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Born just south of Mexico City, the man who pioneered modern Mexican cuisine in London, through the Michelin-starred KOL, first traversed his home country in search of inspiration, and found it in abundance
For a truly authentic chef back story, an image must be conjured of culinary beginnings in the kitchen of a matriarch who holds no recipes, save for those in memory form passed down from generation to generation; where produce is either home-grown, caught, or hunted. Not so for Santiago Lastra, the ex-Noma alumnus and now Michelin-starred chef of his own restaurant, KOL, with its downstairs mezcal bar The Mezcaleria.
‘I wish I had a really amazing story,’ laments Santiago, who was born and raised in Cuernavaca, 45 minutes south of Mexico City. ‘You know, one where my grandma’s cooking, my dad’s making sourdough and raising chickens. But I’m from a generation of people where the microwave and fast-food were new. My parents worked full-time, so my childhood was a mixture of heating things up in the microwave and pizza.’
Instead, his muse was found on a supermarket shelf. ‘When I was 15, I went to a supermarket and saw a Ritz cracker box with a recipe on the back of it. I bought all the ingredients, went home, cooked it, and all my family liked it.
‘Then I did work experience in an Italian restaurant and it changed my life. I was 15 and it was a mind-blowing experience, seeing how these people were organised, everyone working together. I felt like I belonged there and it was the end of my life as I knew it.’
Santiago’s career choice was cemented on the back of family tragedy when his father, grandmother and grandfather passed away in the same month. ‘I stopped going to school,’ he says, ‘but carried on at the restaurant, and I’d cook for my brother and mother. They were sad but in those moments they could be happy and laugh. I thought if I could do this for them, then I want to do that for everyone. So I left everything and started cooking, and here I am 17 years on.’
He combined work with school for three years before moving to Mexico City. ‘It’s a beautiful city, full of diversity and great food and very different areas. When you’re in Paris you go from A to B and you’re still in Paris – but in Mexico City it’s like going to another world,’ he says. ‘You have Roma and Condesa, where international people live, with new bistros and boutique hotels. You walk streets full of galleries, beautiful pastry shops and parks – everything has a bit
of a European vibe. Then you go south to Coyoacan and it’s really colourful. The streets are yellow, pink and blue and there’s lots of street food. Then to the actual city centre and it’s full of tradition, with solid buildings from the early 1900s. ‘And you have so many different markets,’ says Santiago. ‘So, so many different types of fruits and vegetables, and the food you can eat there is incredible too.’
He also name-checks the ‘cosmopolitan’ Polanco, and Xochimilco, the ‘Mexican Venice’, reflecting its origins as a lagoon. ‘You get around in a steel boat, you have mariachi playing, you eat and drink – it’s a special place.’
Restaurant wise, you’re spoilt for choice. ‘Obviously, there’s Pujol [No.5 in The World’s 50 Best list], but there’s another place I love, Sud 777, and you have to try Lorea and Rosetta, and Em, which is new and very, very good… I could give you hundreds more places to eat.’
After his first stint working in his home town, Lastra went to Spain, before returning to culinary school in Mexico. Then it was back to Europe: France, Spain and Denmark in search of innovation. It was in the latter, with Noma, that he came full circle – organising a Noma Mexico pop-up in Tulum.
‘I tried always to find what was new but for some reason I never thought of Mexican food,’ he recalls. ‘I thought the new food was French, then Spanish, then New Nordic, but when I moved there, the new thing was Latin American, particularly Mexican.’
To prepare for the seven-week pop-up, Santiago returned home. ‘I worked on it for nine months before they opened, running all these trips visiting indigenous communities, restaurants and markets, and it was a real eye opener for me, he says, reeling off locations. ‘From Mexico City to Puebla to Tabasco to Chiapas
to Yucatán to Campeche to Guadalajara to Baja California, Oaxaca… We went to discover the source of Mexican cooking. And I was so proud of what we had – there’s just no comparison to how rich Mexican culture is. After that, I set myself a goal of opening a restaurant to showcase Mexican culture and food in the world. London seemed a good place to do it and I moved here without knowing anyone,’ he explains.
