Since taking over their parents' restaurant, Casamia in Bristol, six years ago, Jonray and Peter Sanchez-Iglesias have been pushing culinary boundaries. Now they are changing the appearance of the restaurant as well as the menu to reflect the seasons. Kerstin Kühn reports
Bristol may not be at the epicentre of cutting edge cuisine, but at Casamia, in the city's leafy suburb of Westbury-on-Trym, Jonray and Peter Sanchez-Iglesias are certainly pushing culinary boundaries.
The brothers have been making waves on the local food scene since taking over their parents' restaurant six years ago. It's been a journey of ups and downs, but one thing is certain - between them they have serious talent. They were two of Britain's youngest chefs to gain a Michelin star in 2009, aged just 25 and 23, and winning Gordon Ramsay's televised search for the country's best independent restaurant (Ramsay's Best Restaurant on Channel 4) made them instant celebrities.
But the accolades are not for nothing and the brothers are genuinely at the top of their game, creating artful dishes that aim to inspire diners' palates as much as their other senses and emotions, with their playful touch backed up by a serious understanding of flavours, techniques and ingredients.
A development kitchen above the restaurant in the former family flat means they are constantly experimenting, testing dishes, changing and improving them. And with their new approach of Seasons.Casamia, a concept that sees the restaurant transform itself four times a year with the changing seasons at its heart, they couldn't have their finger more closely on the pulse.
"It's something we read about in Caterer and Hotelkeeper years ago in an article about restaurant trends in Japan," says Jonray. "The idea is to totally embrace the different seasons, not just through changing menus but also through adapting the restaurant's interiors, smells and sounds."
Peter adds: "We're not doing it as a gimmick, we're doing it because we really believe in it. It makes sense for our staff because it changes their working environment and for our guests it makes sense because it brings them back every three months to see how the restaurant has changed and experience it totally differently."
Older brother Jonray is no doubt the louder and fiery one of the two, who beams with infectious passion and enthusiasm. Peter, on the other hand, is quieter, more reserved and prefers to let his cooking do the talking. But what unites them is a shared love for food, zeal for experimentation, ambition to push boundaries and drive to succeed.
The two have been at the helm of the restaurant since 2006, when they took over from their parents, Susan and Paco, who launched Casamia in 1999. It was an unusual affair back then, a Spanish owner opening an Italian restaurant, but the buzzy, colourful trattoria quickly developed a strong local following.
"What mum and dad did was unbelievable," says Jonray. "We wouldn't be here today had it not been for their hard work."
By the age of 16, Peter decided he'd had enough of school and wanted to become a chef. He joined City of Bristol catering college and started working at Casamia part time. When the restaurant's head chef left a year later, he was thrown in at the deep end, taking over the kitchen. Jonray, who was studying graphic design at the time and helped out front of house, joined him and the rest, as they say, is history.
"Straight away we clicked and worked brilliantly together," recalls Peter. "Right from the beginning we were equals in the kitchen and even though I had been cooking longer there was never any rivalry."
Jonray adds that once they found their groove they became ambitious, wanting to turn Casamia into the best restaurant in the area and questioning absolutely everything.
"We realised that using fresh artichokes instead of tinned ones was much better but also much more work, so how do you do that for so many people? We convinced dad to cut the covers and reduce the menu," he says.
But restaurateur Paco eventually put the brakes on his sons because as a business the restaurant needed to make money and the boys' ethos of using all fresh ingredients, making things from scratch and pushing the boat out with unusual flavour combinations was not working financially.
Young and full of confidence, the brothers left to open their own restaurant, Fratelli in Cheltenham, aged just 18 and 20.
"We did everything ourselves in that restaurant," says Jonray. "But we didn't have a clue. We ordered way too much stuff and never marketed the restaurant, assuming people would automatically queue up to come and eat our food."
Fratelli lasted two years and although it was a disaster from a business point of view, it gained a host of loyal diners.
"Our bank manager wanted to lend us more money because he loved our food and really believed in what we were doing. And we even had customers offering to lend us £10,000 to carry on," Peter says.
