MOB Meets... Santiago Lastra
Specialising in Mexican food re-imagined with British produce, Santiago Lastra’s KOL has been one of the most perenially hyped restaurant openings for over a year now. Its original opening date was supposed to be sometime in May 2020. That grand opening was, quite obviously, pushed back to a much less grand and much more cautious November start date opening (featuring more hand sanitiser and less handshaking than Santiago probably envisioned when he first decided he wanted to open a restaurant) thanks to the impact of Covid-19. But, even then, KOL was only allowed to be open for a few weeks before it was forced to shut up shop.
KOL is a restaurant that’s been closed for much longer than it’s ever been open and it’s safe to say that the global pandemic, just like it did for the rest of the hospitality industry, ever so slightly ruined Santiago’s master plan. But the talented chef – whose stacked CV cites stints at Mugaritz and NOMA and pop-ups all around the globe – hasn’t let the stuttering stop and start of his first solo restaurant slow his momentum or his ambition. Especially now that KOL is in full swing and bookings at the shit-hot restaurant are getting increasingly hard to make.
Mexico has a food culture that's rooted in both tradition and innovation and Santiago has made it his mission to introduce local eaters to the flavours of his home nation using local British ingredients. That sense of Mexican soul is evident in everything from the superlative cocktails and small plates available at the restaurant's attached Mezcaleria to the delicate, traditional-ish dishes like the purple carrot mole you can find served at the Chef’s Table.
We spoke to Santiago about how he got into food, finding out why he chose London as the city to open up his debut restaurant, and whether or not he gets annoyed as constantly being touted as a former NOMA Mexico chef. The answer is: "kinda". Here's what happened when MOB met Santiago Lastra...
How did you first get into cooking?
Well, I was 15 and my mother didn't cook – to tell you the truth, no one in my house really cooked – but I remember going to the supermarket one day and saw this box of Ritz crackers. On the back of the box, it had this recipe for crab dip and so I just bought the ingredients to make that at home. Everyone really enjoyed it and I went back to the supermarket after that and bought a couple of recipe books. Mainly Italian recipe books, the ones that sell at the tills, and then I just started making all the recipes from that and ended up working at an Italian restaurant. That was a bit of a turning point because, when I was working at that Italian restaurant, my father, grandfather, and grandmother all passed away in the same month. It was devastating. I wasn't going to school and I went back to the restaurant and I was cooking for my mother and my brother at home. It was a good feeling to be able to make them happy in that sad time, so I decided, “okay, I want to give this feeling to people for the rest of my life”. And that's how it all began.
Do you ever get frustrated that people always mention your connection with NOMA? Kind of like how I’ve just done…
I mean, the thing is that whenever you go, you’re always going to be followed by the CV that you have. I remember that I did find it quite frustrating when I was first starting out. I didn’t want people to judge my ability based on the Italian restaurant I worked at when I was 15, but then as I started working in better restaurants, I didn't want people to recognise me from there, either. I didn't even want people to just know me from Mugaritz so I went to NOMA afterwards. It’s impossible to avoid but, at the end of the day, I'm really proud of where I've worked. I try to distance myself from the past and focus on the present because the end result is always the product that you're actually delivering. But, naturally, that’s going to be influenced by the places that you've worked and the people that you learn from. I'm proud of my time at NOMA, I just don't want people to expect that this restaurant [KOL] is NOMA. It does have some sort of shared ethos, and it’s also got ideas from other restaurants that I've worked at, but it's not a copy of the same thing. Not at all.
I read that KOL, as a concept, was born on a beach in Tulum… can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, so it came about after working at NOMA and doing their pop-up in Tulum. I remember I worked really hard during that and then, afterwards, I didn't know what to do. I gave everything to that project and I was just sitting on the beach thinking, 'what am I gonna do now?'. I decided that I wanted to open a restaurant where I could keep sharing the message about the quality of Mexican culture somewhere else in the world. I decided then and there to write a list of what the best city in the world to do that would be because I've cooked, and lived, in around 27 different countries in the past 10 years. I tried to make a list of which city would tick all the boxes of being multicultural, being quite central, having an English press, being somewhere they liked spicy food and Mexican food, and being somewhere I loved the guests. London ticked all those boxes so that's how and why the idea of "okay, I'm going to make this in London" came about. And around that came the concept of making the restaurant a marriage of those two cultures together properly.
"KOL" means "cabbage," in English, right? Why did you choose that name?
The idea is that we want to highlight that things which are normally undervalued can be special if you believe in them, or put them in the right context. It's mainly about providing Mexican culture and Mexican cuisine with British produce and British food. That’s kind of the meaning of what we do. We’re also a really young team as well. I'm from a small town in Mexico and we all kind of believe in the new generation of people running restaurants in a different way. Running them in a way that is fair, that is sustainable, and that we use to highlight and champion different cultures. That is the most important thing.
