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The chef tells Tina Nielsen about opening his London restaurant Kol during Covid and sharing Mexican culture with the world

In Hungry, the 2019 book about the Mexican pop-up of Noma, Santiago Lastra is described as ‘the fixer’. Author Jeff Gordinier spent years traveling with Danish chef René Redzepi and his team and had a front-row view of Lastra’s transition from nomadic pop-up chef to project manager of the temporary home of the world’s best restaurant.

As Gordinier outlines in the book: “It was up to him to lay down the groundwork before Redzepi came to town. His mission was simultaneously clear and impossible: find the best. The best ingredients. By any means necessary.”

When Redzepi first approached him to project manage Noma Mexico, Lastra, having left for Europe at 18 and with no experience cooking the cuisine of his home country, was not sure. “I didn’t know anything about Mexico even though I was Mexican,” he says, recalling the first meeting sharing tacos with Redzepi in Copenhagen. “I had never even spoken to a supplier, so I told him I was not the right person for the job.”

But the Danish chef must have seen something in the young Mexican; instead of looking for another candidate, he suggested they embark on this journey of discovery together. “So, I said yes,” says Lastra.

A cooking epiphany

If it was a leap of faith for Redzepi, for Lastra this jump into the unknown was not an entirely unfamiliar experience. By the time he joined Noma, he had spent years cooking his way around the world with no real plan other than to pursue adventure.

Today Lastra is better known as the man behind Kol, the hottest restaurant opening in London last year. We first speak on the phone shortly after London enters tier 3 of the Covid-19 restrictions, mandating all restaurants to close. At that time Kol had been open for just two weeks. The second time, we meet in the restaurant during the short time before Christmas when restrictions eased and allowed hospitality to reopen.  At the time of writing, so far in 2021 Kol (pictured left)  is yet to receive any diners as the country remains in a third lockdown.

The stop-start opening has been stressful, but it gave him time to review things with the team. “We have had some time off to work on things, just thinking about different ways to make the restaurant more efficient,” he says.

Even if Kol only opened for a matter of weeks due to the pandemic, it reaped a slew of approving reviews and enjoyed a full reservations book.

A cooking career was not on the cards for Lastra when he was growing up in Cuernavaca, about 45 minutes from Mexico City, a place he describes as “the sort of town where people from the city would have their weekend houses and visited for holidays.”

Cooking entered his life when he was 15 and picked up a packet of Ritz crackers in the supermarket; he saw a recipe for a crab dip on the back of the box and, with little else to do that day, he bought the ingredients and went home to make it for his family.

At the time his was a pretty average teenage life. “I played in a rock band, I painted, I wanted to be a mathematician and I was in the football and basketball teams,” he says. His foray into cooking, however, meant all those interests took a backseat. Next, he bought a small Italian recipe booklet. “I cooked all the recipes, I really enjoyed it and my family enjoyed eating them,” he says.

Encouraged by his mother and brother, he got a job in an Italian restaurant. He says it was like finding the love of his life. “I remember going into the kitchen and people making pizzas and pasta and all of these things were amazing, it was the best place I had ever been. I loved working there.”

He went to school 7am to 2pm and at 3pm he’d go to the restaurant where he worked until 1am. “I was so happy,” he says.

In that year his father, grandmother and grandfather all passed away in the same month. For a while he stayed away from school, but he kept going to the restaurant. “It was difficult to speak with my peers about what had happened, but I felt safe in the kitchen,” he says. He would bring food home to cook for his mother and brother and eating together was a happy time for them.

“I realized I could make them happy in a moment when we were so sad by cooking for them and I thought if I could achieve that with other people it would be the most amazing feeling. I decided to dedicate my life to do that forever as a profession,” he says. “At that moment I stopped everything else.”

From Mexico to the world

Lastra continued to work in the Italian restaurant for another three years while finishing high school. A brief spell in a Mexican/Asian fusion restaurant was followed by his first move abroad in 2009.

Spain had always been on his radar – his father and grandfather were from Galicia in northern Spain and the idea of modern Spanish cooking appealed to him. A colleague set him up with a job in the kitchen of Europa, a Pamplona restaurant with one Michelin star. There was just one problem: the chef didn’t know he was coming. “I turned up with my suitcase and she had no idea who I was. I was 18 and it was the first time I had left Mexico, I was so scared and so excited. I had saved for six months for my plane ticket and had €50 in my pocket,” he says.

He had no plan B, but the chef Pilar Idoate gave him a chance. “I didn’t know anything about Spanish food; all I knew was Italian food and some weird fusion of Mexican and Asian, but they gave me a chance to learn,” he says.

He’d later return to Spain to do a master degree in modern gastronomy at Basque Culinary Center (BCC) in Bilbao. He was awarded a scholarship after completing three years at culinary school back home.

At the same time he did a stage at Mugaritz, the ground-breaking restaurant in San Sebastián, at the time the third best restaurant in the world. If Restaurant Europa taught him about natural ingredients and hospitality, Mugaritz and BCC taught him that there were no boundaries in food. “You can create anything you want as you learn how the food works chemically and physically,” he says.

This time marked the start of his traveling. First stop was Copenhagen – he wanted to work at Noma, among the most famous and best restaurants in the world and the birthplace of New Nordic cuisine, but the offer to stage came without accommodation so he had to turn it down. Instead, he joined nose to tail restaurant Bror, and then came a detour into research when he took a job with Nordic Food Lab.

