Exclusive Interview with Shaun Hurrell

Exclusive Interview with Shaun Hurrell

Welcome to an exciting new series where we explore the thriving food industry in the UK. In exclusive interviews with prominent figures shaping the culinary scene, our goal is to uncover the stories, innovations, and passions driving this dynamic sector. Join us as we delve into the flavours, trends, and stories that weave together the ever-evolving and captivating UK food scene.

In our second interview, we had the pleasure of talking with Shaun Hurrell, the owner and chef of Barrio Comida, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Durham. Join us as we delve into the rich tapestry of Mexican cuisine, exploring Shaun's unique journey and gaining insights into his culinary philosophy.

1. Could you please tell us about your background and early stages of your career? 

I grew up in California and began working in an organic fruit and vegetable stand at 15. I started working in a local bistro when I was 18, and after a few years of this, moved back to England (where I was born) to further my career. In the UK, I spent my formative years working for Terry Laybourne at Jesmond Dene House, Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel, and Fergus Henderson at St John.

2. What pivotal moments or experiences significantly shaped your passion for cooking and led you to pursue Mexican cuisine?

I wanted to start my own business, so I began participating in street food events, serving tacos. This decision stemmed from my longing for the flavours I grew up with in California and my observation of a lack of such offerings in the North East at that time.  

3. Tell us about the concept behind Barrio Comida. What makes it unique in terms of the Mexican cuisine it offers?

We focus mainly on tacos from regions all over Mexico. Our USP is probably that we import heirloom varieties of corn and nixtamalize and stone grind this every morning for our tortillas. 

4. Could you share a memorable experience or challenge you faced while establishing Barrio Comida?

The main challenge was opening 2 weeks  before the pandemic hit so we spent the first 2 years of business in a crisis. It’s been a  wild ride! 

5. In what ways do you fuse traditional Mexican flavours with your own creative spin or contemporary approaches?

We try to keep things fairly traditional in style so there aren't a lot of “creative” twists on things per se. Our style is more a matter of keeping things fairly simple and minimal with a focus on the products and technique to deliver the best finished product possible. 

6. What do you believe sets Mexican cuisine apart from other popular cuisines, and how do you highlight these distinctions in your dishes?

I think one thing is how highly regional it is. The food that’s served in the jungles of the Yucatan versus the Sonoran Desert is very different. While our food is simple in that it is mainly just tacos we try and create a balanced menu so it will include lighter dishes such as fish tacos from the Baja region alongside richer tacos such as Birria de Res from Tijuana or Carnitas from Michoacan. 

7. Managing a restaurant demands a mix of culinary expertise and business acumen. How do you strike a balance between maintaining authenticity and meeting the demands of the market?

It’s a fine balance that we still work on every day. You need to work with your local market and local palates while at the same time delivering something exciting that gives people a reason to make the trip to dine with you. 

8. Newcastle might not be an expected place for Mexican cuisine. How did the local community react to your offerings initially, and how have perceptions evolved over time?

It’s always been quite positive as we started small and had a loyal following of people who supported me from the days of doing other popups. Mexican food is having a bit of a “moment” in the UK now and so it’s becoming easier and easier to get people through the doors and to try something new. 

9. Could you walk us through the process of sourcing ingredients for your dishes? Are there any unique challenges you face in procuring authentic Mexican ingredients in the UK?

We work with a few UK based suppliers who import Mexican chiles and dry goods such as spices and beans. Our biggest challenge was importing the corn for our masa and tortilla production. We wanted to use heirloom variety corn to create an exceptional tortilla and this meant importing ourselves through two companies that work with these small scale farmers all over Mexico. Importing anything carries a lot of risks though and we have had our share of issues with this. We are in a lucky position now that one of our suppliers Natoora has now begun working with Tamoa who source from these farms. It means that they now act as the middleman and import this for us which is a big weight off our shoulders. 

10. As an owner, what values or principles do you instil in your kitchen team to ensure consistency and excellence in the dishes served at Barrio Comida?

We have a list on our wall called “how we work” which we reference continually to keep the whole team on the right path. We work on rigorous training and document everything in recipe and spec sheets as well as daily service checks and quality “sign offs” for all prep done throughout the day. It’s a continuous thing that needs monitoring hour by hour every day.

11. Throughout your culinary journey, who have been your main sources of inspiration or role models? How have their philosophies or cooking styles influenced your approach to cuisine, especially in shaping the offerings at Barrio Comida?

When I was beginning cooking it was Jaques Pepin, Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse. These are the guys I really looked up to and saw as the pinnacle of being a successful chef. In reference to Mexican cuisine I have always looked up to Diana Kennedy and modern chefs such as Gabriela Camara and Enrique Olvera who trail blaze the modern Mexican kitchens. 

12. Lastly, looking back at your culinary journey, what advice would you offer to aspiring chefs aiming to establish their own unique culinary identity in a competitive industry?

I would say don’t rush it. Get a great base knowledge working in a very good restaurant and put in 4-5 years there, think of this as your “university” where you will learn to be part of a team and rise through the ranks as you develop. I think once you are in a position where you are making the creative decisions I wouldn’t worry too much about being so “different” as you will constantly change and develop throughout your entire career so lean into that and grow and change with how your feeling at the time.

1 word blitz:

1 single ingredient you can’t live without?

If you could only eat 1 dish for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Except yours, which restaurant is the best in the UK?
St John

The most unusual ingredient you/another chef you know ever used?
Worm salt

Globaltic charcoal: What's your take in one word?

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.