- Instagram @jamesharryhart / @takemetothetable
35-year-old James Hart initially chose a very different career path to his two restaurateur brothers, Sam, 43, and Eddie, 41.
He spent almost a decade in the City as a derivatives broker, where he earned a six-figure salary.
However, he recently packed it in to embrace his passion for food – a passion which runs in the Harts’ blood.
Now James runs El Pastór, a taqueria in Borough Market, alongside his brothers and friend Crispin Somerville.
The restaurant has scored rave reviews and there are often hour-long queues out the door.
He told Business Insider that he fell into co-founding the new London hotspot by accident.
“I had an amazing 10 years in the City and loved it,” he said. “When I resigned in December 2015 I was in no way thinking that I was going into hospitality.”
He was put on six months’ gardening leave, having decided to return to his old broking firm.
Meanwhile, Eddie and Sam had recently opened the third branch of upmarket Spanish tapas restaurant Barrafina, one of which has earned a Michelin star.
The brothers also manage trendy Soho private members club Quo Vadis, and are famous for changing the way Londoners dine by introducing the no-reservations policy to the capital’s foodie hubs of Soho and Covent Garden, where their outposts lie.
They’ve received a number of awards for their endeavours, including the Best Restaurateurs award from GQ (pictured above).
Riding the Mexican wave
The idea for El Pastór was born in Mexico City where Sam and Somerville ran El Colmillo nightclub during the ’90s and ’00s.
“They fell in love with the cuisine and the culture and would spend hours debating where you can find the most authentic tacos,” James said.
Outside of Mexico, though, taco culture had only really caught on in the west coast of America.
“Mexican food in the UK had always been sweaty cheese on piles of nachos, with sour cream and maybe some jalapenos if you’re lucky,” James said. “That was until Wahaca arrived. That opened people up to start thinking about Mexican food, not as Tex Mex, but something that is sophisticated, with punchier flavours.”
It wasn’t until tacos started to take off in New York that the brothers decided it was time to bring the trend to London.
James said his gardening leave ultimately served as the catalyst for realising this decades-long taco dream, as he was the only one with the spare time to investigate how best to translate the culture and bring it across the pond.
So, off he flew to find out – “and the rest is history really,” he said.
‘Authentic’ and ‘punchy’ flavours
- El Pastor
El Pastór launched in London in December 2016. The plan is to open three more restaurants at a steady pace over the next 10 years.
James believes the real reason behind El Pastór’s success is its authentic, “punchy” Mexican flavours that set it apart from its competitors.
He said it’s been down to him to perfect the physical methods of Mexican cooking.
They import maize, then cook and grind it themselves to make the “native blue and white tortillas.”
Perfecting the art has apparently involved lots of trips to Mexico, where James learned the local trade…
…And mingled with the locals.
More importantly, visiting Mexico allowed him to sample native tacos.
“With Mexican food, the more you learn, the more you realise that people have been doing this for over 60 years. We’re learning on our feet, so of course we’ve had loads of disasters,” James said.
“We’re really just learning the basics first – we don’t have new dishes every week, but we will get to a more creative process.”
El Pastór’s name is inspired by the popular “taco al pastor,” developed in central Mexico based on a shawarma grill brought to the country via Lebanese immigrants. It’s also the restaurant’s main dish.
“It’s pork shoulder sliced off the spit. We had to learn how to build the spit, and marinade it. We really became experts in a very small number of things because we had that focus.”
The short rib taco is one of James’ favourite dishes on the menu.
- El Pastor
Along with the commitment to authentic Mexican food, it’s also, no doubt, the Harts’ trademark style of good quality food without the fuss that has had a hand in drawing punters.
El Pastór has the same casual vibe that Sam and Eddie have perfected at Barrafina, where the layout is inspired by an authentic Barcelona tapas bar called Cal Pep.
It’s dressed-down dining all the way at El Pastór, too.
“There’s a huge uptick in people who want to eat really good food in a very relaxed and casual way. The flavours have to be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean you need tables and stuffy service,” James said.
“As with a lot of street food, it’s a convivial way to eat. We love sharing, it’s one of our favourite way to have a meal.”
Paying the price for the “buzz”
Despite its visible success, James said the taco joint didn’t open at an easy time to join the London restaurant scene.
Around the same time, a wave of other taco institutions flung open their doors in the capital, including Breddos, a popular taco street food stall, and Corazon Taqueria.
When James recently met with a group of London’s most prolific restaurateurs, they all agreed that it’s currently the food capital of the world.
“It was broadly felt to be the case,” he said. “And its probably the most exciting place foodwise right now. It’s an amazing place to be but it’s unbelievably competitive.”
“We fought very, very hard for our location,” he added. “It’s so important because margins are increasingly difficult, so if you’re not busy from the beginning you have no breathing space to perfect everything.”
“The incredibly high rents make me very nervous about the restaurant scene going forward. There will be a drop off of new openings as people find it tougher and tougher.”
‘The key thing is to be happy’
There are also aspects of his new lifestyle James has found it difficult to adjust to.
“The thing I’ve found the hardest is trying to get in a routine to stay fit and healthy – it’s a nightmare! I went from a really regimented routine as a broker working from 7.30 a.m. until 4.30 p.m., and would go to the gym every very day after work,” he said.
“If you’ve got an 11.a.m. wine tasting, your visit to gym goes out the window. That’s the hardest bit to acclimatise to.”
Despite the hard work he’s had to put in – and the change to his lifestyle – James said he has not looked back to his City days.
“People get so fixated in the city about salary whilst missing that the key thing is to be happy,” he said.
“Whilst I’m taking home fractions of what I used to, I really believe that this will be a better bet in the long term.”