“I wanted to open a research and development center in Mexico, I love cooking chemistry and after Mugaritz and the BCC I wanted to learn more about being academic,” he says.

A project making tortillas with different Nordic grains and seeds took him to the European Parliament in Brussels. Another revelation came  as he prepared tacos and tostadas while talking about his project. “I thought, ‘oh, my God, I’m cooking and traveling, meeting incredible people and sharing my culture with them’,” he says. It planted a seed.

Another pivotal event was a small private dinner he cooked with a friend in Sweden. The theme of the dinner was Mexican Nordic and photos on Instagram caught the eye of Carousel, a London restaurant with changing chef residencies, and the team invited him to cook there. “It was the first time I was cooking my own food,” he says. It was also his first time in London and the experience made him imagine what it would be like to have his own restaurant one day.

This was 2015 and Instagram was still in its formative years, but it was widespread enough to make people take notice of his food. Soon Lastra was invited to Italy to cook, then Russia and then Hong Kong, Taiwan, Portugal and back to Russia.

More by chance than design, his life became about travel and in the space of a year and a half he went to 27 countries. “I lived nowhere, I wasn’t paying rent in one place and I was just going to those places to make pop-up restaurants. Sometimes they paid me a little bit, sometimes nothing,” he says. Any money went on flights. “I traveled the world and I came to understand cultures, I’d go somewhere, explore the local culture and food and then in the third week I’d do a pop-up,” he says.

Everything was done by Instagram and word of mouth. “I’d go somewhere, do my cooking and then I’d wait for somebody to contact me; it always happened,” he says.

A big idea

He was in St Petersburg, Russia when Noma got in touch to discuss the Mexico project in the summer of 2016. Rosio Sanchez, who was then the head pastry chef, invited him for a meeting. Pretending to already be in Copenhagen, he dropped what he was doing and jumped on a flight to Denmark.

Things moved very fast after accepting the role. He was under enormous pressure. “It was so stressful; I understood it was an opportunity for me to do something relevant in my life,” he says.

They gave him nine days to prepare the first research trip. “They told me not to waste any time so we went on 16 flights in 14 days traveling around Mexico meeting indigenous communities and visiting markets. It was mind-blowing.”

When the project finished he understood he’d be welcome to join the team at Noma but he was ready for something different. “I decided I wanted to open a restaurant that could share and promote the meaning of Mexican culture in the world,” he says.

Lying on the beach on his week off he tried to decide on where to open it. He made a list of the things he needed this city to have. Multicultural and open minded were both important. “I also wanted people to like spicy food and it needed to be central because I have friends in so many countries and it had to be easy for them to visit.”

It would need to be English speaking, allowing the restaurant to be more impactful and it was important for him to be in a country with different landscapes and weathers. London ticked all the boxes.

In the summer of 2017 Lastra moved into the spare room in a friend’s London apartment, determined to learn about his new country. He’d spend a year traveling around, meeting people, learning about new producers. “I’d take a train to Wales and get to know the pig farmers, just stay there for a while. The next week I might focus on learning about the history of Great Britain.”

He then started doing pop-ups to try out the ideas that he’d imagined during his travels. A mutual friend introduced him to Jake Kasumov and Marco Mendes of MJMK Restaurants who were keen to invest. “They understood what I wanted to do and they loved it,” he says. That was March 2018 and from then the focus was on getting ready to open a restaurant. They had hoped to open in March 2019, then October that year, but due to snags with the site and Covid it eventually happened in October 2020.

A singular approach

Innovation is what first drove him to make the move to Spain, but he has since come to understand that it is hard to grasp. “I thought Spanish molecular food, was the new thing and in Spain they said it was New Nordic cuisine, but when I went Copenhagen they said, ‘the new thing? It’s Mexican food’. As soon as you know something, it is old,” he says. “If you want innovation you have to make it yourself.”

The desire to do things differently is a big influence in Kol and he has set out his stall with a singular approach. “This is food and this is culture, it is not just the culture of Mexico but also the culture of the UK,” he says describing his London restaurant. “The approach and the flavors are Mexican but the ingredients are British.”

Here diners won’t find ingredients typically associated with Mexican cuisine – avocados are out, so are limes. “Of course, I can buy avocados and limes from the suppliers, but I understand how the ingredient flow works. By the time a lime arrives here it might be a month old. It is not just about freshness but traceability – it is impossible to know who grows those limes,” he explains.

Adding the Mexican touch to the process is his brother who joined him to help with R&D. “I haven’t been to Mexico for so long but he has a really Mexican palate and he will tell me the truth,” he says.

The majority of the rest of his team – 80% – are from the UK, including head chef Ben Morgan, and their British approach is important for Lastra. “I have been here three years but I don’t know everything that is available, so they make suggestions.”

So, after a life of moving around, how does it feel to be anchored to a restaurant in London? “It feels great,” he says. “At one point traveling was too much, I’d wake up and I wouldn’t know where I was or what day it was. I’d be in three or four countries in a week. It is very tiring. You belong nowhere.”

He sees exciting opportunities as he puts down roots in his new city. For one he will be able to make plans, get to know the community around him. But there is also the chance to improve and develop. “In the beginning it was about what I could cook and what people thought about it but now it is about developing and evolving,” he says. “If you are driving the ship you can take it anywhere you want and if you have everything in the right place you can actually drive somewhere that is amazing”

Tina Nielsen