Angel Zapata Martin

Angel Zapata Martin

As executive chef of London’s lauded Barrafina restaurants (plus Parrillan), Angel Zapata Martin is a figurehead for authentic Spanish tapas in the UK. He manages to stay true to authenticity and tradition whilst at the same time propelling rustic tapas dishes into Michelin-starred territory.

Angel Zapata Martin is Barcelonan through and through. Growing up in the city, he fell in love with the flavours of his uncle’s cooking, and now recreates the flavours of Catalonia’s tapas bars at the Barrafina restaurants in London. ‘I was always interested in food growing up,’ he says. ‘My father was a businessman and had quite an old mentality believing women should be in the kitchen, but my uncle was very passionate about cooking. He would always do something different with a dish – my mother might cook some vegetables simply, but he would add garlic or some jamon. It always caught my attention.’

When Angel finished school he decided to become a chef, but was dissuaded by his friends and family, who wanted him to follow a more academic path. After beginning studies in architecture, he knew it wasn’t right, so he decided to rebel and enrol at the Hofmann School of Hospitality in Barcelona. ‘Hofmann was very tough – it felt as though you were in the military,’ says Angel. ‘The teachers were very strict and it was very classically French in style. But I loved it – I understood why everything had to be so precise and ordered. We learnt French techniques but the dishes were rooted in Catalonian cuisine.

‘After I finished at Hofmann I spent a few years working in simple, casual restaurants, before returning to the school to work as a chef and a teacher,’ he continues. ‘The next big break came when I had the chance to work with a chef called Santi Santamaria who was the first Catalan chef to get three Michelin stars at his restaurant Can Fabes. It was an amazing place surrounded by nature, and Santi was obsessed with using hyperlocal produce sourced from twenty kilometres around the restaurant. It really made me appreciate the importance of quality ingredients. After a while he offered me a position in his restaurant Ossiano in Dubai, where I worked for two years. Cooking there was very different to Can Fabes; you had access to incredible ingredients from all over the world, and they would arrive very fresh.’

A brief stint working with renowned chef Pierre Gagnaire soon followed, before Angel set off for Latin America, working in Panama and travelling as much as he could. Years later, he felt it was time to return home. ‘I wanted to dedicate myself to Spanish cooking and create the dishes I had grown up with, so I travelled back to Barcelona and started to work as a private chef. It was good but I soon started to feel lonely. I missed the teamwork and camaraderie of a kitchen, so when I heard there was an opening for a new executive chef at Barrafina after Nieves Barragán Mohacho left, I jumped at the chance. Now I have three teams to work with, and I’m having a fantastic time.’

Angel’s appointment to Barrafina in spring 2017 was a perfect fit – the restaurants serve the exact same food the chef loves cooking and while he’s adding his own touches to the menu, it’s still very much business as usual. ‘When something has worked so well for ten years, it doesn’t make any sense to change it,’ he says, ‘but the specials board is where I get to really show off my style of cooking – it changes daily and I encourage all the chefs to get involved and contribute.’

Tapas, like many traditional European foods, is rooted in history, and Angel is committed to preserving the authenticity of the recipes at Barrafina. ‘Our tapas are either the same or very slightly different to what you’d find in Barcelona, which is getting so touristy now it’s becoming harder and harder to find authentic tapas,’ he explains. ‘I’ve seen patatas bravas served with mayonnaise and ketchup instead of bravas sauce and aioli! For example, normally in Spain you use a very specific tomato for pan con tomate, and simply cut it in half and rub it over the bread. Here, we grate the tomato and strain it to remove some of the water, before mixing the pulp with olive oil and spreading it on top of the bread to stop it getting soggy. We’re looking to be very traditional and authentic here, that’s the main point, so we never change the recipes too much.’

However, just because Angel’s dishes are either identical or very similar to the tapas served back in Spain, what makes Barrafina Adelaide Street (the other restaurants are in Soho, Covent Garden and Coal Drops Yard) worthy of a Michelin star? Angel says it’s all down to the ingredients. ‘Our dishes might follow similar recipes to a traditional tapas bar in Spain, but we use world-class produce that you wouldn’t find in a typical restaurant. Some of these come from Spain – there are certain chillies, peppers and meats you can’t get anywhere else – but we also use lots of British products, particularly fish and fruit.’

With all the initial paperwork out of the way, Angel is leading Barrafina into a new era. By November 2018, Angel's Catalan influence had spread far beyond the specials boards. He headed up the opening of a fourth Barrafina, in the brand new Coal Drops Yard at Kings Cross – one that featured his own menu from front to back. That was joined by Parrillan – a new concept offering a clever solution to all-weather outdoor dining. It might be a new chapter for the chef, but it looks like Barrafina will continue to be the best place to get authentic tapas in the UK under his watchful eye.