Interview with an Innovator

Lima London Group’s Gabriel Gonzalez: ‘South American cuisine in London is still led by Mexican, but it’s changing’

The restaurateur talks with Tom Gatehouse about his recent Venezuelan food-to-go opening and the South American food scene in the capital.

15 November 2019
chefsfast casualfood-to-goLatin Americanrestaurantsstreet food

Gonzalez on Paper

  • Founded Lima London restaurant group with his brother, José-Luis, and world-renowned chef Virgilio Martinez, launching Lima London in 2012.
  • Building on the success of Lima London, which became the first Peruvian restaurant in Europe to win a Michelin star in 2013, he opened two more Peruvian-orientated restaurants: Floral by Lima and Lima Dubai.
  • Opened his first Venezuelan offering, Sabroso, in Westfield London at the end of October.

In 2008, Gabriel Gonzalez was in the market for a new venture, having left an unloved marketing role in Paris. While on a family trip to Peru, he and his brother, José-Luis, were inspired with the idea to bring Peruvian food to London, where it was still a niche cuisine.

Following a high-profile partnering up with Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, whose flagship restaurant Central Restaurante is a regular fixture in the yearly World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, Lima London Group was born.

Seven years, three Lima restaurants and a plethora of accolades later, the Gonzalez brothers are still in the market for new opportunities, with their latest restaurant, Sabroso in Westfield London, opening just last month.  

Serving ‘Latin soul food’ inspired by their native land, Sabroso is an affordable grab-and-go concept designed to open up Venezuelan cuisine to the masses.

And the brothers know the importance of getting an opening just right.

“Forward planning is one of the most important aspects when opening a restaurant,” Gabriel tells Food Spark. “Making sure all the boxes are ticked, having the research comprehensively done and generally making sure you don’t get caught with your pants down!”

Here, he runs through the ins and outs of his latest restaurant, explains how he met and formed a partnership with one of the world’s best chefs, and details the Venezuelan dishes he hopes to help hit the big time.  

 

[José-Luis and I] met Virgilio Martinez through a mutual friend. We started looking for chefs when we first decided to open up a Peruvian restaurant and we had a friend in the industry who introduced us to a few. Virgilio obviously stood out. And he wanted to open up in London. I remember he came to London with his sister, we had a good meeting and chemistry, and the relationship started.

Our first restaurant, Lima London, was a year and a half in the making. Virgilio came to London regularly in the first six months with his wife (who’s also a chef) and we did events in the build-up. Now, we’ve changed the format of how we work. Now, we send one chef a year to Peru to be inspired by the flavours of the country. They get to see what they do at his restaurant [Central], take inspiration and come with ideas to make menus here. 

In the beginning, it was a lot of Virgilio’s style, aesthetics and ideas. He was very involved before but now, more and more, we wanted to give the chefs here more freedom to come up with their own menus. Virgilio is very much still a partner in the company and is still involved, but he is now more of consultant. After seven years, we reached a point where we know our style well and want to give creative freedom to our chefs, which I like.

Lima is an understated concept and we had to adapt it to open up in Dubai. We don’t really do grand interiors and high luxury, but in Dubai, because of the type of restaurants that are there, we had to bring the brand up to a more luxurious level in terms of interior and work out how to approach the market and get it right for the audience.

We decided to position Lima Dubai as a middle point between the formal Lima London and the more casual Floral by Lima. We’ve won loads of awards over there and we’re quite recognised. We’re very happy with the recognition we’ve got from the Dubai food scene.

José-Luis and I first had the idea for Sabroso around two years ago. Well, we wanted to have a Venezuelan restaurant long before. My brother and I were born and raised there and it’s a cuisine that’s very close to us. We’ve always had a passion to bring our food and culture to the UK, to make it less niche and available to a wider audience. And an opportunity came up at Westfield to do that.

Sabroso is a grab-and-go concept and has two main offerings: arepa and ceviche. Arepa is like a hot pocket made with corn flour. It’s gluten-free, vegan and very versatile. You can boil it, stick it on the griddle, or even oven cook it. We have base fillings such as roasted shredded chicken and braised beef and toppings like Venezuelan black beans and ripe plantains.

Generally, arepa fillings range from the traditional to the regional. Take Madrid, which has a growing arepa scene. There you often have regional Spanish arepas for a Spanish audience. In the UK, you can find them in popups and stalls sometimes, but we want to help bring it into the mainstream in bricks-and-mortar.  

Sabroso means ‘tasty’ in Spanish and the restaurant is probably around 80% Venezuelan with added South American twists and flair. Despite the political turmoil and problems across the country, Venezuela has traditionally happy comfort food. It’s simple, healthy and not too ‘out there’ with flavours. It’s a cuisine that’s slowly making its way around other parts of the world and that’s due to those leaving Venezuela bringing a little bit of the culture with them.

We have made an arepa box, which is basically like the naked burrito. A bowl of rice with fillings and toppings. That’s proved to be very popular in the restaurant’s first month. It’s pleasant to eat, is comfort food and people can relate to eating it every week.

In terms of plant-based, we have tofu for a traditional Venezuelan breakfast-based arepa. The original recipe has scrambled eggs and sofrito [a base sauce common in Latin America], and we replaced egg with tofu.

Aside from the arepa, we also have an array of ceviche and poke, which are seen throughout South America. We’re also big on tropical juices, things like the classically Venezuelan mango and coconut smoothie and sugar cane lemonade which we make with raw sugar.

We want to bring the feeling of ‘little beach house in Venezuela,’ so we also have rum on the menu to be added to juices. Tequeños (crispy cheese pastries with homemade mango chutney) are quite hard to find in London and we think they’ll be a big hit. South American cuisine in London is still led by Mexican and the whole Tex Mex thing, but it’s changing.

Peruvian is a recent trend in London and Venezuelan is another cuisine leading the alternative South American charge. There’s certainly space in the market and its only just emerging into mainstream. Londoners are much more discerning these days when it comes to food and they want affordable quality. Good value is at the core of what we’re doing with Sabroso and we want to project a feeling of family.

Having a ‘people business’ is very important to me. I spend almost every day in one of the restaurants with the team, having meetings and making sure things are running smoothly.

Assuming everyone will come to your restaurant is a common mistake people make. Things don’t always go as planned. You need to think about your plan from as many different angles as you can. You also need a clear message of what your product is and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Last year, we changed the menus across Lima London Group to make it more of a sharing format. It was successful in Floral in Covent Garden as, I think, sharing and sociability is more attune with the style of the restaurant. In Lima London, it wasn’t a format that people were used to. People expect more of a standard, more traditional. So, we went back to a la carte there and it’s clear that that was the right thing to do.

It’s different with Sabroso compared to our other restaurants. Mainly, because it’s not a typically sit-down affair. As a diner at, say, Lima London, you have much more time to connect with the front of house over the course of the two hours you might spend there. With grab-and-go, you need quicker and more concise customer interaction. It’s a very different type of experience and it must be a well-oiled machine.  

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