What stands out for him in Mexico today is how the past can also be the present. ‘In other parts of the world, it’s hard to experience how people used to live and cook 7,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago, because everything evolved – you have to go to a museum,’ he says. ‘But in Mexico, you just drive for two and a half hours, and you’re in this isolated village where people dress how people used to dress, cook as they used to cook and farm how they used to farm thousands of years ago.
‘You have an opportunity to ask them, “Why do you do this? Why this chilli instead of that chilli?” And that’s priceless. In an indigenous village in Mexico, they’re born, live and die in the kitchen – that’s a saying from communities in the mountains of Veracruz, where the cooks call themselves “the women of smoke”. They cook indoors on an open fire and there’s a lot of smoke. They believe that when they pass away, they become part of the smoke and so they’re still there to teach the new generations.For a big event, like a wedding, they work for a long time – maybe six months before, they harvest the clay to make the pots and bake them. To make the sauce, they go fishing or hunting and they even weave their tea towels for that specific celebration.’
Provenance is linked to personality, he believes. ‘For example, in Yucatán, people will be a little bit more relaxed, so it’ll be pork marinated with sour orange achiote spice, put in an underground oven and just left to cook. You go back to the hammock, then five hours later, you wake up, take it out and make tacos with it, and a sauce that’s habanero blended with lime or sour orange.
‘But in Oaxaca, they’re hard workers, so everything is complex – sauces are made with 80 ingredients, all toasted differently with different ratios and types of preparations – it takes two or three weeks to make and a lot of hard work, but the result is brilliant.’
From a purely travel perspective, one place stands out for Santiago. ‘The jungle is mind-blowing,’ he says. ‘In Yucatán, the haciendas outside Mérida are magical. At night the sky is amazing with so many stars, and there are cenotes – swimming holes – where you just jump in and swim.’
And one dish? ‘In Puerto Nuevo in Baja California they do these lobsters that are super fresh, just fried in pork fat and served with beans, salsa and rice in burritos – it’s the most wonderful mouthful of food you can have in Mexico.’
The success of KOL and the disruption of covid have meant he hasn’t been home for a while, but he’s making up for that imminently. ‘Christmas is a great celebration,’ he says. ’We have piñatas full of sweets, and a drink called ponche Navideño, which is like a warm sangria with spices, fruit and wine. Then you have bacalao, which is cod with olives and tomato sauce. We have turkey too, sometimes for both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and of course a lot of tequila and mezcal is consumed.’
He’s going to be tagging on three weeks of extra ‘research time’, which will no doubt help him discover even more ‘innovation’. ‘The more time I spend there, the more I understand it and the prouder I become of Mexico,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to be Mexican when you see it every day, but here it’s different, and I think me opening this restaurant is a way of trying to miss it less and be even more proud.’
This was a 19th-century cactus factory in the jungle that closed and was ‘swallowed’ by the jungle. But then they turned it into this really, really beautiful boutique hotel surrounded by nature – it’s one of the best in the world. chablehotels.com
I love the design of this place in the heart of Tulum, with the jungle on one side and the beach on the other. There are only five bedrooms and each one is incredible – and they have all these difference residences from artists and chefs, exploring different art and cuisine. slowness.com/tulumtreehouse
The interiors here resemble the best combination between rural Mexico and contemporary design. It has a good atmosphere and the food from Luis Arellano reflects the overall feel of the place – seasonal ingredients but in a contemporary way. A great place to eat. criollo.mx
Xokol, Guadalajara Comparatively unknown, this small restaurant has just moved to a new location and it’s really worth a visit. Everything is made from masa, Latin corn and they are very artisanal and intelligent in how it’s all put together. 00 34 944 457499
José Luis Hinostroza grew up in a Mexican household in the US and worked at Noma as well as being part of our pop-up in Tulum. Fantastic food. arcatulum.com
Words by Alex Mead.
This interview was taken from the Christmas 2022 issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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