As he prepares to return to Henley-on-Thames, Jimmy Garcia reflects on being the chef who puts the entertainment into food
It’s almost unimaginable given the past 16 months we have all endured, but there was a time when we could invite as many people into our home as we wanted. Dinner parties didn’t have to be staged outdoors when spring weather decided to act like winter, and you weren’t faced with that difficult conversation with one of the group when you realise there’s seven of you wanting to eat. Then again, no-one did inviting people round quite like Jimmy Garcia.
It was a decade ago that Garcia decided a career in the City wasn’t for him and that, in fact, he wanted to tap into a love for cooking instilled in him by his parents. Living in Balham in London at the time, rather than fret about the costs of opening a restaurant with extortionate rents, he simply opened up his home to the public. “At the time, I thought why not?” he laughs. “I always loved entertaining and partying, so why not do it in my home?”
His living room became one of the most sought after 25-seater restaurants around. “There was a genuine buzz,” he says of the time, “the feeling of creating something that felt really special. It was a real one off, a bit underground, a little bit wild and a lot of fun. After it kept selling out, however, my housemates wanted their house back and I was motivated to create a credible business.”
Garcia swiftly moved on to host dinners all over London in everything from wine shops to warehouses, and as the business grew, so did the scope as the pop up restaurants started appearing outside of the capital. By the time this magazine goes to print, Garcia’s latest visit to Henley-on-Thames will be up and running. “We chose Henley due to its genuine beauty, it’s just stunning,” he says. “There’s huge amounts of uninterrupted river frontage and it’s only a five-minute walk from the centre of one of the most beautiful villages in the country. The surrounding produce also offers us a great variety to work with in our dishes.”
Styled over four shipping containers, the pop up restaurant at the Upper Thames Rowing Club will have two decks: a dining room on the upper deck, and also a BBQ street food bar for passers-by below. Garcia says each of his pop up restaurants offer a different experience based on the area surrounding it, saying “a Taste of Henley is all about championing local suppliers”. So what will we find on the menu? “We start with a delicious selection of canapes, then other courses include Bosley Patch tomatoes, La Latteria Stracciatella, and Gabriel Machin smoked salmon with an oyster leaf emulsion,” he starts to whet the appetite. “A favourite of mine is the English Farm Longhorn sirloin with pickled tropea onion petals, smoked baby leeks, cured egg yolk and a watercress emulsion. Not forgetting, to finish, the amazing Honeys of Henley set cream with lavender sable, toasted barley and fresh raspberries. It’s a really fresh, summery menu.” We are also looking forward to the street food element of the pop up that will include a signature burger (bone marrow beef), lamb wraps, English halloumi wraps, and chickpea and squash falafel wraps.
Considering the thought that goes into the pop up menus, it’s little surprise that Garcia’s business has flourished so much over the past decade. “We aim to always offer a bookable restaurant offering as well as a passing street food operation, allowing us to cater to both markets,” he adds. “As a team, we love nothing more than putting the experience in ‘experiential’ – creating bespoke menus and concepts with all that we do.”
It all started in a London dining room, but now Jimmy Garcia is the undisputed “pop up king”. A tag he’s happy with? “As long as I’m still earning the title, I really don’t mind!”