Words by Florence Robson
Thomasina Miers discovered Mexico aged 18 and the country and its food made a huge impact on her. After training at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, Ireland, Thomasina returned to Mexico and explored the country through its incredible food and drink, learning about regional ingredients and styles of cooking.
Returning to London she appeared in, and won, BBC’s MasterChef in 2005 and then went on to work at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond. In 2007, she partnered with friend Mark Selby to launch Wahaca, with an aim to bring the vibrant, fresh flavours of Mexico to London. Over the last decade, the restaurant group has gone from strength to strength and now boasts restaurants across London and the UK, as well as sister brand DF/Mexico .
Thomasina is the co-editor of Soup Kitchen and the author of Cook, Wild Gourmets, Mexican Food Made Simple, Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home and most recently, Home Cook. Thomasina also currently writes the ‘Weekend Cook’ recipe column in the Saturday Guardian magazine.
You say on your website that you learned to cook at your mother’s side. How have the women in your family influenced your professional journey?
I grew up with simple but delicious food. My mother worked part-time when we were growing up but she was a real homebody. She taught me how to cook with a very instinctive style. We didn’t have very much money so she used quite standard ingredients, but she shopped seasonally. If artichokes were in season, for example, it was a cheap supper to feed everyone (artichokes were about 40p in those days) but it was always delicious. She’d do a burnt butter and then we’d have fresh brown bread to mop up the butter at the end after we’d eaten the artichoke hearts.
One of our Saturday rituals was BLTs, but my mother would buy the bacon from the butcher in Wales where my grandmother lived and it would be really thin cut, streaky and crispy. Then she would do a tomato salad but seasoned with salt, pepper, brown sugar and a bit of olive oil, and then she would toss all the iceberg lettuce in mayonnaise and she’d put it all out on the table so that everyone could make their own BLTs. Food was just really fun and engaging.
There was a background of mental illness running through my family and a general air of worry, so it wasn’t a particularly relaxed childhood and yet the comfort of really delicious, nurturing food was key.
Were the rest of your family foodies too?
One of my grandmothers was a model and had been really glamorous in her heyday. She also loved to eat. She had cream with everything, including her coffee; she layered her toast with butter. When Mars Bar ice creams had just come out, she bought us a pack, but she tried one to see what they were like and loved them so much that she finished the whole packet! She took a brisk walk every day for an hour and did yoga every day until she was 88, so she was really active, but loved food.
I was brought up with a seasonal, unfussy style of eating, but always for pleasure and with common sense. What’s so refreshing about my upbringing is that I was taught that you can eat what you want as long as it’s in moderation. Cream is good for you; butter is good for you; you can eat an ice cream. Denial doesn’t work.
The association of food and guilt is really troubling.
Gosh, it’s toxic. I had it in my teens and it is a guilt thing. Women particularly give themselves such a hard time. I feel that women really put themselves under a lot of pressure to be perfect in every aspect of their lives and it’s an impossible thing to achieve.
Did you always know you wanted to work in the food industry?
I never thought that I could be a cook for a living. I went to a very academic school and I was really good at maths. My father, having failed to make much money himself, wanted me to be a banker or an accountant.
In my early twenties I suffered with depression and then I tried lots of different careers, from marketing to digital strategy to financial journalism, and I just couldn’t make any of them work. I was going from one to another and I wasn’t interested in any of it. I started feeling like I was useless and good for nothing – but when you’re at school or in your twenties, how on earth are you supposed to know what you’re going to do with your life? As we discover when we grow up, life is a journey – it’s an accidental path you go on.
How did you finally gain the confidence to pursue your passion?
I was in a catwalk show with chef Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the Two Fat Ladies, and I loved her – I watched her programme and owned her cookbook. We were having our makeup done next door to each other and I asked her for advice. She was really kind and she took me under her wing and gave me quite a lot of support. When she discovered that I loved food, she phoned Darina Allen from Ballymaloe Cookery School and bumped me to the top of the waiting list for the course. Someone dropped out at the very last minute and so, six weeks after meeting Clarissa, I was on my way to Ireland to go to cookery school, where suddenly everything started to make sense.
It took a long time after that and there were false steps, but there was a huge sense of relief that I was finally doing what I loved. That was a major moment for me.
Clarissa Dickson Wright was clearly a hugely influential woman in your life. Are there any other female role models or mentors that have been invaluable sources of support?
Clarissa was wonderful and immensely generous with her time. So was Prue Leith. I met Prue’s son at a dinner party and we talked about food endlessly. At the end of the party, someone said to me, ‘you do know his mother is Prue Leith?’ I was so embarrassed!
