claiming their place in the limelight.”

FROM MUM’S KITCHEN TO MICHELIN STAR

Nieves’ food career and philosophy is firmly rooted in her own childhood. “I grew up in my mum’s kitchen. She cooked with everything: liver, kidneys, brains. She gave me small jobs so I was involved from a very young age. Over breakfast we were already talking about what we were going to have for lunch. And before lunch was finished, we were already planning dinner.”

Almost as a testament to that, the Michelin Star arrived quickly – within one year. Sabor however, is not a once in a lifetime tick on a list of expensive indulgences. With it’s delicious food and warm atmosphere, it’s simple a place you will want to come back to again and again.

“We didn’t focus on getting a Michelin Star” Nieves tells me. “Of course I want to keep it and the whole team works for it hard.” Sabor doesn’t create elaborate plates that look amazing but fall apart the moment you put fork in the food.

“Sabor is all about the flavour. What I wanted to achieve was our guests having an amazing time and when they go out of the door, they want to come back. When people talk about the great time they had at Sabor, that’s the best feeling you can have as a person, as a chef and as a team.”

With the coveted Michelin Star Nieves knows all too well that talent on its own is not enough. “There is a big difference between love of cooking and being a chef. As a chef, you have to stay focused, you have to become a leader.” When Nieves started, she was often the only woman in the kitchen but thankfully times are changing now. The conversations have evolved and the machismo and chauvinism of the high end food industry are becoming a thing of the past. Women are claiming their place in the limelight.”

GIVING BACK

Nieves is an enthusiastic ambassador for Action Against Hunger UK (AAH). In Bangladesh she was totally hands on with the giant pots of simple food that fed tens of thousands of Rohingyas every week. During autumn Sabor participates in the charity’s Love Food, Give Food campaign, adding a pound to every bill that goes to the work AAH does around the world. Nieves regularly cooks at AAH’s events that help raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to secure the right nutrition for the world’s poorest. “I think as chefs we do this because it makes us feel good to see the difference we can make and it’s amazing to see that the generosity of people is still there. And we need to keep pushing.”

You can find Sabor on Heddon Street, a stone’s throw from Soho.

Words by Ivo Belohoubek.

Watch ‘Meet Chef Nieves of Sabor‘ on My Soho Times TV

📍 Sabor 35-37 Heddon St, Mayfair, London W1B 4BR

For bookings and reservations visit: www.saborrestaurants.co.uk

This article was originally published in My Soho Times magazine. CLICK HERE to view, or join the list to have the latest issue sent straight to your inbox CLICK HERE!

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