What are the biggest misconceptions that British people have about Mexican food?
In Britain, it's actually not that bad. There are some other countries out there where it's much worse and where people have no idea about Mexican cuisine at all. That's actually why I wanted to move here, because people do have an idea of Mexican culture and Mexican cuisine that they at least like the idea or concept of. The thing that is probably lacking is just the overall understanding that not all Mexican food is fast food or uses cheap ingredient in a street food kind of way. You can obviously have cheap street food in Mexico, but I think there is a scope here to add more expensive ingredients like crabs and to show people that you can go out to a restaurant and have a proper Mexican meal that goes beyond taquerias or beyond burritos.
Are you nervous about the response the restaurant is going to get with its price point?
I'm not sure. At the end of the day, our goal isn’t to be pretentious about anything. I really just want people to experience KOL in the way that we want to share it with them. It's about sharing culture and sharing the best that we can do with people. The price is a result of that. It’s also a result of where we are in central London. We’re in one of the most premium locations around and it's a big restaurant with a lot of staff. That costs money and Mexican food is not something that's easy to make – it takes a lot of people and a lot of time. I'd rather not cut corners and be able to deliver and share as fair a representation of the cuisine as possible. That's what we're trying to do.
Have you got a favourite dish on the menu?
One of my favourites is our crab dish – it’s like a crab chalupa – that’s actually inspired by that first dish I ever made off the Ritz box. It’s made with crab and served with fermented gooseberries and pistachio cream – which is like a guacamole made of pistachio – as well as a crisp and some wild herbs. That's one of my favourites. I also love the langoustine tacos with sea buckthorn berries and sea buckthorn juice. That’s served on these sourdough tortillas that are really nice. It's difficult to choose because they're like my kids, y'know?
A sourdough tortilla sounds like an interesting twist on traditions and convention. What does “authenticity” mean to you?
I think it's hard to say whether or not something is traditional because tradition was an innovation at some point. For something to be called traditional it almost had to have, at one point, be innovative. Because then it was considered so good and innovative, at the time, that people have preserved it and continue to teach it. Sometimes people confuse authenticity with tradition and I think authenticity is deeper because it's about what makes sense both geographically and culturally. Having cucumber with yoghurt in Greece makes sense because you have an abundance of cucumbers and yoghurt in the area. It’s the same reason that having a tortilla with beans and chile makes sense in Mexico. I think that, because of globalisation, and because of the world’s really fast-growing economies and culture, that there's so much information these days it’s difficult to make things that “make sense”.
I think the idea of authenticity is to go back to that understanding of what is respectful, and what makes sense in terms of culture, seasonality, craft, and quality. The goal should always be to nourish and feed people but, if you pay respect to traditions, you can still make something authentic. We don't call KOL a traditional Mexican restaurant but we are inspired by the techniques and flavours of Mexico. We just use those techniques and flavours with what makes sense. Which is to use the local ingredients available, y'know? That's our idea of authenticity. It's not fusion. It's adaptation.
Who are your culinary heroes?
When I was really young, I was going to all these congresses and I used to follow quite a lot of big French chefs like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse and Michel Bras. Then, afterwards, I moved to Spain and I was looking up to Ferran Adrià and Albert Adrià and Andoni Luis Adurizis from Mugaritz and all those top Spanish chefs. Then it was Nordic cuisine and I was looking up to René and a few different people. It's always been this change of "what is innovation" for me, and trying to reach that and looking up to the chefs that are doing that. Now, personally, it's the people that work with quality. One of the biggest inspirations that I have and respect are the indigenous communities in Mexico and the indigenous chefs that work there and work there every day in order to preserve tradition. Every time that I go to Mexico, I try to visit indigenous communities and spend time there. We work with them on our corn, for example, and we try to highlight their story and their recipes here in the restaurant.
What’s the one dish that everyone, regardless of cooking ability, should be able to cook?
I think a fried egg. The fried egg is a dish that has been with me since the very beginning and there are so many ways to make a fried egg. If you're in Italy it's different to how it's done in Japan to how it's done in Spain. That's something that you need to master. If you cannot make a fried egg, then you should not be a chef.
How do you like to fry an egg?
My favourite technique is how they do it in Spain where they put olive oil and they kind of confit the egg in there on a low heat. The white and the egg yolk kind of cook together at the same time and you just take it out with a spatula. That's my favourite.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
I think hip hop, in general, is quite good.It depends on the team but if you're working in the kitchen, we have a playlist and it's got lots of hip hop music to get people excited to work. If I had to pick one song it'd be 'Move Me' by Mura Masa. It's high-energy, you know?