Our columnist talks to the former BBC MasterChef winner about popularising Mexican food and receiving an OBE for her services to the food industry.
Thomasina Miers arrives at my house with her three daughters. It’s a rare day away from the restaurants but her kids have a day off school, so she’s multi-tasking and it’s chaos in the nicest way. I feed them muffins, introduce them to our dog, cats and tortoise, and park the children in the garden so I can lure Tommi into my kitchen. We make her legendary cheat’s ravioli and drink too much coffee.
EF: Thirteen years ago, at the age of 29, you were the first winner of MasterChef – now you run nearly 30 restaurants, and have just been made an OBE. How has all this success changed you?
TM: Am I successful? I feel like I’m only really starting. But regardless of anyone’s definition of success, juggling being a wife, a mother and running a household with a full-time job is completely ludicrous. When I’m exhausted and think ‘why aren’t I still going out dancing?’, I tell myself that I’ve got a long life. My grandmother was a model and I remember her 80th – she danced to a steel band and drank whisky sours until 4am.
EF: My mum is 92 and is still on the dance floor, too – I’ve always assumed my best decade will be my 8th.
TM: We’ll just get more and more outrageous and won’t have to worry about what anyone thinks, ever.
EF: I enjoyed reading that the motto from your secondary school was: ‘Learn to think, not cook.’ You clearly didn’t take that very seriously.
TM: Yes, I know! Food is the key to the planet, and will be the key to our extinction, but a lot of people don’t get that, including whoever wrote that motto. There’s such a big disconnect between us and the food we eat. I’m really interested in the big environmental story.
EF: When I first met you, you were campaigning to change what pigs eat. Are you still?
TM: Very much. For the last 5,000 years, pigs have eaten swill (food waste that’s been heated up to kill any bacteria). When foot-and-mouth disease happened, politicians panicked and banned the swill industry across Europe. So instead of eating food waste, pigs now eat soy, which is grown in the Amazon basin once they’ve cut down some rainforest to make room for the soy plants. Rainforests are a climate leveller, so cutting them down can lead to flooding and droughts. We’ve known this for decades. We’re at a tipping point and politicians still aren’t taking action.
EF: What needs to be done?
TM: There needs to be a reverse on the ban of swill – it’s such a quick win because it would have an immediate impact on the rainforest deforestation.
EF: Some people have causes they’re prepared to give an afternoon to, but the fight for sustainability is deeper than that for you, isn’t it? It’s under your skin, it’s who you are.
TM: I remember at six years old thinking ‘What about the planet? What’s everyone doing about it?’ I’m a natural worrier, but whether we survive rests so much on how we grow food. The way we toil our land is deeply unsustainable – if we cut down too many trees, and our population continues to increase, the land will basically no longer be able to feed us.
EF: Does the real solution rest with the politicians?
TM: Yes and no. It’s so overwhelming that it’s tempting to just eat a Mars Bar and forget about it. But three times a day we’ve got the power to make a positive impact on the planet and our health simply by what we buy and eat.
EF: How seriously do you take sustainability at Wahaca?
TM: When we began, we recycled all our building materials to refurbish the site. Then we started regenerating the energy from the fridges to heat the water. We crushed our glass and recycled it, and we have a 10-year working relationship with the Marine Stewardship Council on sourcing fish that aren’t endangered – which can be annoying, like never being able to use tuna or octopus – but it’s also great.
EF: Are you trying to be plastic-free too? Do you use those blue plastic gloves?
TM: Yes, and I loathe them. The problem is that after the norovirus outbreak [at Wahaca in 2016], everyone got so paranoid. I mean, if you wash your hands, what’s the difference? But we’re the first restaurant group to be completely carbon neutral. And we were one of the first restaurants in the UK to compost our food waste, so we’re becoming zero landfill as well.
EF: Has Wahaca been enjoyable to run?
TM: At the beginning, it wasn’t easy. I’ve always loved Mexican food, but it had a dodgy reputation. I had so many friends who thought Mexican food was horrible.
EF: You’ve been such a key part of changing that.
TM: We worked like maniacs. And it’s been amazing. But there’s so much more to do. Aside from Wahaca, I helped establish Chefs in Schools. It puts restaurant chefs into school kitchens. We’ve got three primary schools in East London that have started it and feed their children with freshly cooked food at 50p per pupil less than the big contract caterers. With one chef and a small team of cooks, you can transform the way that 650 young people think about their lunch and where it comes from.
EF: But if you’re using restaurant chefs, don’t you have to pay them more?
TM: Yes, but what we save on food, we put into wages.
We start to assemble Tommi’s cheat’s ravioli. We cook lasagne sheets, cut them in half and layer a goat’s cheese filling in-between, with a pesto sauce puddled on top.
EF: This is so clever. Did you invent it or steal it?
TM: As far as I know I created the cheat’s part – I’ve been cutting up lasagne sheets for a while. I used to live with The River Café’s head chef, Joe Trivelli, and developed this passion for pasta, but I was just a bit lazy.
EF: I will never make anything else.
TM: And it’s so quick – leaves more time for the mezcal.
EF: That’s the thing, you’re an eco warrior, an amazing mother, a game-changing restaurant owner and yet I feel that at the bottom of it, you’re just a girl looking for more ways to drink tequila.
TM: You’re right! As long as I have a bottle of tequila and a dance floor, I’m happy.
Try Thomasina's recipe for ravioli with walnuts, goat’s cheese & cavolo nero sauce.
Read more articles by Emma Freud...
Recipe adapted from Home Cook by Thomasina Miers (£25, Guardian Books).
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.