“What we’re trying to replicate here is what people do every Sunday in San Sebastián”

Categories: Features

Jon and Nicole Warren, owners of Mimo London, on Basque food culture, markets and Londoners’ love of ‘experiences’

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili

Everyone who lives in London has, I’m sure, dreamed at one time or another of escaping the urban grind, packing a bag and upping sticks to somewhere warm—preferably with good wine. A little over a decade ago, Jon Warren did just that, leaving his job in the City for the picturesque town of San Sebastián, in Spain’s Basque Country. There, in a chance encounter, he met Nicole, his wife and business partner. Together, they set up Mimo, which initially offered food tours for holiday-goers, before evolving into a gourmet shop and cookery school. That was 2009. Jon and Nicole have since set up similar operations in Seville and the Algarve—and now, they’ve become part of the Borough Market community, with a permanent site at 1 Cathedral Street: the old red brick house once occupied by the Market’s trustees. Here, they’ll be offering cookery classes, dining experiences and food tours, with the traders acting as a source of both inspiration and ingredients.

How did you meet?
Jon: I had a typical City job. I was an asset manager and it was pretty good, but it just wasn’t what I was passionate about. I was sat outside the office one day thinking, what am I going to do with my life? Then I remembered this town, San Sebastián, I’d passed through with a friend. I thought, I’ve got to get out of here—that’s where I should go. I quit my job and moved over. I got a job as a hotel bellboy, with no responsibilities—none of the stresses of London. Three months later, a group of five girls and one guy turned up, one of whom was Nicole. I took her bag to her room—I still have the luggage tag—then they went off out. I had the night off, and we bumped into each other in a bar in the old town.

Nicole: We got chatting, got on well, then the following weekend Jon was coming to London for a christening, so he said: “Do you want to meet up?” We ended up going for a drink—and that was it, really! I was working at Disney at the time. I’d studied Spanish at university, so I’d been hankering for them to transfer me to their Madrid office for a few months, just for the experience, and then they said, “Yep, you can go.” It took a year from us meeting for me to decide to quit my job and move to San Sebastián to be with Jon. Much like him, I’d just turned 30 and I thought, if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably kick myself. But it was a big, scary decision to make.

Where did the idea for Mimo come from?
Jon: It was working at the hotel that gave me the idea. Lots of customers would come up to me and say, “Where can we go for real local food?” I ended up doing some guided tours. As a shy English guy, I just can’t believe I did it! It was such fun, though. It was passion-fuelled. Eventually I lost my job at the hotel. Nicole had just got to San Sebastián—and we both had nothing. Nicole just said: “If we’re going to stay here, let’s do this business.” It was a blind leap of faith.

How did you go from pintxos tours to cookery school-come-restaurant?
Jon: Some of my first clients were Americans. They’d done a house swap and said, “We’re over for eight weeks, fill our itinerary with foodie stuff—and it’d be fun to do some sort of cooking experience.” I spent a week going around trying to find somewhere to do it in. I found this little fishing village about 10 minutes from San Sebastián—you have to get a little boat to it, it’s just idyllic. I went into one of the restaurants there, spoke to the chef, eventually managed to get him to understand what I was talking about and he said: “Yeah okay, no problem—bring them tomorrow and we’ll do something in the kitchen.” And it really worked. Obviously, the practicalities of it being in another restaurant kitchen—him kicking us out when customers came in—meant it was a bit of a juggling act for a couple

of years. We were doing cookery classes pretty much every day, and it got to the point where we were at loggerheads, so we started looking for a site for a cookery school.

I managed to set up a meeting with the Hotel Maria Cristina. We blurted out that we were looking for somewhere to set up a school and a gourmet shop. The managers looked at each other and started laughing. They took us downstairs to an empty 500 square metre space and said: “This could be your school.” In the front lobby, the best position in the whole hotel, there was a locker room for the lobby boys. They said: “This could be your shop.” We walked out of the meeting like, what just happened? The biggest hotel group in the world said we can open in their hotel.

What was it about San Sebastián at that time that meant Mimo took off?
Jon: It was just at that time when visitors were starting to want to really get under the skin of a place and it was hard to know where to go, even for me. That was the basis for it: I’d moved there, lived in the middle of the old town, and still didn’t know where the best places to go were, so how could anyone else? There were no signs that said what you could order, nothing in English. So, it was a genuine need. Also, I think it suited it: it’s a beautiful town, not too touristy, with really amazing little restaurants.

At Mimo London, the proximity of Borough Market is central to what you’re doing. Are food markets a big part of your life?
Nicole: In San Sebastián, going to the market has really become part of our weekend routine: we go on Saturdays and have a coffee—usually with our children, so they’re getting that experience as well. We go to our butcher, our fishmonger, and get all of our fresh produce for the week ahead. That’s just what people do. It’s so much a part of their daily lives. That’s why it was exciting to be in this location, within Borough Market.

Jon: We want to give people the confidence to go to the Market, pick up some ingredients and be able to put something really great together. We want people to realise you don’t need a complicated recipe to make something that tastes good: you can do it with just two or three simple, quality ingredients.

