Thomasina Miers… some like it hot
Thomasina Miers won the first ever series of MasterChef, but it was her love of Mexico that spurred her on to launch Wahaca, the hugely popular chain of street food eateries. She tells Compass editor Jennifer Cox, why Mexican cuisine doesn’t deserve its bad rap.
With her range of chilli sauces in the supermarkets, and now a total 13 branches of Wahaca in London – it’s hard to imagine the busy restaurateur, food columnist and chef-blogger Thomasina Tommi Miers has time to eat, let alone write a plethora of cook books: Mexican Food Made Simple (2010), Mexican Food At Home (2012), and Chilli Notes: Recipes to Warm the Heart (Not Burn the Tongue) (2014).
Jennifer Cox: How do you do it?
Thomasina Miers: I am constantly running around and I am reliant on good food to fuel me. If you eat a lot of processed foods you lose that connection with the way food affects you. Not that I don’t love things from the deep fat fryer mind, but if you’re constantly eating junk food, you forget what feeling good and having loads of energy is like.
JC: It’s interesting to hear you speak so passionately about healthy eating, as most of us don’t think of Mexican food as being particularly healthy.
TM: That’s what I found incredible when I discovered proper Mexican food: I realised the food I had been eating all those years – beans refried in lard, lots of cheese and cream – was TexMex. It robbed Mexican cuisine of its name. When you actually visit the country you eat incredibly healthily, as Mexico is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world: home of the tomato, courgette, pumpkin, avocado, the fresh chilli … all this incredible fresh produce and flavour.
JC: How did you become such a Mexiphile?
TM: I went on a gap year and ate everything. Mexico is like Italy: the food is incredibly regional and the more I travelled, the more I learned and loved it. I came back to London excited, thinking I was going to eat tacos – which aren’t hard fried shells, but soft white corn that tastes fresh and healthy – and was shocked to find they didn’t exist here. I lived on memories for seven or eight years until 2004, when a friend launched a huge restaurant in Mexico City: I went back and opened a cocktail bar for them.
JC: How did you get from Mexico City to MasterChef?
TM: I came back to London aged 29, heavily in debt and trying to work out what I was going to do with my life. Then I saw a small ad in a foodie magazine for MasterChef. It seems like fate when I look back on it now: I rang just in time to get into the last round of auditions, just made the last train to London…
JC: And you won, making a kind of escabeche: grilled aubergine with fresh mint, roasted garlic, red chilli and spices. How did you find the experience: fighting through each round, dealing with Gregg Wallace and John Torode?
TM: It was absolutely terrifying and totally nerve-wracking; the sheer pressure was immense. But you learn a huge amount. In fact, I’m almost jealous of the competitors today: they get coached and mentored by top chefs. MasterChef was tiny when I did it in 2005, on BBC2 at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon.
JC: It sounds as if the experience forced you to focus on your abilities, confront your desire to be a chef?
TM: MasterChef changes your life. It doesn’t wave a magic wand and give you your life on a plate, but what it does do is give you confidence. I’d been involved in the food industry for years, but through running shops and market stalls: I would never have opened Wahaca without John and Greg, without MasterChef.
JC: You opened the first branch – named after Oaxaca, Mexico’s cultural-foodie capital – in Covent Garden in 2007. Did Greg and John come and judge your cooking?
TM: Yes. I was on the pass [the section between the cooking and eating areas] running this massively busy restaurant, when in they strolled, grinning and said: “Alright Tommi”. They’re great, they stay in touch with all of us. They’re like Jamie Oliver, inspiring generations of people to get in the kitchen and cook.
JC: What was the idea behind Wahaca?
TM: I was determined to show people real Mexican food. It’s a nation of people who love to cook and love to eat. There’s lots of poverty, but people still cook really beautiful food, and that resonated with me. I think that’s the worst side of this country now: we no longer cook food, as we think there’s no time. But it’s much cheaper to cook from scratch, and healthier and more fun. I don’t believe that I can’t afford to eat well, or I don’t have time to eat well, because it’s about making time: if you have time to watch reality television for an hour a day, you have time to cook.
JC: Is that what you meant when you said you saw yourself as a modern-day Mrs Beeton?
TM: In countries like Mexico, most people know where the food on their plate comes from as they are at the coal face of producing it. In this country, we think our food comes from the supermarket or from the microwave and that makes us incredibly wasteful. My grandparents would have never thrown food away: they had a Sunday roast, it was leftovers on Monday, and the bones were used for soup or stock. I never, ever, throw away bones: it takes no more than five minutes to throw them in some water, with carrots and an onion, to make stock. And when I come home tired from work and need to put some food on the table for my husband and daughter, I put frozen peas in the stock, boil some rice, or add some black beans, and there’s a completely delicious meal. And that’s the Mrs Beeton thing: we have lost that aspect of household management. I know my kitchen works as I always have some grains, I always have some tins and I always have some stock in the freezer.
JC: Do you look at the current street food culture wryly and think you were five years ahead of the game?
TM: No. I think it’s really exciting and fun. Street food is food of the people: it’s how and what local people are cooking around the world. Whether you go to India, Mexico or Peru, street food is the basis for their national dishes. Ask any Michelin-starred chef and they will tell you that they are inspired by regional street cuisine. It’s the egalitarian nature of food and it makes cooking fun for everyone.
Thomasina Miers’ last book Wahaca – Mexican Food at Home was published 21 June 2012 (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)
Her latest book Chilli Notes: Recipes to Warm the Heart (Not Burn the Tongue) was recently released in May 2014 (£25, Hodder & Stoughton)
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