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.