Sometimes you meet people in life and you think ‘you’re a good egg, you are’, and that’s exactly how I felt when I met Thomasina Miers – Masterchef winner 2005 and founder of the well-loved Mexican restaurant chain, Wahaca.


Thomasina is quite the revolutionary; the pioneer behind bringing authentic Mexican food to the masses. And whilst Wahaca continues to grow, the values stay the same; quality Mexican food that’s accessible and affordable. We caught up with Thomasina at Macmillan Cancer’s Summer Lights launch, a new initiative that’s all about getting people together, and celebrating people that light up their life. There was guacamole, and things got deep:

So, Tommy, you won Masterchef in 2005, and you’re behind one of the hottest high-street chains in the UK. How has the journey been? 


Really fun. Crazy, madly busy. Wahaca is a place of firsts; we were the first restaurant in the UK to go carbon neutral, the first people to introduce Flypay, our payment app where you can pay without having to call down a waiter. We were the first people to put insects on the menu, we opened the first mezcal bar in London, and we are constantly having fun and driving innovation. We win awards every year – at the SRA we’ve won awards, three years running. We are one of the most sustainable and innovative restaurant groups, and we put on big festivals, like Day of the Dead last year.

What’s different about Wahaca?


We really believe in pushing boundaries, upsetting the standard model of what a chain restaurant should be and having fun with everything we do. We get artists to come down and paint graffiti on every single site, they get to do whatever they want, so every site looks different. We’re doing DF/Mexico now which is really fun. We have great staff and we’re really into training people. We have four head chefs who started off without a word of English, and we taught them English, taught them skills and now they’re super qualified head chefs. It’s really engaging.

When you first started Wahaca, did you ever think it would grow to be this big? 


It’s bonkers. The amazing thing about Wahaca is that if you look out how much we’ve grown, there were a lot of chains that opened up after our first site, like Cote, Byron and Jamie’s, they’re all much bigger than us now. Although it seems really fast on how we’ve grown, we’ve tried to be really careful on picking sites, and only really taking sites that we love, and that we think will work for us. So our growth has been quite sustained. For us, the food quality is so important, the experience, and the staff when you come in. That wow factor is very important to us.

You can now find Wahaca street food trucks on the Southbank. Are you think about launching more? 


Our whole menu is inspired by food from the markets and the streets. We’ve always been about street food. I love actual street food, passionately. I’m an investor in Street Feast and I think it’s an incredibly exciting area. When we opened Wahaca we always wanted to be this end of the market, and not the really high end. Apart from anything else, people had no conception of Mexican food when we first started. It was important that we started off with the basics. And actually, if you look at all the really fancy restaurants in Mexico City, some of which are in the San Pellegrino 50 best, all of their food is basically rooted in the streets, and they’ve elevated it into fancier ways of presenting the food. For me, street food is the most authentic, the most real. The great thing about Wahaca is that we’re still privately owned, we are the same people who own it as when we started. We’ve got great flexibility and there’s no blueprint to what we do – we chop and change quite a lot.

Do you think being a woman in the food industry has been a help or a hindrance? 


I think because of the way I came into the food industry, which was very circumlocutory and unconventional, I almost wasn’t even aware. I didn’t feel like my gender had any part to play as I basically did a cookery class, went to Mexico, researched Mexican food, came back did Masterchef, worked in a kitchen and learnt lots, and set up Wahaca. It was all pretty quick. It wasn’t like I had to battle for years against chauvinism, with men in kitchens going ‘you’re just a chick’. I think girls in kitchens these days give as good as they get. I think the only awkward thing for women who want a career in food is that the hours are hard to juggle with a young family. However, the hours can be flexible.

What advice would you give people who are interested in opening a food business?


I think the food industry has massive potential. I mean, the careers in food are extraordinary now. I’m so amazed we don’t get more education on working in the food industry. You get amazing flexibility, an incredibly diverse job, incredible job satisfaction, and you can be your own boss. I would say get as much experience as possible on the ground, learn as much as you can, and follow your dreams, follow your passions.

You’re the mastermind behind Fork to Fork Festival – what can people expect?


It’s a festival that celebrates great food. We’ve got a number of fantastic restaurants on board; Hoppers, Kitty Fishers, River Cafe, Muro, POLPO, Tom Aikens, and Jose Gonzalo. In fact, there will be thirty amazing restaurants from around London. Incredible chefs are coming, and we have two music stages, loads of kids activities, lots of traditional fairground attractions, like coconut shys. Dan Lywood is a local – he’s a DJ who’s organised the music stages and we have some really good bands. So last year, which was our first year, we had 3,500 people there and it was likened to a mini Glastonbury. Obviously, the food will be better. I can’t promise a two day bender, but it’s going to be absolutely amazing. It’s going to be great; we think around 5,000 people are going to attend this year.

Talk to me about cooking. What’s your first memory of food? 


Oh wow. I guess cooking with my mother. Basically, I was in the kitchen from a very early age, just at my mother’s side – learning how to make a white sauce, how to sweat onions. I think it was one of those things to try and be as close to her as possible and I was really interested in what she was doing. Much more interesting than playing with dolls.

Was it always Mexican cuisine that drew you?