But the brothers didn't accept the generous offers and instead cut their losses, sold the restaurant and came back to Casamia where father Paco finally gave them free rein.
"I realised how talented they were," Paco recalls. "The market had changed so much, with the chains doing to independent restaurants like us what the big supermarkets are doing to the small shops. I realised that we needed to come top to beat them. And that's why I let the boys take control."
They worked a whole year without drawing a salary, paying off the debts accumulated from Fratelli. But in January 2009 everything changed when Michelin awarded Casamia a coveted star.
"No matter what people say about Michelin, the publicity we got on the back of winning the star was brilliant," says Jonray.
But the hype only lasted about a year and although Casamia was now critically acclaimed, inconsistent footfall combined with the brothers' inexperience of running a business meant that by 2010 they were struggling again.
Cue Gordon Ramsay, whose production company contacted Casamia about taking part in Ramsay's Best Restaurant.
"We really didn't want to do it," recalls Peter. "But our accountant begged us to. He convinced us that we needed the publicity to keep the business going."
The show turned out to be a tremendous success, with Casamia winning the overall title of best restaurant. And while there's nothing like a bit of TV exposure to put a restaurant on the map, it was Ramsay's pearls of wisdom that really helped the brothers.
"Working with Gordon was amazing," says Jonray. "I've never met anyone else like him. In the kitchen he doesn't miss a thing. He taught us some really valuable lessons - that at the end of the day we have to make money and that while passion will get you through it, you always have to remember who your diners are and understand their palates."
Back in the restaurant now and it has only recently transformed itself from winter to spring. Of course there are budget restraints and although the brothers would love nothing more than to completely remodel the restaurant, changes are subtle. During winter there was a stone oven giving off smells of burning wood outside, and inside there were scents of mulled wine and cinnamon, dark paintings and curtains, and bare twigs. Now there are more colours and light, floral and herbal smells as well as flowers, leaves and the sounds of birds tweeting.
The menu too has changed and dark, wholesome wintery dishes have given way to more colourful, lighter plates. The food is artful, playful and intelligent, using modern techniques not for the sake of it but to improve texture and flavour. The brothers spend hours together in their development kitchen, inventing, testing, trying and improving dishes until they get what they want.
Their synergy is remarkable. Perhaps it's the family connection - after all, when brotherly love, respect and harmony extends through a kitchen there is no limit to how far it can go. Just think of the Pourcel twins in France, the Roca brothers in Spain, and of course our very own Rouxs. At under 30 the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers may only be at the beginning of their journey, but with an unwavering commitment to constantly moving forward and a huge desire to up their number of Michelin stars, they are already well on their way.
● Smoked salmon
Wild boar salami
Pickled root vegetables
Smoked apple juice, bay leaf
● Scrambled duck egg, pheasant, thyme
● Homage to Casamia 2003 - venison ragu
● Brixham hake, porcini
● Pig's cheek, celery root
● Aged Parmesan, pear, walnuts, celery
● Apple pie, vanilla, autumn spices
● Autumn berries
● "Boxing day"
Prawn vol au vent
Crisps & dip
Pâte with toast
Pickled eggs & onions
● Cranberry, orange blossom
● Swede soup, smoked ham, pistachio
● Cod with cauliflower & cheese
● Roast chicken, stuffing, carrots
● Stichelton burnt cream, apple
● Butter beer by J K Rowling
● Bristol sherry trifle
● Blood orange & thyme
Broad bean tartlet
Spring vegetables & dip
New potatoes & roe
● Parsley, spelt risotto
● Asparagus, hollandaise, toast
● John Dory, spring greens, cider
● Roast rump of lamb, onion & garlic family, mint sauce
● Pea, sheep's curd, lemon salad
● Mango & lovage shake
● Rhubarb crumble, iced custard
5-course menu - £45 (£70 inc wine)
8-course menu - £68 (£108 inc wine)
11-course menu - £88 (£143 inc wine)