Pete Sanchez: to achieve success, you have to stick to your guns, even when everyone thinks you’re crazy

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Pete Sanchez-Iglesias is the head chef of family-run, Michelin-starred Bristol restaurants Casamia and Paco Tapas.

Originally in Westbury-on-Trim, where parents Paco and Sue launched in 1999, Casamia was relocated to Lower Guinea Street on Bristol’s waterfront in 2016, downsizing from 14 tables to just nine.

The chef, who was Paul Foster's guest on The Nightcap podcast last week, describes his food as “typical Bristol – you don’t know what to expect.”

"It’s all about thinking about if someone’s coming to my house, what am I going to cook them tonight. That’s what we want to do. Casamia means my house, so that’s always been our approach.”

With no formal training, Pete and his brother Jonray turned the humble family-run restaurant into a multiple-accolade venue: the brothers won Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant awards in 2010 and were named chefs of the year in the Good Food Guide 2015. Casamia now has a Michelin star, 5AA Rosettes and received SquareMeal’s Best UK Restaurant award in 2018.

How did they do it? 

casamia relaunch
Casamia's new quarters on
Lower Guinea Street, Bristol

Pete and Jonray weren’t the academic types; they didn’t play by the rules.

“We just didn’t get on with school, we didn’t get on with normal society, just sitting in a classroom going ‘yes sir, here’s my homework.’ We didn’t like those kind of things, we had an opinion that we wanted to express.”

The brothers taught themselves how to cook through trial and error and reading books, but their turning point came when they decided to take the traditional trattoria in a new direction.

Customers walked away in troves when they removed cannelloni from the menu.

"We knew what we were up against. It was literally a constant battle of just watching people walk up and walk back out because we took them pasta dishes off the menu,” he said.

Then, they took pizza off the menu. “It was horrendous for a long long time.”

The two brothers spearheaded the changes, which sometimes resulted in some odd dishes.

“It was ludicrous man, the shit we were doing.” The brothers scrapped the crowd pleasers and replaced them with dishes like Octopus gazpacho topped with granita, or Elbulli-inspired lamb and blackberry – only to realise that it tasted horrible – and trying out combinations that may only work at molecular precision – like pigeon and coffee.

Only when they opened a restaurant in Cheltenham – aged 18 and 20, respectively, using their own money - did they truly learn the lessons they needed to learn.

“We made it work man, it was a really good restaurant, it was our first introduction into like Michelin world.”

“It was hard. We used to do stupid things. Things where I was like, if only I knew now, it would make such a big difference. We really make our lives complicated. Just by everything we did. We just wanted to make everything from complete scratch.”

“That’s what made us great chefs but at the time made our lives complicated. Even when we had two or four people booked in the restaurant, our lives were hell. We were just so tired and demoralised, everyone thought we were just pissing it up the wall. People thought we were crazy." 

The young men went back, asking their parents if they’d let them return to Casamia, with four years of debt on their shoulders.

“Dude, it was the best learning curve ever. To go through shit and pain and just to see things from a completely different perspective.”

“You can’t just open a restaurant and expect it to be busy, it doesn’t work that way.”

Finally, thanks to their hard work, in 2009, Casamia was awarded a Michelin star. 

Pete describes the event as “a big pat on the back going ‘we’re not insane.’ Because we thought we were insane. We were like, ‘why are we doing this to ourselves, what’s the matter with us.’”

“Until the Michelin star, everyone thought we were nuts, everyone thought we were proper crazy. Family didn’t believe us, they were just like: ‘nah, they must be doing something.’ Because we were naughty boys when we were younger. Particularly Jonray, he was the naughtiest of them all.”

Pete’s brother and business partner Jonray sadly passed away in 2015 after battling with melanoma for four years. Days later, Casamia was named fourth best restaurant in the UK by The Sunday Times. 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 3rd June 2019

Pete Sanchez: to achieve success, you have to stick to your guns, even when everyone thinks you’re crazy