Leandro Carreira

Leandro Carreira

Leandro Carreira

An alumnus of Mugaritz and Nuno Mendes' Viajante, Leo Carreira is carving his own trailblazing path and rethinking how fish and seafood should be prepared and cooked at The Sea, The Sea in Hackney.

For many chefs, working with seafood – especially fish and shellfish of the very highest quality – is what they enjoy most. It takes a deft hand to ensure the quality of the product isn’t overshadowed by whatever else is on the plate, and that the fish itself is cooked to absolute perfection day in, day out. For Leandro Carreira – Leo for short – it’s now his main focus at The Sea, The Sea, a fishmonger, seafood bar and high-end chef’s table-style restaurant. But that doesn’t mean he shies away from seriously inventive, creative dishes featuring the day’s catch.

Leo initially started studying architecture with no real interest in food, but soon realised it wasn’t for him. After quitting his course (and some stern encouragement from his mother) he decided to join the local catering college in his hometown of Leiria in Portugal. ‘There were no memories of baking with my grandmother when I was three or anything like that,’ he says, ‘but I knew I wanted to work with my hands, and the chef course I was on allowed me to do that. However, it still took me a few years to realise I actually wanted to turn cooking into a career.’

During his course Leo worked in local restaurants (‘doing the jobs that no one else wanted to do’) before undertaking a stage in Caffé Caffé in Lisbon during his second year. ‘It was around 1997 and the cooking was just out there – very different to the French foundations I’d been taught,’ he explains. ‘It was my first big job and I eventually became head chef. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, but the money was good!’

Leo stayed there for around five years until he realised he wasn’t going to progress any further. He decided to travel, landed a job in Dubai and started working for large hotel chains. While he didn’t particularly enjoy working in Dubai, it opened his eyes to just how many different cultures and countries were out there, and he spent the next several years working across Europe. Of all the restaurants he worked at, the most influential – and well-known – was Mugaritz, where he eventually became sous chef. ‘It was definitely the turning point in my career. My time there influenced a lot of what I do now. I think whoever goes through that place, especially during the time that I was there, gains a real curiosity around cooking. No one was doing anything like what they were doing – it was just mind-blowing.’

Leo spent three-and-a-half intense, exhausting years at Mugaritz, during which he met chef Nuno Mendes, who ate at the restaurant one night. During a stopover in the UK on his way to Japan, Leo went to eat at Nuno’s acclaimed restaurant Viajante, and was instantly blown away. ‘The cooking was just so unique; he was pushing boundaries like no one else, and in Bethnal Green of all places. He offered me a job as sous chef, so I went back to my hotel, flew back to Portugal, packed my things, then came back. I never actually made it to Japan on that trip!’

Over the next three years Leo rose to become executive chef of Viajante and says he would probably still be there if it hadn’t closed. The investor behind the restaurant offered to back a project of Leo’s own, so he spent the next few years searching for the perfect location. ‘It was a real learning curve; you’re always criticising potential locations,’ he says. ‘But during it I was doing pop-ups all over the world, creating dishes and getting my name out there.’

In December 2017, Leo’s first restaurant – Londrino – finally opened its doors. The food was a representation of the chef’s unique cooking style which, after spending time at the likes of Mugaritz and Viajante, was particularly difficult to define. ‘We were trying to sum up the restaurant and eventually went with Portuguese heavily influenced by Japan, which was totally wrong,’ he explains. ‘The food was good, but it just wasn’t suitable for the area or the space. People came expecting Portuguese dishes or Japanese flavours, and it wasn’t either of those, so it closed pretty quickly. But you learn so much when a project goes wrong and I learned a lot of very important things about running a restaurant in the process.’

Disillusioned with the industry, Leo decided he wanted to quit cooking and even applied to become a tube driver – after twenty years of being a chef and putting so much effort and money into his first restaurant, only for it to close down, he felt completely drained. But luckily for us, the pull of the kitchen was too strong, and after doing some consultancy for restaurateur Alex Hunter, he was given the opportunity to work with him to open The Sea, The Sea.

‘At first I wasn’t really up for it, but the concept really appealed to me. It was something I’d always wanted to do, and I wasn’t going to be the person looking after every aspect like I was at Londrino – I was just going to be doing what I love – cooking and looking after the food. So we opened in Chelsea, and then in 2021 we opened the chef’s table in Hackney.’

The Sea, The Sea is a unique offering, comprised of a fishmongers, seafood bar and separate chef’s table. This gives Leo the freedom to do different types of cooking; at the seafood bar there’s just fresh fish and an induction hob, ‘so you need to be really creative and clever’, but at the chef’s table he can create genre-bending dishes that showcase his inimitable style.

What makes The Sea, The Sea – and Leo’s dishes – more interesting than other seafood-focused restaurants is the fish and shellfish itself. The daily catch is transported from the coast by the business’ own vans, with crabs and lobsters kept alive in a state-of-the-art saltwater system in a bespoke processing room, which is also where all the fish are prepped and filleted. In addition to that, Leo is at the forefront of dry-ageing fish; a relatively new idea that treats fish like meat and proves fresh doesn’t always mean best.

‘They’ve been ageing fish in Japan for a very long time, but it tends to be done using large blocks of ice which the fish sit on and gently mature,’ explains Leo. ‘I started playing around with that about seven years ago, after a good friend of mine who owns Sushi Tetsu in Clerkenwell kindly showed me how to do it. The dry ageing technique is new to me, and we have to learn through trial and error to a certain extent; there aren’t really any books that teach you how to do it. But the benefits are huge. We source the best fish possible and then extend the shelf life, improve the flavour and improve the texture.

‘It’s an enzymatic process which pulls moisture out of the fish, which in turn firms up the flesh and develops the flavour,’ he continues. ‘It’s up to you when you want to stop that process. Just like dry-ageing meat. It’s not right to say a fish is always better dry-aged; that’s not right. I don’t really eat fresh fish anymore, but that’s just a personal preference. Species like turbot and monkfish really benefit from it the most, but we haven’t had much luck with salmon, for instance.’

Leo’s cooking treads that fine line between ensuring the fish is the main attraction, but offering enough elsewhere on the plate to keep his menu exciting and contemporary. ‘We try to intervene just enough to elevate the fish or shellfish as much as possible,’ he says. ‘I have no problem doing one thing with one ingredient if that’s the best way to present it. We use a lot of Japanese techniques, especially on the fish, because I don’t think there’s any other place in the world that beats Japan fish-wise. But I also think we do stuff here that you can’t find anywhere else.’

After a meal at The Sea, The Sea, we can guarantee you’ll share his view.