Megan Abbott

THOMASINA MIERS

Megan Abbott
THOMASINA MIERS

London’s new army of taco lovers have a lot to thank Thomasina Miers for. When she opened the first Wahaca back in 2010, it was almost impossible to find genuine Mexican flavours in the capital, with most people’s impressions of the cuisine confined to spitting skillets of fajita chicken, grated cheese, tinned refried beans and sour cream. After visiting Mexico for the first time aged eighteen, Thomasina fell in love with the big, bold, colourful flavours of its food, from the fine dining hotspots of Mexico City to the family recipes that bolster its rural regions. “Mexico City is a melting pot of street food and fine dining.” Tommi (she said we could call her that) tells us. “But as soon as you get out into the sticks, you can go and be on someone’s farm where they do everything themselves. They’ll literally pick, grind and cook the corn right in front of you. I kept coming back to London and thinking, ‘someone’s got to start doing proper Mexican food here.’” 

Like a lot of our favourite cooks, Tommi sifted through plenty of unsuitable jobs before she arrived at food. “My parents wanted me to become an accountant. Which was miserable.” She explains. “I spent a lot of my twenties trying to find a career. I tried consultancy, then fashion. I was quite depressed about it all, it just wasn’t for me.” 

It wasn’t until she found herself on a catwalk with food icon Clarissa Dixon-Wright (“I was wearing a Barbour bikini, she was wearing a Barbour coat”) that Tommi was convinced to make a go of cooking, a passion she’d kept close to her heart since she was a child, when she’d stand obsessively by her mother’s side in the kitchen. “I really was a mother’s girl, so I always cooked with her.” She remembers. “She was the master of just throwing stuff in a pan. She always bought cheap cuts of meat and whatever ingredients she could feed us with. And that usually meant seasonal. That’s how I started cooking, really.” With a little help from her new friend, Tommi found herself on the waiting list for Ballymaloe Cookery School. “It was amazing. Intense, but amazing.” She remembers. “I learnt a lot about seasonal cooking and produce there. I quickly realised I was doing exactly the right thing."

After that, with her eyes very firmly on a career in food, she spent three months on Gubeen Cheese Farm in West Cork. And by night, she was baking sourdough to sell at local weekend markets. “It was really fun. But I was completely broke. I had to start looking for ways to make some money.” She says. “I went and had a drink with Sam Hart (of Barrafina fame). He and his friend were about to launch a cocktail bar in Mexico City, so I went and opened it for them.”

Mexico͛'s cuisine is as vast and layered as its landscape – a breadth of mountains, deserts and beaches brimming with wild foods. It is a light and zesty cuisine, centred around core indigenous ingredients like avocado, corn, bitter chocolate, chilli and citrus fruits. Street food is at the heart of it all, with locals visiting stalls and roadside trucks at least once a day to feast on beef tongue or fresh fish tacos, chopped corn, tamales (meats wrapped in stretchy dough and served in a banana leaf), hearty soups, stewed meats and fresh fruits, all washed down with smoky mezcal, cola sweetened with cane sugar or ice cold agua fresca (fruity water). These are the flavours that coloured Tommi’s time in the country - ones that the UK had been unfamiliar with for far too long. 

In 2005, Tommi won Masterchef, bewitching the judges with her colourful, confident cooking. She went on to present a series of cookery shows for Channel 4 and penned her first solo cookbook, Cook: Seasonal Recipes for Hungry People. The first Wahaca opened its doors in the summer of 2007, gifting West London with the eye-popping flavours of Mexican street food: succulent pork pibil tacos (still some of the best in London); jalapeño-spiked black bean soup with house-made corn tortillas; corn and guacamole tostadas and lashings of smoky mezcal. Londoners lapped up these bright new flavours, and the second branch opened soon after. 

This year, Wahaca will open its twenty-seventh site. In the years following its smash-hit success, London seems to have got quite the appetite for Mexican flavours, with taquerias spreading like wild fire across the city. Which, for two people that almost missed a flight home because of a particularly good taco truck in Austin, can only be a good thing. It’s fair to say that Wahaca is still the standard-bearer of Mexican street food in London, yet Tommi refuses to let the place rest on its laurels. Retaining its spirit – and evolving its food – is a constant priority. “I never thought it would be this huge.” She says. “I’m quite scared of size - I eat at tiny places where there’s only one of them. Because we’re a chain, people tend to think the quality goes down. But we really try hard. We take our chefs to Mexico, and we’re always working on the menu. I don’t want hundreds of sites. I want to make sure we keep improving.” 

We’re here for lunch at Tommi’s house, where my eye keeps wandering towards the back wall, which is dotted with charcoal drawings and paintings by the artist Craig Hanna – who once lived with Tommi’s husband and gave a painting a month in place of rent. Her kitchen is one of those big, busy family hubs, brimming with life. The shelves are full of dog-eared cookbooks (her collection spills over into the landing and her bedroom, where she does most of her writing), the cupboards are crammed with jars and old silver tins, the island in the middle is surrounded by stools, which her four-year-old daughter Ottilie clambers up and down from today. The room is littered with relics of her time is Mexico, while the space itself was put together by her dad, a furniture designer. 

