Spice up your life: Thomasina Miers reveals how to tackle tacos - and more - at home

Thomasina Miers brought authentic Mexican food to the masses. Matilda Battersby meets her.

Thomasina Miers arrives for our interview at Soho Wahaca, says hello and then puts a hand to her face and groans, explaining in her trademark clipped English accent that she'd forgotten we were sending a photographer to take her portrait. Gesturing embarrassedly at her (perfectly elegant) jeans and grey jumper, she dashes off to the loo to hastily apply some mascara.

Running six restaurants, having a one-year-old daughter, writing cookery books, being on telly and establishing a new pop-up restaurant ("It's called Experiment because it is one") on London's South Bank is evidently as knackering as it sounds.

The 2005 MasterChef winner, known to her friends as "Tommi", appears to be running on empty, sipping gratefully at green tea and stifling yawns, while still (somehow) managing to convey the enthusiasm for Mexican cooking that has led her to establish her empire and become a major foodie name.

"After years of feeling bored with my life I felt suddenly happy and terrified," she says, describing the crazy early days opening the first Wahaca, which she and business partner Mark Selby established five years ago.

Wahaca has since become a fresh and vibrant part of the London eating landscape, notching up handfuls of awards and changing the perception of Mexican food from refried cheesy stodge to zesty, colourful melt-in-the-mouth quesadillas, ceviches, tostadas, moles and other chilli-infused delights. "Setting up a business like this is all-consuming, like having a child. We really didn't know what we were doing at first. I believe the only reason we survived was because our team was so passionate. We sweated blood and tears in those first couple of years," she says.

Before finding out that she could cook for a living ("which took me ages to work out") Miers tried a rather eclectic selection of career paths: VAT analysis, modeling, financial journalism, advertising, marketing, digital strategy, secretarial work. "I basically couldn't stick at anything," she says. "I was totally unmotivated and actually thought there was something inherently wrong in my nature, that I was a flawed person; damaged goods."

At 18 in Mexico City during her gap year Miers had made a discovery: "Friends threw a party for 50 people and the table was filled with dishes – like an Ottolenghi window display. But I didn't recognise any of the ingredients. It was intriguing. The flavours were different, incredible, complex. What was this food? It was Mexican!"

Returning to England for university, Miers put this newfound enthusiasm aside. "I studied languages and economics at Edinburgh, which I loved. I'd applied to Oxford but totally screwed up my interview by smoking too much pot," she says, laughing. "It's a shame, really. I saved the rebellious teenage thing for 17, so when the Oxford interviewers asked me about my French and Spanish studies I couldn't remember the names of any of the books I'd read. Not my finest hour." A degree and a litany of failed career attempts later, Miers "had an epiphany" aged 26 and spent six months at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. She loved it so much she stayed on in Ireland working at a cheese farm and baking bread to sell at farmers' markets.

"But thoughts about Mexican food kept nagging me. Was the food really that great? Or was it just a dream? I needed to go back and find out." So she took a job running a cocktail bar in Mexico City and used every opportunity she got to travel the country eating different foods.

"It was quite a weird time, really," she says. "I was 29 and quite a few friends of mine were getting married, a few of them were having babies. Here I was in this mad country, for what? I didn't know. It was nothing more than some kind of weird hunch."

In 2004, heavily in debt to her parents, Miers returned to London to sleep on friends' sofas. "I'm nearly 30… I really need to get on with my life," she says she was thinking. She decided to open a restaurant. But with zero experience, no contacts and no money, she had no idea where to start.

"I saw an advertisement for MasterChef and (rather bashfully) entered it," she says. "I didn't tell anyone because it was a bit embarrassing. I went to the audition rather cockily, taking it as a bit of a joke. But I became absolutely petrified as these big television cameras turned on me and I had 20 minutes to make the perfect mashed potato."

The first of only two female MasterChef champions, Miers can also be safely described as the programme's most successful alumnus. But it didn't come easily.

"After MasterChef I had four months of examining my tummy button thinking: 'I've won a television competition. That's great, but what does it actually mean?'" Not a lot in material terms, apparently. So Miers contacted Skye Gyngell, head chef at the Petersham Nurseries Café, and began cheffing for her.

The hunch paid off once again and Miers soon met Selby, who was looking to invest in a restaurant. A trip to Mexico, where they ate an average of five lunches a day (you'd never know it from Miers' slender frame) and Selby was sold. Wahaca now employs around 400 staff and with a range of Wahaca chilli sauces hitting supermarket shelves and Experiment opening at the end of the month, it looks set to keep growing.

"It was hard at first to change Mexican food's bad name. My friends thought it was cheap, greasy, cheese-filled and washed down with nasty tequila. We did surveys of people on the street and they were, like: 'Mexican food? Greasy. Quite fun if you're pissed enough.' But I had complete faith."

With gap-toothed glamour to rival that of Vanessa Paradis, it's unsurprising television studios came calling. Miers co-presented two Channel 4 series, Wild Gourmets and A Cook's Tour Of Spain, recently popping up on Channel 5's Mexican Food Made Simple.

Her next mission is to get people cooking Mexican food themselves with the release of her new cookery book, Wahaca: Mexican Food At Home: "Some Mexican food, such as the very complex moles [sauces], do take a long time to cook, but other things are incredibly easy. It's all about layering simple flavours: citrus, salsas, chopped onion, shredded lettuce, fresh herbs, cheese, cured fish. Once you unthread the building blocks of the food you realise how doable it all is. With the slow-cooked meats, they just pack in herbs and spices (cloves, allspice, cinnamon), onions, carrots and celery with a chilli or two and just put cheap cuts on to cook slowly over hours. There is nothing daunting."

Despite the slog getting to this point, and her evident exhaustion, Miers is still exhilarated by the whole thing. She's already fundraising for a street charity in Mexico City and is eyeing up setting up a Wahaca Foundation to help get young people in this country into employment.

"If I were Prime Minister I'd probably bring National Service back in and make every young person work in a kitchen for a year," she says. Prime Minister? I wouldn't put it past her.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape