Simon Miller has worked with some of the industry’s best. He tells Neil Hudson why his planned Horsforth opening could be the start of something big
Simon Miller is a ball of energy, flitting between stoves as he rustles up some pan-fried ox cheeks, which by the way have already been slow-cooked for three hours. It’s one of the dishes which has helped make the tapas restaurant, La Casita, which he co-owns with chef Oliver Renton, 33, and business partner Ben Riley, a real hit with customers.
Earlier this year, their Ilkley branch was named Best European in the Yorkshire Evening Post Oliver Awards. Having established themselves in Ilkley, which has no shortage of places to eat, the brand has already expanded to Boston Spa. In July, they will open at the bottom of Town Street, Horsforth.
The concept behind La Casita is simplicity. It’s Spanish tapas but there’s something else going on here.
Ilkley’s La Casita is tucked away in a sun-drenched Victorian atrium, it’s full of reassuring earthy tones of wood, copper and the rainbow glow of wines. The word artisan leaps immediately to mind, from the blueberry gin and cecina beef, which is air cured in the Alps and smoked with woodchip to the Iberico charcuterie and bespoke beers - there’s even one made using seawater, Er Boqueron, 4.8 per cent, which is rumoured to be ‘almost hangover free’ owing to its high mineral content and which they hope to have on tap in Horsforth.
Simon is keen to make sure Horsforth carves out its own identity. Having worked with some of the best in the industry, he’s laid back about his chefs sticking to the script.
A chef I worked with called me up to say new restaurant was opening in London called Marco, run by Marco Pierre White and they wanted someone. I was impulsive, so I moved there within a month, with nowhere to live - it wasn’t the best idea. I spent a bit of time in EasyJet hotels, I even slept one night in my car.Simon Miller, co-owner of La Casita, Ilkley, Boston Spa and soon-to-be in Horsforth, Leeds
“We take on passionate chefs and we want to create individual restaurants. Our menu here in Ilkley will be different to Boston Spa and Horsforth. We want to employ chefs, not robots. When you’re a chef, the last thing you want when you go into a place is to get a manual saying these are the dishes and this is how you make them, like a chain restaurant. That’s not what we’re about. The main thing for customers receive a quality product.”
Indeed, the focus on quality shines through. Ever since he developed a passion for cooking, which he fell into almost by accident after taking a job as a waiter, Simon has done whatever it takes to ensure he pushed himself, from working 110-hour weeks to sleeping in his car when he had nowhere to live.
“We used to live in Rochdale and I had a job as a fitness instructor but the family then moved to Plymouth and I looked for another job in fitness but ended up with a waiter job. I was 17 and not really into food.”
But the experience was transformational.
“I did a few nights in the kitchen and I really enjoyed it and found I was good at it. I was a commis chef but I picked it up quickly, by the time I left I was cooking main courses for 80/90 people on a Saturday night. At that point, I went to work for country house hotel, which was big on weddings.
“I would have stayed longer but a chef I worked with in Solcam called me up to say new restaurant was opening in London called Marco, run by Marco Pierre White and they wanted someone. I was quite impulsive, so I moved there within a month, with nowhere to live - it wasn’t the best idea.
“The first couple of months were bumpy, I stayed with a friend’s niece for a couple of weeks but then I had to go, so I spent a bit of time in EasyJet hotels, I even slept one night in my car.
“I was working 70 and 80 hours a week. It was work and sleep. I was young, so I enjoyed it but not having anywhere to live took it’s toll. Come Christmas that year I said I’d move unless I found somewhere to live.”
Fate intervened and as things turned out he did find somewhere and so remained at Marco for another year, which was fortuitous, because that is when he met Czech-born wife, Lenka, 31 - the couple are expecting their first child in September. It’s also how he ended up in Leeds.
“Lenka was in the last years of university and she’d applied to Bristol and Leeds. She got Leeds.”
After that, he did a stint at Anthony’s at the Piazza but did not like the long hours but was then headhunted by Michelin starred The Box Tree.
“I’d enquired with them before. Because I’d worked for Marco and the history they have together, I got an interview and did a trial and they offered me a job.
“Then two or three months in the sous chef was moving and I ended up doing his job. The first six months were really tough but it got easier.
“The wedding catering side of things was really beginning to take off for them. It’s the best in the country, they get rave reviews. Some of the things they do are utterly amazing.”
Which brings us to the present. Simon and Oliver met at The Fleece in Farsley, where they worked, before deciding to strike out on their own.
“This venue was owned by a friend of Oliver’s. He was at a bit of a loose end. A cafe was going to take it on but we said that’s the last thing Ilkley needs. When we saw the outside bit, it screamed ‘The Med’ and we just came up with the idea. We were looking to set up a restaurant, not knowing when or where but when this came along.
“Ilkley is saturated with restaurants now but it’s good there is that situation where there’s more opening up, whereas ten years ago only The Box Tree was thriving. We have a great team here but we’re always looking to expand. We have some great staff lined up for Horsforth.
“The plan is, if Horsforth goes well, we’ll look at other venues. Ilkley and Boston Spa are busy little places but they’re not Leeds city centre.”
He adds: “I’ve always been one to jump in at the deep end. I don’t like staying still, I’ve always had itchy feet, although I’m not as impulsive as I was. I have more to think about now than when I was younger.”
He might be focussed on the new arrival in July and though no stranger to hard work, it’s the one in September that’s likely to be more demanding.
In Horsforth, the 50-cover tapas restaurant will open inside a bar and will be at the back of the venue and so very private.
They will sell a wide collection of Spanish gins and a rare Cava drunk by the King of Spain called ‘Kripta’, which comes in a bottle which does not stand upright and costs £59
Dishes will include octopus and chorizo stew, Iberico pork cheek, Manchego Spanish sheeps milk cheese and chorizo popcorn
There will also be Spanish craft beers, cavas, sherries, sangria and of course gin