She has just released a new book, Home Cook, a collection of nostalgic family recipes, easy weekday suppers and recipes for last minute dinner parties: sprout, anchovy and pine nut pasta; beef rendang with cucumber relish; Vietnamese crab pancakes; Mexican crab mayo; upside-down rhubarb cake. It also includes a section entitled ‘a few things on toast’, of which we are massive fans. “After Masterchef I felt like I had to be really cheff-y, and I tried to be really clever with my food.” She tells us, as we pick from a bowl of garlicky leftover Jerusalem artichokes.”But now I have three children and I work all day, so my style has changed. As a recipe writer, I think the worst thing you can do is intimidate people. It’s about keeping things simple but still have fun with cooking.” 

The book is inspired by the work of Mrs Beeton, whose Household Management (published in the long hot summer of 1861) is one of the most iconic food books of all time. “Mrs Beeton was in to household management. Which sounds really dull.” Tommi explains, opening the wooden door of her larder. “But the point is, just organise your kitchen a bit and you will always have the building blocks of good cooking.” The shelves groan from floor to ceiling with jars, tins and Tupperware. There are homemade jams, chutneys, pastry, vinegars, baking essentials, ferments, giant vessels of salad dressing, with that dark, musky scent reminiscent of ever pantry you’ve ever stepped in to. The whole picture is complete with a very questionable laminated shopping bag on wheels. “That’s one of my best purchases ever.” She laughs.  

Today, Tommi hands us a cup of coffee and gets to work on lunch. She seems to produce it from thin air, zipping round the kitchen in a pair of her granny’s high-waisted jeans. “I have the coolest granny.” She says. “I inherited loads of her old designer clothes.” 

Dressing the table with coloured glasses - picked up in Mexico - and a few bowls, Tommi ushers us to the table. We eat purple sprouting broccoli on toast, crumbled with ricotta and a homemade tahini and chipotle sauce which I want to take a straw to. She serves it with a bowl of sweet, sunny yellow and red tomatoes. She does a quick loop of the garden, plucking a few bits of greenery, and returns with a bowl of leafy salad jewelled with pickled raspberries. She hands us tankards of cold, creamy stout to go along with it all, and pulls a tray of spiced, nutty breakfast muffins out of the oven. To her daughter’s delight. “These are great.” She says. “I like starting the day slightly healthily. I spend my life testing and tasting food, so I can be eating for the rest of the day.” We all stiffen up slightly at the mention of health. What does she think of the current health food craze, with the whole of London drowning under the weight of chia seeds? “I hate all of that.” She says firmly. “It’s all a bit ridiculous, really. The less processed food, the better. With food, it’s about putting in, not cutting out. My version of ‘healthy eating’ is just to cook a bit. If you cook a bit, that’s healthy. You know those days that you’re feeling really rubbish, and all you want to do is eat crap food?” We nod. “You have to say to yourself, ‘right, I’m going to throw some onions in a pan and see what happens.'”

With Mrs Beeton’s sturdy Victorian pearls of wisdom close at hand, Tommi’s latest book contains over 300 recipes, with leftovers, homemade preserves and seasonal produce providing the scaffolding. And while the notion of ‘household management’ threatens to shame our tragically empty fridge at home, Tommi’s approach to kitchen organisation is refreshingly light-hearted. “I’m the scattiest, least ordered person in the whole world. Nothing is ever planned.” She says. “But I love having people round to eat – I love cooking, I love food. People coming to eat with you is one of life’s greatest pleasures. By always having the basics at home, I can have a dinner party tonight for 20 people.” She swings open her freezer for us to peer in to. “It’s chock-a-block.” She says. There is frozen sourdough, double cream, homemade soup, stock, cod's roe, Thai green fish curry, homemade ice cream. All homemade, all ready to go in the oven when spur of the moment dinner plans are made. 

She sends us home with the rest of the muffins and some advice on the best places to find fish tacos if we ever find ourselves in Oaxaca. That night, we open up Home Cook and rustle up a bowl of crispy aubergine with udon noodles, spring onions, ginger and brown sugar. The recipe is simple enough, uses (most) of the things in our cupboards, and is mouth-wateringly delicious. It sums up Tommi’s newfound cooking ethos – simple, homely, approachable, but always creative. It encompasses her skill and accessibility as a cook, qualities that have made her one of the country's best known food writers and the owner of one of its most successful restaurant chains. “It’s just about feeding yourself.” Tommi tells us. “My philosophy is to celebrate food every day. Eating well is about saying yes to everything, eating lots of cream and butter and good bread, and cooking for yourself. Just cook, and see what happens.”