The secret to tapas is the ingredients,” says Alfonso Yufera-Ruiz.

“They have to be good quality and if you’re cooking Spanish tapas the ingredients absolutely have to be from Spain – that’s where you get the flavour – and it has to be cooked in the authentic way.”

Alfonso (“Fonzie” to his friends) should know. With wife and business partner Emma, he has opened three successful tapas restaurants in the Midlands, launched a limited company to source and supply authentic tapas and won his Sutton restaurant, Don Diego, a prized place in the Michelin Guide.

But the couple, who met at Edgbaston’s Michelin-starred Simpsons restaurant, have had to plough their passion into their work to win their success.

Emma’s love affair with restaurants began as a 25 year-old working Saturday shifts front-of-house.

She had moved to Birmingham to take a degree in tourism at Birmingham College of Food (now UCB), hoping to go into hotel management, and got the part-time job to keep herself afloat.

But after a year of Saturdays at Simpsons, Emma was gripped by restaurant management.

She says: “Hotels are often used by corporate people staying overnight because they have a meeting the next day, so a Novotel bedroom isn’t necessarily a special occasion, whereas for 95 per cent of customers a meal at Simpsons is always a special occasion. It felt exciting that I was a little part of that.

“I liked watching people ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ over the food.”

Emma not only changed her career path at Simpsons, but met her future husband, Fonzie, the restaurant’s assistant manager.

Hailing from Gran Canaria’s Las Palmas island, Fonzie left at the age of 12 for boarding school in Madrid.

On finishing, he spent three years at catering college and worked as an apprentice in hotels and restaurants. Then, in 1999, he came to the UK to work in a Spanish restaurant in Manchester.

Coming to the Midlands to further his kitchen skills and his English with an NVQ in catering, he went on to work at Billesley Manor and Nailcote Hall before becoming restaurant manager at The Manor Hotel in Meriden, where, on his day off, he began working for Andreas Antona at Simpsons.

Don Diego in Sutton Coldfield.
Don Diego in Sutton Coldfield.
 

When Fonzie and Emma decided to move on together they were approached by a chef opening his own restaurant in Cambridge (the now Michelin-starred Alimentum) who wanted staff with experience in Michelin-standard service.

Emma says: “We were there watching a restaurant being opened by a new team that didn’t know each other well and it was a really interesting experience.

“All the time we were having those typical conversations a couple might have, saying ‘If it was my place I would do this or if we had our own place we might try this differently’.

“This conversation kept repeating every single day and on our Sunday off, when Fonzie would always cook for us at home, we finally decided we had to scratch the itch.”

Coming back to Birmingham in 2008, where they had already made key contacts, they found the restaurant scene was coming into full bloom.

“It was a really exciting time,” says Emma, “Richard Turner had just opened his own place and Lasan was getting lots of nods.

But, unable to find a venue in Birmingham, the couple settled for a place in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, near Emma’s hometown of Newport, opening their first restaurant, Casa Ruiz.

“At the viewing the tables were still laid and I don’t think anyone had been there for two years,” recalls Emma.

“The washing up was still in the sink. Wine was still in the glasses. Spirits were still on the bar.

“They had clearly done a Saturday night service, unplugged and disappeared.

“So we got all those tables and chairs for free.

“We spent £5,000 on legal fees, a deposit and six months rent and we just walked in.

“Then we had to scrub and scrub and scrub, Alfonso and I, together. This is where the romance really started!”

Next came Casa Naranjo in Shrewsbury, in 2010, just two months before the couple celebrated their first born, Alfie.

Running two restaurants 40 miles from home and caring for a newborn baby with another on the way didn’t dampen their ambitions as they continued to search for a third venue closer to Birmingham.

After an unsuccessful offer on a city centre building, the pair found the perfect venue in Sutton Coldfield.

In February 2012 Don Diego was opened, just three months before baby Javier arrived.

Emma says: “The customers here have been wonderful. There was real excitement that we’d opened and we had a lot of interest.”

But the enterprise has been buoyed by the Michelin Guide, receiving a listing – the first for a Sutton venue – just six months after opening and retaining its place in 2013 and 2014.

Passing on their passion, their first enterprise, Casa Ruiz, is now owned by a restaurateur who started out working there as a waitress – Emma and Fonzie’s very first employee.

And after launching Don Diego they formed their own limited company, The Authentic Tapas Group, to source and buy Spanish produce to supply their restaurants, including jamon iberico from a black pig which eats only acorns from a specific area, and cheeses such as extremadura sheep’s cheese, zamorano manchego, and crema de oveja, a cream cheese that’s like liquid and eaten with a spoon.

Emma’s eyes light up when she talks about la cabra del berrocal tintorro, a goat’s cheese marinated in red wine, staining the outside purple while the inside stays creamy and she melts at the mention of manzanilla olives.

“For me,” she adds, “tapas is a way of eating.

“There’s no pressure. You go out as a group and there’s no pressure for anyone to eat the same thing or the same amount as anyone else at the table.

“Vegetarians don’t have to pick the one vegetarian choice on the menu because there’s a selection and everyone can share.

“It’s a really inclusive way of eating and it’s relaxed.

“I also think it can be quite romantic. There’s something about sharing food and eating with your fingers.”

Fonzie adds: “With tapas you’re dealing with a small number of ingredients but they have to be excellent quality.

“You’ve got to give a lot of love to the food and you’ve got to have real respect for your ingredients.

“Ultimately,” he says, “we want to offer Simpsons quality but with a relaxed dining ethos, and accessible to all.”

The Birmingham Post has launched a free app for iPad and iPhone.  Download it here.