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
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen