THEY say opening a restaurant is one of the hardest businesses around.
But when my family decided to open a Spanish restaurant in Manchester, it’s safe to say we all got more than we bargained for.
It all began when my mum went on a girls trip to Tenerife and fell in love with a wild Spaniard from Asturias.
Fast-forward a few months and he’d booked a flight to the UK, for what she thought would be a whirlwind holiday romance, that ended up in marriage and two kids.
But what she didn’t expect was a third baby – a tapas restaurant named La Casona.
Nestled in the heart of a bustling town outside of Manchester centre, the cosy joint laced with twinkling fairy lights behind a glass facade housed the bold national colour scheme of red and yellow, with rustic touches and wrought iron railings.
Walking into the restaurant was like a vibrant, unapologetic slice of Spain, with salsa blasting from the speakers, cheery Spanish waiters loudly mocking each other and an unlimited amount of the UK’s most garlic-infused alioli.
It had a homely touch, as many of the dishes were my dad’s grandmother’s recipes. My dad, also a wine expert, developed his own tapas and passed them onto my brother, who created a fusion of modern and classic tastes when he too found his love of cooking. Meanwhile, my mum – also a journalist – worked her magic and promoted the restaurant across Manchester, where we became one of the city’s top 20 rated restaurants on Trip Advisor.
La Casona favourites included cordero al chilindron (see recipe below), pinchos morunos, albondigas de pescado, and of course, giant paellas.
For many, living above a restaurant sounds like an idyllic dream – stealing delicious food from the kitchen after school, learning the art of cooking through generations and having something special the family can share.
It was all those things for me but more than anything, it was certainly character building.
Starting in my young teens, I was a waitress, a cleaner, a delivery driver, an outside catering host, a barista, a pot washer and a professional potato peeler.
But what I really learnt was tolerance, patience and humility.
All three of those things were tested one evening when a drunken 20-strong hen party ordered hummus.
I politely told them we don’t serve it, as that is a Greek-Turkish dish.
“Fine. I’ll ‘ave the tzatziki then,” one huffed.
Once again, I kindly informed her that’s the wrong cuisine, to which she called me a liar and retorted: “What sort of a Spanish restaurant is this?”
I later overheard another screech at the olives, as they resembled ‘slugs’, while another, looking at Spanish tortilla asked: “Please can someone pass the quiche?”
The manager didn’t act as calmly as myself when a customer once stole two wine bottles from the cellar.
A cat and mouse chase began down the road before the manager rugby tackled the bottles off him and returned triumphantly.
Behind it all, there’s also a side to the restaurant business that customers don’t get to see, thankfully.
I’ll never forget turning to see the sous chef stood in front of me with something long and, er, red, hanging out of the zip of his trousers.
I gasped with wide eyes horrified at what I’d just witnessed, while thoughts ran through my mind. “Do I tell him?” “Does he know?” “How could he not know?”, before he and my brother erupted into fits of laughter and pulled out a chorizo sausage.
We became a big outrageous family of Spaniards, Brits, South Americans, Polish and Moroccans, which extended to the ‘Italian’ restaurant next door where all the waiters were actually Algerian.
It went from the sublime to the ridiculous when a tight-trousered, greasy curly-haired, eyeliner-wearing ex-stripper started working at the Italian.
His favourite pastime was cornering me in the garage outside, attempting to whisper sweet nothings in my ear as I cleared prawn shells off plates. Romantic.
I later discovered that my mum and granny had also been the subject of his affections, with attempted garage rendezvous.
He even flung a g-string at my granny once. She nearly choked on her albondigas.
Then there was our hypochondriac manager from Tenerife, who every time he had a cough, claimed he was dying after his nurse wife diagnosed him with a ‘collaps-ed loong’ or ‘the swine’ (flu).
Ten minutes later he’d force me to do shots during service, while another Spaniard would have me salsa-ing red-faced round the tables with him.
And then there’s the things the customers, do get to see, unfortunately.
Like the time I dropped a sizzling tapa of garlic mushrooms over a male customer’s crotch, who leaped up screeching, while I awkwardly dithered attempting to pat it down with a napkin before realising how wildly inappropriate that was.
Working alongside a head chef who is also your big brother means you have to grit your teeth a lot.
We had a home made, alcoholic caramel egg flan dessert named quesillo – a recipe of our manager’s from Tenerife – something which seemed no one had ever tried in Manchester.
A customer ordered it one evening, to which my brother informed me we’d run out.
I was about to offer my apologies to the lady, when my brother ordered me to serve a chocolate dessert, claiming ‘no one knows what quesillo is’.
An ungodly sibling row ensued and I was overruled by the ‘boss’.
I gingerly placed the dessert in front of the customer and scuttled off avoiding eye contact. I nervously lingered downstairs until I thought it was safe to walk past her table.
Until I heard: “Excuse me? What is this? This isn’t quesillo?”
World’s worst liar, AKA, me: “Err.. erm.. Yes it should be.”
Angry customer: “Well I’ve had it here before and this isn’t it. Send it back now.”
I ran back to the kitchen mortified and screeched, “SHE KNOWS,” at my brother who found it hilarious and nonchalantly stated that it was my problem.
A kitchen object may have been thrown at him in fury and he was forced to face the music.
I took great pleasure in watching him eat humble pie, as he attempted and miserably failed to sweet talk her, claiming we had changed the recipe for ‘aesthetic purposes’. She didn’t buy a word.
‘Quesillo Gate’ is still the most shameful incident of his career to date.
In short, growing up with a family restaurant was an all-consuming, comical, rewarding, outrageous, heartbreaking, fascinating, character-building adventure, which most definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted.
One thing is for sure, it will give you a lifetime of fond memories, even after you close the doors for the last time.
But no one has summed it up better than the legendary and tragically now late, Anthony Bourdain, when he said: “If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it’s the restaurant business.”
Recipe: Cordero al chilindron
Serves 6-8 generous portions
- 1 lamb leg diced
- ¼ tin piqillo peppers
- 1 head broccoli
- 2 white onions chopped fine
- 8 cloves of garlic chopped fine
- 200ml tomato sauce
- 2 red peppers chunky dice
- 2 green peppers chunky dice
- 100ml red wine 100ml white wine
- Rosemary 2 sprigs chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and pepper
- 500ml lamb stock or bouillon
- Jamon skin with fat for rendering
- Olive oil
- Brown all lamb in a hot heavy based stewing pan
- When the lamb is coloured remove and put to one side
- Using the same pan pour a little olive oil on medium heat and add garlic and onions together until slightly coloured, then add the lamb back into the same pan
- Blend the broccoli, piqillo peppers and wine together until smooth
- Then add stock, blended mixture, tomato sauce, rosemary and bay leaf to the pan. Bring to the boil, then simmer it for minimum two hours stirring occasionally
- In a separate pan add your jamon fat (preferably heavy based frying pan) and on a very low heat, tender out the fat
- Remove after 15 minutes and add your peppers. On a slow heat cook the peppers until very soft and tender
- Add peppers to stock and check for seasoning, the consistency should be a very rich and hearty stew