It took months to get a twenty-minute window with her, but I’d say this to young people: it’s so good to talk to people and ask advice. You might cringe and be afraid of wasting people’s time or get tongue-tied, but it’s so helpful to speak to adults who aren’t your parents. Parents often don’t give the best advice because they’re too close to their children. It’s important to be able to talk to an adult who’s not in your direct family.
Your career has so much variety – you run a business, create new recipes, write for The Guardian Feast and other publications… What’s your favourite part of working in food?
What I really love, and what I learned from Ballymaloe, is the whole story of food. What’s the environmental impact of food – how is it grown, picked, transferred from A to B? How do we feed the world? How do we promote soil fertility? What about food waste? I learned really early that food touches every aspect of our lives and that’s what I find so fulfilling about it. I do love the writing as well.
From sustainability to food education, you’re clearly driven to leave the planet better than you found it. How do you balance those values with the day to day of running a business?
I was really lucky when I met my business partner. There was a huge gap in the market for Mexican food, but I was slightly tortured about the food miles involved in things like flying chillies over. I started talking to him about it and, to his credit, he really took it all on board. Wahaca was one of the first restaurants in London to compost waste, to go carbon neutral, to have zero landfill… Those are all things that my business partner took and ran with, and we built it into our business model.
I grew up at school being taught about things like the rainforest being cut down and when you’re young you presume that the people in charge will do something about it, but when you grow up you realise that’s often not the case. Campaigners and charity workers do fantastic work but, for me, there’s a lot of power in what enterprise can do. If you can weave sustainability into your business model, it’s incredibly powerful and makes a direct impact. If you have a voice, why not try? I wouldn’t feel good if I was just focused on making money.
You set up Fork to Fork Festival with fellow food professional Laura Harper-Hinton, which takes places at ARK Franklin Primary school in London. Tell us about the festival and the purpose behind it.
Fork to Fork was about getting kids outside and valuing outdoor spaces because research shows that if a kid grows up in a city without access to green spaces (and, by the way, our children have less access to green spaces than prisoners do, which is extraordinary) then they don’t then value it.
Laura and I approached Ark Franklin Primary school because they have an incredible area of land and, from the word go, they were so open to what we wanted to do. We created a school garden and the festival became a fundraising scheme for it.
The 2018 Fork to Fork festival took place in June and we raised nearly £77,000 in six hours. The chef community is incredibly generous. Right now there’s a perfect storm of really high rent, punishing rates and living wage, which is putting a lot of pressure on most restaurants, and yet most people in the industry will bend over backwards for a good cause. We had nearly forty amazing restaurants come and donate their time and their food. It was amazing.
How has being a woman affected your experience as a professional chef?
I came out of school thinking there was no separation between what I could do and what a man could do. It wasn’t actually until after I got married and had children that I started working out how things are stacked against you as a woman. In this country, for example, the cost of childcare is a scandal. I know people who couldn’t afford to go back to work and that seems a crazy brain drain. We need to boost our economy in the face of Brexit, yet we’re losing all these bright women.
In terms of restaurants specifically, I never faced anything problematic - but then I set up my own business early on so I was my own boss, which is a brilliant way to get around it! I actually regretted not spending more time working my way through restaurants; I spent six months with Skye Gyngell, which was my only proper training, and I wish I’d done more years.
Did working with a female chef boost your confidence in terms of setting up your business so quickly?
When I worked for Skye, it was an all-female kitchen. Those women taught me how to make a plate of food look stunning, using vegetables we grew in the garden. When I did MasterChef, it was incredibly cheffy and the prize for winning was to go and work for three months unpaid at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche, which would have been a completely different experience! Working with Skye was very creative. It made me realise that you can find your own style of food.
If your teenage self could see your life now, what do you think she would be most surprised by?
Probably my confidence. Growing up I always lacked confidence. When I was sixteen I would think ‘no way would I do that!’ but I do so many different things now and I think every time you do something that scares you it makes it easier to do the next thing.
What advice would you give to girls and young women as they consider their future?
Keep following your gut, because it’s an incredibly powerful tool. Not everyone can love their job all the time, but you definitely need to be doing work that you’re skilled in or suited to, and your gut can help with that.
It’s very easy as a teenager to look at people who have already got where they are and think ‘how on earth did they do that?’ What you don’t see is the years of hard work that got people to that place. Once you realise that anyone who’s anywhere probably spent at least ten years working really hard in that field, it makes you realise that you can get there if you work hard too.
Life is quite tough and times it can seem overwhelming. But if you keep following your heart and your instinct, things do happen. You just have to have faith and keep plugging away and you will get there in the end.
To keep up with Thomasina's news, follow her on Twitter.
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