That’s the thing that happened quite late. I cooked from the age of six, and then I lived in Shepherd’s Bush and visited all the Middle Eastern shops. You feel really close to a vibrant and strong food culture there; those incredible ingredients you get from the Middle Eastern grocers. I grew up with French, Italian and Spanish food, and Middle Eastern food was massive for me. I went to Mexico when I was 18, that’s when I first got there. Didn’t go back and live there and research the food until I was 28.


So I only really started learning properly about the food relatively recently. But it was just that no one was doing it. This crazy gap, not just in the UK, no one was doing Mexican anywhere in Europe, and anywhere in Australia. Basically, this massive culinary secret, this incredible food cuisine from a country that’s number 5 in terms of biodiversity, and has an incredible wealth of ingredients. And now talk to any British Chef; Isaac McHale, Jason Atherton, even Brett Graham, these guys are queueing up to go to Mexico, because the ingredients are so good. René Redzepi has now got a taqueria – people are genuinely fascinated and excited about the ingredients.

I love guacamole. What’s the secret to making the perfect guacamole?


For me, the secret is to get a good pestle and mortar. Mash up coriander root with your chilli, with a bit of lime and salt in the base of your pestle and mortar. After you’ve got this wonderful mush, with or without the garlic, do you then start folding in your and loosely ruffing up your avocado, and onion. It’s really important to get that base, an almost puree of coriander root, fresh lime and a bit of onion. That flavour will then weave itself through the guacamole.

What three ingredients are the foundation to a good Mexican dish?


Chillies, obviously. The perfect trio to Mexican food is; corn, beans and chillies, with those ingredients being fundamental. If you go to Mexico, it’s the freshest ingredients that leaps out at you. The freshest herbs and the freshest greens. I would definitely say chilli and beans are quite important and a great source of protein. And corn, get good corn. Oh, and fresh lime.

Let’s talk sugar, it’s big news at the moment. What has Wahaca done to implement reduce sugar consumption and help towards healthy eating?


We make all our own fresh juices, and serve a lot of filtered water. We make our own aqua fresco, which I don’t think as much sugar when you compare it to standard fizzy drinks. Our menu is mainly savoury, and we only really have a few puddings. People basically come for the savoury food, more than the puddings – that’s our biggest area in sales. The Fork to Fork Festival is all about raising money for the school building and the school garden that I’m building, where the children will learn about nutrition and will grow food on the garden. And Wahaca sponsors it, and anytime anyone buys a kids meal, we donate money to the garden project. Hopefully, it will become a national campaign. Wahaca is pretty committed to healthy eating. We have loads of vegetarian stuff on the menu on purpose, and we have some fairly good vegan dishes off menu. And the kids food is pretty healthy too. When you look at obesity, a lot of the problem is to do with fizzy drinks, I don’t think our clientele come and drink loads of coke.

There’s been a big shift towards special diets recently – how do you cater for vegans and coeliacs in Wahaca? 


We, naturally, have a pretty extensive gluten-free menu, as our tortillas are gluten-free. So that makes us quite a magnet for people who have gluten intolerances, which is great. I’ve always thought quite a lot about the environment, and so that’s why we have a menu which has a lot of choice for vegetarians. The vegan thing has exploded in the past four years, it really has. The number of people writing to us requesting vegan items has been phenomenal. We have a lot of dishes that we can adapt to make vegan.


A lot of our dishes naturally have cheese on, because that’s what happens in Mexico, but we’ve now woken up to the fact that people want vegan choice as well. It’s about staff training. It’s about allowing our staff to tweak this dish and tweak that dish. The pre-Hispanic diet is good for vegans as they use this trio of ingredients – chillies, bean and corn. That’s completely vegan. And then a lot of the fibre that comes from food in pre-Hispanic Mexico was from insects. I don’t know if veganism classifies insects as vegans or not, but insects are a great source of protein.

What place has inspired you the most? 


I actually just love any country that has a strong food culture. For me, travelling and exploring new countries is part of the joy of it; travelling to markets, enjoying the food. Especially places like India, China, Italy and Spain – anywhere that people love food. I love to travel and learn about new food, so they’re plenty of places.

Favourite place in London for breakfast…


I love Caravan – they do a great breakfast and it doesn’t let you down. Snaps and Rye is my local, and they do a brilliant Scandi breakfast. Amazing. Sensational breakfast. I like unconventional breakfasts, I like savoury – so I can pretty much eat anywhere for breakfast.

Favourite street food stalls… 


There’s the place on Columbia Road that serves the most incredible dim sum, where you drink the broth afterwards. Obviously Bao, before they opened their place. I mean, just sensational. I just love going to Dinerama and Street Feast and visiting all those incredible street food stalls. And also, those amazing Korean burritos from that lovely girl, Kimchinary. Kimchi, spicy rice hot sauce, and then slow cooked meats or aubergine in a burrito. It’s really good.

Favourite place for a coffee…

I love on Portobello Road, there’s Coffee Plant. In Soho you’re spoilt for choice – there’s so much great coffee spots. I do travel for coffee, I have at least one a day; I like to make it a good one.

Favourite restaurant… 


The River Cafe. Always delicious. Again, Bocca di Lupo another Italian – love it. Pretty old school these places. Trishna, also really good.

Thomasina Miers is supporting Macmillan Cancer Support’s new ‘Summer Lights’ fundraiser, which asks people to celebrate the loved ones that light up their life and raise money to help ensure that no one faces cancer alone. Visit their website here . All food photo credits belong to the restaurants. Thomasina Miers headshot credits: Tara Fisher – 2015.