Nicole: Often people can feel a bit bamboozled by the huge array of ingredients, but the nice thing about markets is you can speak to the stallholder and they will guide you. You can say, “I want to cook this, for this many people”, and they’ll say, “Okay, this is what you need.” You don’t get that in the supermarket.

Do you think the central role of the market in San Sebastián is reflective of a slightly different food culture?
Nicole: Definitely. Ingredients are key—especially seasonal ingredients. In the Basque Country we’re very lucky: we get a lot of rainfall and it’s very fertile, so the produce is incredible. We’re on the coast as well, so of course there’s lots of seafood. And that’s what local people spend their money on; it’s not about holidays and ‘stuff’—they might go to the market and spend 80 euros on a fish. It’s what they feel passionate about.

Jon: One of the reasons they’ve managed to maintain this connection to ingredients and seasonality is, they link the arrival of produce to festivals. In between January and April, it’s all about the cider houses and the local dishes associated with them. There’s the Ibarra green pepper festival, then there’s tuna coming in so everyone’s having ‘marmitako’, which is the local fish dish. There’s the alubias de Tolosa festival in November, for the black bean. It goes all through the year like that.

Nicole: What we’re trying to replicate here, in having people all sit around a table and eat together, is what they really do every Sunday with their families in San Sebastián. Everyone will be out having their pintxos from 12 until 2pm, then by three o’clock everywhere’s dead, because they all go home and eat. They’ll have a four-course Sunday lunch, lasting five or six hours. It’s their time to be with their family, enjoy good food and wine. It’s really about being together and celebrating food. It’s in their culture and that’s passed down the generations.

Jon: Joseba, our executive chef, who is from San Sebastián, saw a disparity with the UK very clearly. When we first interviewed him for Mimo London, we talked about doing a Spanish concept here, and he said: “No, Jon. British ingredients are incredible and you need to tell the local people about them. Your country’s food is amazing. I want to show it back to them.”

What do you think are the defining features of London’s food culture?
Jon: It’s incredibly multicultural, so mixed and diverse. That’s what we get excited about when we come over—that you can get that variety. Every fruit and veg stall is exactly the same in San Sebastián, it doesn’t vary other than with the season. Here, there’s an incredible wealth of cuisine. There’s also a real dining out culture, which they have less of in San Sebastián. Here we have dinner parties; in the Basque Country, they never invite people into their homes, ever. You go out to pintxos bars, or they have these gastronomic societies. A little bit like you would a golf or tennis club, you sign up to the society and it’s your social place to go. Basically, you pay an annual subscription and then it’s your club, they’re your ovens, and you go there and cook for your friends. One member cooks, you divide the cost of ingredients at the end and leave a little tip for the society. They’re amazing.

People in London are increasingly looking for an ‘experience’ rather than just a meal. What is it you think people find so fascinating about the theatre of food?
Jon: Food on TV is so huge now, but you don’t get any interaction. People seem to really want that connection. Coming to something like a chef’s table or a supperclub, it breaks down those barriers, you find out the secrets and you can ask those questions: how did you do that? You can pick up on things, a tip or a particular skill. Joseba has cooked for Elton John, he’s done royal weddings—having him cook next to you feels special. But you have to have someone who’s approachable, you wouldn’t want to do an event like that with some arrogant chef.

Nicole: Some people really want to get their hands dirty, but others just want to sit back and watch; still enjoy an experience, but not so hands-on. They don’t want a four-hour cooking class after work, maybe even less so in London where people are time-poor. Our cooking classes are fantastic, but we try to offer a broad spectrum of food and wine events. Our whole philosophy is, yes you learn something, but it’s entertaining. We want our guests to have fun, in a laid-back environment. You don’t have to know anything about food to come here, nobody will be judging you. Hopefully you’ll feel inspired to go home and do something in your own kitchen. That’s something we feel really passionate about.

Are we starting to lose our capacity for passing cooking skills and food knowledge down through the generations?
Nicole: It’s interesting, I think here there’s a tendency for children to have a separate dinner at a different time to their parents. In Spain, everything’s a bit later and you sit down, even midweek, and eat together. The children don’t have an option: they’re eating what their parents are eating. Even their school dinners are amazing, they’re better than what I eat! They have three courses every day, with things like ‘crema la langosta’, which is like lobster bisque, crayfish, calamari, all sorts of things. It’s all cooked fresh at the school, it’s amazing. It’s really about introducing those different flavours when children are young. I think the younger you do that, the less fussy they become. But I think there is a lot of good stuff going on here in the UK—a real movement to educate children, get them eating healthily and cooking.

Jon: Our family cooking classes are one of the things we are most proud of. It really does bring the whole family together. I once had someone phone me and say: “My eight-year-old daughter, she turned up with an iPad thinking she was going to sit in the corner, but your chef said, ‘You, you’re with me today!’ and it changed her life. She now loves cooking and wants to be a chef.” We love getting that feedback from people. Everything we do is about instilling that love and care for food and ingredients. ‘Mimo’ is a Basque word for the love and care that you give a baby; here, Mimo is all about that love and care for ingredients.