In a trendy corner of Cajun country Louisiana exists a gateway to Hemingway’s Spain via a red door in the stucco edifice of Pamplona Tapas Bar and Restaurant.
Launched in 2007 by British chef William Annesley, the private chef for Gwen Stefani and Quentin Tarantino, and his wife Karina, the moody little restaurant that exudes all the ambience of the storied bullfighting passion of Spain is a crowning achievement for the couple.
Rich in appearance, a room designed “from the ground up,” and boasting imported windows from a French chateau, a specialized wine system, a Wolfgang Puck-level kitchen, and festooned with bullfighting artwork, the dark room pulses as one of the true scene restaurants in culturally rich Lafayette.
The brainchild of the husband-wife team, Pamplona is perhaps the very best creation they’ve collaborated on, Annesley says. And that’s saying something considering his lengthy list of achievements, which include appearances on popular television series, cofounding LA “scene restaurants” Tangier and Oasis and hosting myriad celebrities through the years.
“We designed Pamplona from the ground up,” Annesley says. “We were involved in every detail, from the front windows, which were imported from a French chateau, to a kitchen that was done by Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen designer, and to the concept, which was to emulate a scene from Hemingway and the famous Running of the Bulls.
In this week’s Recipe for Success, Annesley describes the wild ride that brought him from his native Great Britain to the fast-paced restaurant scene of Los Angeles and Lafayette.
Q: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
I actually started back in 1986 working in England for a gastropub in Ascot called the Thatched Tavern. I started working as a bar manager, but I’d always cooked. I grew up in Ireland with my mother, who was a brilliant cook, and she taught me the love of good food.
I eventually moved to Los Angeles in the late 80s with the intention of traveling on to Australia, but I ended up never leaving. At the time, I was actually doing music videos and commercial work as an art director and producer and over time I started becoming known for my legendary dinner parties and Sunday lunches. From there it took off. I started catering and my first paying gig was for Bill Paxton’s band Martini Ranch.
This was in the early 90s and I remember that we had a lot of people and I was standing over a barbecue grill in 105-degree heat. Somehow we managed to pull it off, but I swore I’d never do it again!
Q: How did you transition your cooking from a sideline business?
Toward the end of the 90s the commercial world was changing, and it became more competitive to land the big-budget jobs. It was a good time to transition out, especially because the cooking work paid very well. I started doing a couple of dinner parties a week, but kept my hand in my other business by doing pilots for the History Channel.
Q: You started your first restaurant because you got bored with driving.
I got tired of driving to people’s houses so in 2000 I bought a property in Los Angeles with some investors and in 2001 we launched Tangier. It was a restaurant, bar and nightclub. It was packed every night and was really successful. In 2003, after I left Tangier, I opened Oasis on La Brea Avenue, and it was very successful. At the time my wife Karina was Quentin Tarantino’s assistant on the Kill Bill movies—he actually gave her away at our wedding—and Oasis became a hangout for the cast and crew. We had Kill Bill parties, and Quentin used to come and hang out, it was perfect. We had a very successful business there until my partner and I sold it a few years later.
Q: Tell me about Pamplona.
My wife is Venezuelan and she grew up in Lafayette. We went to a wedding there and after driving around the area, we decided it would be the perfect place to plan a restaurant. Lafayette, Louisiana is a thriving mecca centered in Cajun Country, and the area was primed for new trends coming in. There was already a sushi restaurant called Tsunami down the road … and we knew that because people were already eating sushi, the small-plate concept was working there.
Our concept was to create a Spanish tapas place that focused on sharing, having drinks and sampling an array of foods. We chose the name because the one thing most Americans know about Spain is the Running of the Bulls, and Hemingway and the bulls are very recognizable. The name was actually suggested to us by book author Ray Mouton, who wrote a book about the running of the bulls.
Q: Your décor concept marries chic urban elegance with rustic Spanish simplicity.
Every detail, from the front desk, which is constructed from railway timber, to the bull’s head hanging in the dining area, is designed to evoke the feeling of Hemingway’s Spain. We’ve hung original bull-fighting posters from 1945 on the walls, and the dark wood floors and red accents gives you the feeling of being in Spain without the plane ticket.
Q: Please describe the cuisine.
We made it fairly eclectic. Down in Louisiana, you always have shrimp, delivered daily, and oysters. We do chargrilled oysters with real butter, and really good Parmesan. We did things we knew were going to work. Duck, for example, is something we do that people recognize and it won’t freak them out. We just do it in a different way. I didn’t completely restrict our menu to Spain; I pulled from all over the place.
I had to learn to butcher differently. We do whole pigs on Saturdays— suckling pigs. You can order a whole one or you can chop them up. I carve it in front of everybody; it’s so tender I can actually cut it with a plate.
Another thing we introduced is our nose-to-tail menu service. We have a lot of huntsman and fishing in the area, so we created a service: we’ll cook their game if they bring it to us field dressed. People have loved that! We need 24-hours advanced notice, and they’ll call and say, ‘Give us a table for 10!’ and bring in their game.
Q:What has been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge has been balancing the restaurant with the pull to come back to Hollywood.
I started getting calls in 2009 and eventually signed up to do food pilots for National Geographic. I had really good people in Lafayette, so I’ve let them handle it. It’s become very much a big-scene place.
I have plans to eventually open a restaurant in Spain, but Pamplona is the one project my wife and I did together. This was a real collaboration and it worked.
What one line of advice would you give to someone trying to start his own restaurant?
Don’t do it. I’m too far down the line to give it up. But if you get into it, you have to realize you’re going to be married to it, and it’s so hard.
If you’re in love, and that’s what you want to do, be prepared. You’re always worried. If you go away, you’ve got to have a very, very solid staff in place. And you work your ass off. Getting past the first year, there are so many things that people don’t realize. Dealing with investors, customers, making sure you have the right concept. It’s never ending.